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 carefully orchestrated 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 protesters 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 left-leaning groups.
A congressional committee, chaired by Sen. 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