Oakland forum takes up fight to defend constitutional freedoms

By Andrea Morell
May 29, 2023

OAKLAND, Calif. — “I am a symbol of countless victims of the FBI’s Cointelpro,” Watani Stiner told a Militant Labor Forum here April 30. “Yet I am a survivor of it.”

Stiner and Joel Britton of the Socialist Workers Party were addressing why working people should stand up in defense of constitutional freedoms and against efforts to refurbish the image of the FBI, both led primarily by the Democrats.

The bureau framed up Stiner in 1969, part of Cointelpro, short for its counterintelligence program, aimed at discrediting, disrupting and destroying political and labor forces the capitalist rulers viewed as dangerous to their rule.

Among the organizations the FBI targeted were Us, a Black nationalist organization in Los Angeles that Stiner belonged to, and the Socialist Workers Party.

Stiner handed out copies of FBI memos made public under the Freedom of Information Act showing the bureau’s efforts to stoke differences between Us and the Black Panther Party.

One November 1968 directive said the FBI would take steps “in order to fully capitalize upon BPP and US differences as well as to exploit all avenues of creating further dissension in the ranks of the BPP.”

An FBI memo written a few days later said the agency was preparing an anonymous letter purportedly from an Us member to send to the Panthers claiming Us was onto plans the BPP had made to kill Ron Karenga, the leader of Us, and planned to retaliate.

In January 1969 a shootout occurred between members of the two organizations on the University of California at Los Angeles campus. Stiner was framed on murder charges for the deaths of two Panthers. He spent some two decades in exile and two decades in prison.

Stiner said the FBI took advantage of what he called the “warrior mentality” of the Us organization, which left members open to cop provocation.

“If you want to know why the FBI shouldn’t be refurbished, just look at the history,” Britton said. From the late 1930s on, the FBI has targeted unions, Black organizations, Puerto Rican independence fighters, the movement for women’s liberation and anti-Vietnam War organizations.

SWP forces out truth

Much of Cointelpro’s treachery was forced into the open by a lawsuit filed by the Socialist Workers Party against the FBI in 1973. It exposed details of the Cointelpro operation against the party over decades. These included spying, blacklisting, mail covers, wiretaps, use of undercover informers and break-ins at party headquarters. It revealed poison-pen letters written anonymously by agents trying to sow divisions within the party and to disrupt collaboration between the SWP and Black rights and anti-Vietnam War groups.

The party won the suit, Britton said, showing that, though the rulers’ political police, like all their cop agencies, cannot be reformed, they can be pushed back.

These exposures and the SWP’s victory helped discredit the FBI for years, weakening its ability to target working-class fighters, Britton said. But now the capitalist ruling families need their political police as working people look for ways to take on the bosses and their push to place the burden of the crisis of their system onto the backs of working people. That, and their partisan factionalism, is why the Democrats seek to refurbish the FBI’s reputation and use it.

The Justice Department has gotten a federal grand jury to indict members of the African People’s Socialist Party and its Uhuru Movement supporters on trumped-up charges of being “foreign agents.” In fact, “the APSP was carrying out legal activities,” Britton said. “The real target is freedom of speech, which the prosecutors accused the party of ‘weaponizing.’”

Britton said that since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 the Democrats have used the FBI and trampled on constitutional rights to try to prevent him from ever holding office again. “What the government does to him, it will try to do to us. It is really aimed against the working class,” he said. He pointed out the FBI raids on the homes and offices of the APSP and Uhuru took place 10 days before the raid by heavily armed FBI agents on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

“All of a sudden the FBI are good guys,” Watani said disbelievingly. “I see it as a family squabble I do not take a side in.”

“Whenever there are attacks on the rights of anyone,” Britton said, “it always comes down hardest on the working class and our organizations and the most conscious fighters. This is because the capitalists are in power. It is their police, FBI and CIA. Whatever differences there are among them, when working people threaten their interests, both parties turn their repressive forces loose against us.”

Participating in the forum were family members of Carlos Harris, who was framed up and convicted in 2005 of attempted murder and other charges. He has served 18 years of a 28-year sentence after refusing to take a plea bargain, insisting on his innocence. Harris and his family have waged a long and determined fight for his freedom, which has been covered in the Militant. They reported he has secured a transfer out of maximum security and is in a work release program, preparing for a court resentencing hearing June 7.

Britton urged forum goers to support the fight to free Harris and to join in the defense of the African People’s Socialist Party. “The APSP and Uhuru are charged with building support for Russia’s attempt to seize Ukraine,” Britton said. “The SWP doesn’t agree with these views, but we defend their right to hold them and to collaborate with forces abroad.”