By George E. Curry
A recent report that New York City Police Department may have spied on Al Sharpton as he prepared to protest the acquittal of three police officers in the 2006 shooting death of Sean Bell brings back memories of a carefullyorchestrated national effort to discredit civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his NYPD Confidential column, posted on the Huffington Post under the headline, “Spying on the Rev.,” veteran police reporter Len Levitt wrote: “A NYPD informant spied on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network [NAN] as the group was organizing large-scale protests of the Sean Bell case acquittals, a police document shows.”
It continued, “The confidential informant infiltrated a NAN meeting on May 3, 2008, and reported back to the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, according to a document marked ‘secret,’ which was obtained by NYPD Confidential.”
At the time, Sharpton was planning to create a city-wide traffic jam because three plainclothes and undercover officers had killed an unarmed Bell after he left his bachelor’s party at a club in Queens.
According to authorities, Bell and two of his friends were shot 50 times. On April 25, three police officers indicted in the case were acquitted of all charges.
“According to the police document, the informant, who was identified not by name but by a five-digit number given to him by the department, provided the NYPD with a detailed description of NAN’s protest plans, including the names of prominent African- Americans set to participate, the locations where protestors would gather and the number of demonstrators who would offer themselves up for arrest,” the story recounted.
Sharpton and nearly 200 protesters were arrested after they brought the city to a halt by blocking major traffic arteries.
Although he gets the headline, this is not about Al Sharpton. Rather, it is about the reprehensible practice by the FBI and local police departments to undermine legal and legitimate protests.
From 1956 to 1971, the FBI operated a program called COINTELPRO, an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program. Initially established to spy on organizations suspected of communist ties, the program was expanded by J. Edgar Hoover to include the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Lawyers Guild and other leftleaning groups.
A congressional committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church, issued a report that concluded, “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas protect the national security and deter violence.”
The stated goal of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize” organizations that it deemed “subversive.”
A book titled, The Lawless State: The Crimes of the U.S. Intelligence Agencies, states: “Officials of the nation’s number one law enforcement agency agreed to use ‘all available investigative techniques’ to develop information for the use ‘to discredit’ King. Proposals discussed included using ministers, ‘disgruntled’ acquaintances, ‘aggressive’ newsmen, ‘colored’ agents, Dr. King’s housekeeper, and even Dr. King’s wife, or ‘placing a good-looking female plant in King’s office’ to develop discrediting information and to take action that would lead to his disgrace.”
The FBI taped what it said were Dr. King’s extramarital sexual encounters.
The book recalled, “Unknown to King…the FBI, at the height of the public controversy, took its most distressing step. It mailed the tapes to the SCLC office in Atlanta with a covering letter urging King to commit suicide or face public revelation of the information on the tapes on the eve of the [Nobel Peace Prize] award ceremonies in Sweden.”
Although COINTELPRO is supposedly a thing of the past, its dirty tricks continue to be practiced today.
In one of his racist rants, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul wrote in the 1990s – or had someone else write under his name – that Dr. King was a “worldclass philanderer who beat up his paramours.” In the same breath, he claimed that Dr. King “seduced underage girls and boys.”
It’s a vile and patently false allegation, but the intent was to smear Dr. King, not tell the truth.
A similar campaign was apparently underway to discredit Sharpton.
The news story disclosing that NYPD spied on Sharpton also stated, “Two undercover police officers who spied on black protest groups in the 1980s told this reporter in 1998 that the department was so intent on discrediting Sharpton that they were tasked by their superiors to spread rumors that he was homosexual.”
As one who has covered the Civil Rights Movement for four decades, I’ve heard a lot of rumors that never made it into print. At no time, however, have I ever heard a faint suggestion that Sharpton might be gay. But that’s how these vicious rumors are designed to work. It doesn’t matter whether something is demonstrably false – the idea is to raise enough doubt in some people’s mind and the mission would have been accomplished.
To paraphrase former President George W. Bush: Mission Not Accomplished.