Sunday, December 7, 2008

Teaching Notes, 1992-1995, "Political Repression"

Ivan Greenberg
(Teaching notes on “Political Repression” lectures in History 219, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, 1992-1995)

Lecture One: History of Government Surveillance
development of “national security state” in 20th century

basic problems/ tensions:

a) right of free speech & assembly
1st Amendment guarantee (Bill of Rights 1791)
cornerstone of Am. Democracy

“Congress shall make no law….abridging the freedom of speech…or the right of the people to peacefully to assemble and to petition the gov’t for a redress of grievances.”


need for gov’t to preserve stability in society
gov’t to monitor groups or individuals who engage in potentially illegal or “subversive” activity –
such as terrorism
or advocate violent overthrow of the gov’t (undemocratic means)

b) intelligence & undercover gov’t surveillance to monitor groups –
collect evidence for prosecution of potential illegal activity


active gov’t. efforts to disrupt, destablize, harass political groups based on their controversial views;
critics call it “political policing”; “official political repression”

extreme form – use of agents provocateurs (beyond informants)
infiltrate and actively promote factionalism and sometimes violent activity to discredit the target group or individual

Q: nature of government surveillance – when does it step over the bounds of legitimate activity? Whne is spying a crime? Does the government act illegally?

c) is gov’t surveillance applied w/o political motives – i.e.
directed equally against groups on the Left and the Right, and across ethnic and race lines?


disproportionately against certain groups w/ a particular politics
How does gov’t define who is a potential threat to the social order?

Example: COINTELPRO (1956-1971)
against socialists, communists, anti-war
against militant black, Hispanic and Native-American groups.

Less effort historically on Right-wing groups – KKK or neo-Nazi
Today, are right-wing militias under surveillance?

No effort to define several thousand lynchings of blacks in the South as terrorist activity (1860s-1950s)

Ex: 1980s – about 40 bombings of abortion and planned parenthood clinics
FBI does not define as terrorist activity in its stats
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms is put in charge of surveillance & prosecution (about 30 arrests; 400 agents active)

How do we know about history of gov’t. surveillance and counterintelligence activity?
facilitated by:

Freedom of Information Act (1966)
part of liberal democratic legislation of Great Society years.

Weak until mid-1970s when Congress tightens what gov’t can
w/hold on national security grounds.

Provides citizens access to government files
allows for the courts to review gov’t w/holdings

Gov’t still has large discretion—w/holding legitimate if considered to impact on-going investigation;
protect identity of undercover informers & sources

Congressional investigations mid-1970s (Church and Pike Committees)
substantial spying information made public for the first time
reacting against abuses of COINTELPRO

Journalists & academics – leaders in getting out new information
Recent efforts by scholars to put material on microfilm to facilitate research.
Declassified documents – Ex: Churchill & Vander Wall book

Origins of Government Surveillance (Gary Marx, “Undercover”):
Western frontier – criminal activity – esp. after the Civil War
Era of train and bank robberies
cattle and horse thieves

some cases of outlaws switch over to law enforcement
Ben Thompson, Tom Horn

police (sheriffs, marshals) infiltrate outlaw ganags – Butch Cassady gang

Cities :
Gov’t. surveillance slow to develop in 19th century.
Since the Revolution, Americans generally distrust military and police government interventions domestically.
esp. view secret police practices as undemocratic, tyrannical
reminding them of English monarchy
denial of liberty by a strong gov’t.
Founders include in Bill of Rights 4th Amendment --
5th Amendment --
7th Amendment –

city police est. first undercover surveillance squads – early 1900s.
Ethnic Squads
Red Squads
as well as special alcohol, vice, narcotics, & gambling squads

Example: NYC 1906 – “Italian” undercover police squad.
(Italians 2nd largest immig. group in NYC, next to Jews)
infiltrate Italian organizations, esp. ethnic foreign-lang. Socialist groups, anarchists, Wobblies; & secret Italian societies.
(all viewed as threat to established order)
Other ethnic squads – Jews, blacks, Chinese

First federal undercover law enforcement:

1890s – U.S. Postal Service – esp. stop distribution of pornography
(Postal agents pose as customers & order contraband literature through the mail. Arrests of those who mail contraband.)

1920-33 – Prohibition – narcotics and alcohol undercover units est. by Treasury Dept., 4,000 agents during the 1920s.

Palmer Raids/ First Red Scare (1917-1920)
beginning of political policing
w/ U.S. world industrial power and new foreign expansionism came a perceived need to keep track of dissenters in U.S.
new accentuated fear of subversion after 1917 Bolshevik Rev.

Espionage Act 1917
made illegal “false statements” designed to impede war mobilization

Sedition Act (1918) -- unlawful to use
“disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive” language against the govt, Constitution, the flag & military uniform

Upheld by Supreme Ct. in 1919 free speech cases

Debs arrested 1918 – for speaking out against Wilson & U.S. war involvement. (ten yr. sentence; pardoned 1921)

IWW & SP under gov’t. surveillance,
in addition to anarchists and communists.
Gov’t raid headquarters & arrest many leaders

U.S. Congressman Victor Berger – SP, Milwaukee, German, anti- war;
indicted under Espionage Act but still elected to U.S. Congress;
1919 –convicted, 20 yrs sentence; U.S. House refused to seat him.
1921 conviction reversed; elected again 1924

Palmer Raids 1919-20
--AG A. Mitchell Palmer & young, 24 yr old J. Edgar Hoover of new Bureau of Investigation (What about Wilson’s “new freedom”?)
--dozens of raids on radical groups: 4,000 arrested; 900 deported
--suspicion of “subversive” activity – favoring overthrow of U.S. govt. (no evidence in most cases)
--60,000 files on radicals by 1919
--social context of 1919:
--strike wave in industry, especially when 250,000 steel workers walk out; perception that radicals organized these strikes (partly true)
--Red Summer race riots (25 cities)– perception that blacks who riot influenced by socialist groups. (false)
historians – very negative interpretations of Red Scare

1920s: new and old targets of surveillance
Red Scare continues without raids/arrests

one new focus – Marcus Garvey (UNIA), black nationalism
racial pride & solidarity
back to Africa
4-6 million followers in N. cities, Harlem based
FBI wonders: Why were so many blacks interested in Garvey? influenced by communists?
was Garvey – a threat to U.S. society?
Surveillance found no illegal political activity, except fundraising, use of mails for fundraising. Arrested 1925 mail fraud. Deported 1927 – UNIA collapses

Other black leaders under FBI surveillance -- NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois

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