In the weeks since news came to light that former Black Panther Richard Aoki had some involvement with the FBI, many people in the progressive community have been besiged by a single question: why? The truth may never come out, but the complexity of it was perhaps best summed up by Aoki himself in an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Seth Rosenfeld in 2007: “It is complex. Layer upon layer.”
Indeed, that’s always been the case in the long and ongoing story of state surveillance and intervention in political movements, especially those led by people of color. A stalwart Bay Area Asian American activist who was widely regarded for decades, Aoki’s saga shows that cases like these can seldom be boiled down to simple and binary ideas of so-called “dirty snitches” and “loyal comrades.” Instead, it forces a closer look at how and why activists have relationships with the FBI, and the dramatic lengths to which the government has (and continues) to go in order to protect itself.
Even the language that’s used to describe such interactions is tricky, according to experts.
“A lot of people think of [informants] as puppets of the FBI, but sometimes they’re more complicated,” says Zaheer Ali, a lecturer on Islam in black America who combed through thousands of FBI documents as lead researcher for the late professor Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography, “A Life of Reinvention.” “I think it’s important when we look at these cases to understand the complexity of their specific situation and examine the record of what they did in the organization and what they are alleged to have provided to intelligence services.”
To that end, there are a number of different classifications given to people within political movements who provide information to the FBI, ranging from those who offer basic information to others who are paid to provoke strife within certain organizations. “I think in general the people who become informants are those who are in some kind of vulnerable position — whether it’s a criminal charge or a need for resources — and that vulnerability is exploited by the agency in question,” says Ali.
“[The FBI] will say ‘we can wipe your record clean,’” says Garrett Felber, senior research advisor to the Malcolm X Project at the Center for Contemporary Black History. “It’s protection from the state — in addition to whatever financial gains.”
The politically turbulent last years of Malcolm X’s life provide a good example. In 1963, Malcolm X was “silenced” by the Nation of Islam after he made comments that many took as celebrating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within months, the move would lead to Malcolm’s permanent split with the NOI. Sensing this turbulence, the FBI — which had already been tracking the former minister for almost a decade — approached him about becoming an informant on the organization for which he had once prosletized. The agency figured that Malcolm, on the verge of being severed from the infrastructure that had helped propel him to international prominence, would speak out of vengence or, perhaps, desperation. The FBI’s plan ultimately failed, but the incident illustrates how the agency works to exploit political fissures and use them to its advantage.
“For a historian looking back on these documents, there’s the whole question of how you read FBI documents to reconstruct the past,” says Ali. “There isn’t an established protocol on how to interpret these documents. It’s important to know the distinction between when these documents are recording information and when they’re interpreting information.”
ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: Why Do Progressive Activists Become FBI Informants? It’s Complicated – COLORLINES.