In 1971, 21 members of the New York City Black Panther Party were acquitted on all charges that they conspired to blow up police stations and a department store following the longest criminal trial in the city’s history. The case relied on the extensive use of undercover police officers who had infiltrated the organization. The jury rejected all of the charges in the case in part because of overlapping and uncoordinated activities by both local police and the FBI that raised profound questions about whether law agents were directly involved in making plans and providing explosives. This case was one of several that revealed the extent of local and federal police surveillance, infiltration, and active disruption of black nationalist, antiwar, and other left political movements of the 1960s and ’70s.
Cases like these and the revelations of illegal COINTELPRO activities by the FBI may seem like ancient history to many involved in contemporary social movements, but the rise of the Trump regime should give them pause and encourage them to review this important history. While political policing has changed its forms over the last 50 years, it remains a central feature of American policing.
Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has made clear that he intends to encourage police at the local and national level to “take off the gloves.” Widespread support for Trump among police suggests a real possibility of a reinvigoration of political policing with little fear of oversight from the Justice Department. This has already manifest itself in some troubling ways.
Beginning on Inaugural Day, police and prosecutors in Washington stepped up their criminalization of dissent. In response to a few instances of property destruction, the DC police undertook indiscriminate kettling and mass arrests of protesters, practices that they had previously avoided because of legal challenges. More worrisome has been the attitude of local prosecutors who are part of the federal Department of Justice. Instead of dismissing clearly illegal roundups of lawful protesters, journalists, and bystanders, they brought felony rioting charges that have rarely been seen in past protest arrests. After extensive public pressure, charges were dropped against many of the working journalists arrested, though professional freelance writer and former Nation intern Aaron Cantú is still facing the prospect of felony charges, despite letters of support from numerous news editors.
We have seen similar heavy-handed enforcement in other jurisdictions since the inauguration. Most important has been the militarized response to protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, in which police have used armored vehicles, tear gas, and other “less lethal” munitions against demonstrators. Just as troubling, the ACLU had to move to quash a warrant from the local sheriff’s office seeking to access people’s private social-media accounts in a blatant attempt at political spying.