bhm: cointelpro, the internet, and surveillance
February 1, 2019
The scary stories I received as a child were different. I had not been frightened by boogie men or haunted houses, but the history of white supremacy. My mother’s militance allowed her to casually speak about America’s transgressions against those fought for freedom. Her matter of factness only assisted in my terror. It wasn’t presented as either fairytale or horror, but just the way it is. This horrified me that the stories I was hearing weren’t about fictitious monsters or soaked in so much blood that it is obvious that is must be fake.
These stories were factual. The one that haunted me most were the story of COINTELPRO. The illegal FBI investigation that led to the surveillance, brutalization, and death of Black activists, namely members of The Black Panther Party like Angela Davis and Fred Hampton. Particularly, when it comes to Fred Hampton’s story, my childhood world was rocked. I could hardly comprehend how brutalization and death could meet someone in peaceful slumber — let alone by the people my childhood innocence promised I should feel protected by. My mother wanted to eradicate that false sense of safety quickly, albeit abruptly, and she did. I was slightly more paranoid, disillusioned about safety and police, and radicalized. And forever conscious that I was being watched.
These practices that haunted my childhood have not disappeared, but evolved. When I hear stories of the FBI looking for what they coined, Black Identity Extremist, I was immediately reminded about COINTELPRO, and the state’s ability to surveil and destroy Black lives. The thought still sends chills to my toes. The idea that my life was not my own or even the people who I love never escaped my imagination: the idea that someone giving enough power and evil could destroy me while I count sheep if they were so empowered to do so. This was just one of the many talks my mother gave me to better prepare me about the world I was actually inheriting, not the one given to me in mainstream media and ahistorical textbooks.
Because of a spiritual practice and political scholarship, I’ve been able to assuage my fear with scholarship and praxis. I feel safer knowing that I know the monster in detail and am actively resisting it.
However, even a more daunting was the idea that, like everything else, surveillance has changed. Yes, cameras are everywhere, however, our need to be public is just as invasive. As I see writers, organizers, and artists alike display themselves, locations, and most dangerously, ideas on the internet; I wondered if perhaps the internet and our lust for attention has made many of us our own FBI agent. The need for celebrity and a type of social-political significance has made it easier to observe, and perhaps destroy or terrorize those fighting for a righteous cause — just by viewing social media posts.
Long gone are the days of paranoia that served me as child, but in its place is a true moment of self-reflection of how much information I’m offering to the public that makes my own self-surveillance more convenient than one that is strategic and extravagant. It’s not softer and self-conflicted because white supremacy has been declawed, but because domination is not static. The ways we in which we experience oppression, and in this case, surveillance, has gotten more sophisticated, so much so that the world and cultural domination alike, fit in the palm of our hands.
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