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A Timeline of the FBI and its Role in Political Persecution

On August 8, the FBI raided former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home on suspicion of mishandling classified documents (Politico). Conservatives accused the Biden administration of unleashing federal law enforcement for partisan ends. Sitting House members Marjorie Taylor Green and Paul Gosar declared that it was time to “destroy” and “defund the FBI,” and end the “political persecution” of the ex-President (MSN). 

When activists demanded defunding of the police, conservatives trumpeted their unconditional support for law enforcement. For the same people to now shout “defund the FBI” raises the question of whether “their love of law enforcement only remain intact when it is weaponized against certain segments of the population or others they deem as enemies,” as Elvia Díaz writes in the Arizona Republic (MSN). The hypocrisy is apparent, but reflexively defending the impartiality of the FBI is no solution. The FBI does persecute political opponents of the U.S. regime, usually with the encouragement of Republicans and Democrats alike. Political repression has been one of the Bureau’s major functions throughout its existence, which is why destroying the FBI needs to be more than a cheap conservative slogan. Today, we present a timeline of actual FBI political persecution. 

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1908: The FBI is founded as the Bureau of Investigation to persecute immigrant labor union organizers for their political beliefs (History).

1917: The Espionage Act, still enforced today, tasks the FBI with attacking pacifists and draft resisters (Bill of Rights Institute). “Simple criticism of the government was enough to send you to jail,” especially for immigrants confronting the “amplified xenophobia” of WWI, especially since President Wilson had demanded disloyal immigrants be “crushed out” and “purged” (Time, Miller Center).

1919: The FBI arrests thousands of immigrants and political dissenters, largely without warrants. Detainees are held without charges and beaten and starved for information. Camp Upton in New York is converted into what the government calls a “concentration camp” to house arrestees (NYTimes). Hundreds are deported to the U.S.S.R. (History).

1936: The Bureau begins decades of surveillance of Puerto Rican nationalists that lasts at least until the 1990s. Agents record the guests at weddings that activists attend, seize their medical records, tap neighbors’ phones, and threaten one activist’s mother to encourage him to give up political activity (NYTimes). 

1938: The House Un-American Activities Committee is formed, with the FBI conducting “extensive surveillance” in support. “Few people dare to criticize the questionable tactics used to persecute suspected radicals,” leading to a profound chilling effect in American public life as “dissenting voices… fell silent” (History).

1956: COINTELPRO, an FBI program that was “covert and often used extralegal means” like harassment, infiltration, impersonation, and surveillance “to criminalize various forms of political struggle and derail several social movements, such as those for civil rights,” starts (Britannica). 

1968: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. There is “ample evidence to suggest that the FBI and COINTELPRO played a heavily involved role” (Grunge).

1971: COINTELPRO is exposed after activists break into an FBI office. Hundreds of FBI agents are sent in an unsuccessful attempt to identify the activists responsible (Grunge). 

1981: The FBI begins infiltrating the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).  (CISPES, U.S. Senate). The FBI tapped CISPES members’ phones and broke into their national office twice. An FBI informant later testifies that he was encouraged to “seduce one of the CISPES leaders” (Chicago Tribune).

1991: After a pipe bomb blows up the car of radical environmentalist Judi Bari, “the timber industry’s most feared activist,” the FBI arrives on the scene almost immediately. Many first responders had recently attended an “FBI Bomb School” where agents practiced blowing up cars with pipe bombs (SFGate, Earth Island Journal). Bari’s estate would win a federal case against the FBI in 2002 (SFGate). 

2001: The FBI begins years of mass data collection on American Muslims without suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Their efforts include a “domestic intelligence initiative” disguised as a “Mosque Outreach” program and mapping entire communities based on “unconstitutional and widespread stereotyping” (ACLU).

2002: The Justice Department claims environmental justice organizing is the “No. 1 domestic terror concern,” launching years of federal terrorism investigations against non-violent animal rights and environmental activists (The Intercept). The FBI devotes “considerable resources to tracking political activists with no apparent criminal intent” (Gawker).

2005: The FBI assassinates Puerto Rican nationalist Filiberto Ojeda Ríos (The Nation, NACLA).

2010: After placing an undercover informant in a leftist organization, the FBI raids the homes of a dozen anti-war activists in Minnesota. None are charged (CBS News). 

2011: In coordination with big banks, the Federal Reserve, and the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI coordinates the nationwide violent repression of Occupy Wall Street encampments, “treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity” (The Guardian, CNN). The FBI provides jobs, money, drugs, and housing to entrap the Cleveland 5 in a bomb plot the Bureau developed (PCJF).

2012: The FBI sends four anarchists in the Pacific Northwest to months in federal prison without being convicted of a crime after they refuse to testify on others (KNKX, CWC).

2017: The FBI describes racial justice protestors as “Black Identity Extremists” (FBI). Such a classification is “not only disrespectful, it’s not true,” said Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson of the Highlander Research and Education Center (Yahoo!).

2020: The FBI deputy director calls the George Floyd Rebellion a “national crisis” and calls for the arrest of protestors under a 1946 law (The Hill). The Bureau uses its “most advanced spyplane” to surveil Baltimore protests (Buzzfeed) and arrests 80 people nationwide (Brennan Center).

2022: Transparency organization Property of the People obtains internal FBI documents describing mass surveillance by “robust social media exploitation teams.” The Bureau “cast a wide net” in collecting social media data to be shared with state and local law enforcement. “At its core,” said Property of the People’s Ryan Shapiro, “the FBI is a political police force that primarily targets the left while ignoring or outright enabling the right” (Rolling Stone).


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Conservatives have demanded the government “defund the FBI” for “political persecution” after the Mar-a-Lago raid. 

• The FBI was founded for political persecution, though its actual targets are immigrants, people of color, and left-wing activists. 

• Real FBI political repression continues to the present day.

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