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How The FBI Attacked The BPP

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What follows is continued from last issue’s article on how the FBI’s Cointel-pro activities were directed against the Black Panther Party throughout the United States. This article originally appeared in Boston’s The Real Paper.


In Los Angeles, William Hynes, a former undercover agent in the IWW, participant in the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 and a coordinator of police infiltration and disruption of the effort to form industrial unions in the Thirties, was named Hoover’s man on the scene. Hynes set up a liaison between the LAPD and the FBI devoted to ferreting out subversives in the area. The local Red Squad was superseded in 1942 by the Metropolitan Division of the LAPD (Metro), a more modern, sophisticated vehicle for cooperating with the G-Men in conducting the war against the enemy within.

After the Watts riots of 1965, one of the first urban conflagrations of the Sixties, Metro was expanded from 90 agents to over 200. The LAPD also established a new intelligence unit, the Criminal Conspiracy Section (CCS), that would almost exclusively deal with the new black militant organizations. The previous links were maintained between the FBI and the local intelligence forces, with the FBI supplying information on radicals and encouraging suggestions on how to eliminate them. More often than not, local police departments served as the operational wing of the FBI program. They, too, wasted no time.

On January 17, 1969 a meeting took place on the UCLA campus to determine who the Black Student Union would appoint as its director. There was considerable acrimony between the competing factions, one led by Black Panthers John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and the other headed by Ron Karenga of US (United Slaves), a group that saw the revival of African culture as the salvation of American blacks. When the Karenga-sponsored nominee for the BSU post was turned down by a majority vote, garnered by the effective leadership of Huggins and Carter, US activists pulled out guns and killed the Panthers. Five US members were indicted for murder and conspiracy and three of the five were ultimately apprehended and convicted of second degree murder.

But the basis of the feud was not as apparent as it seemed. By all outward appearances the origin of the conflict seemed to be ideological: “cultural nationalists” arrayed against “revolutionary nationalists.” But Ron Karenga’s shaved head, dashiki dress and Swahili incantations were an external mask; Karenga was a voodoo witchdoctor for the secret police.

The Wall Street Journal reported, “A few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King...Mr. Karenga slipped into Sacramento for a private chat with Governor Reagan, at the governor’s request. The black nationalist also met clandestinely with Los Angeles Police Chief Thomas Reddin after Mr. King was killed.”

According to a former undercover agent for LAPD’s Criminal Conspiracy Division, Louis Tackwood, Karenga was financed, armed and encouraged in the attack on the Panthers by the police. Tackwood claims that he acted as the liaison between CCS and Karenga’s United Slaves. “I contacted Ron Karenga and gave him orders to the effect that was given to me,” Tackwood states in a book based on his confessions, “The Glass House Tapes,” “that he was to curtail the Panther Party’s growth no matter what it cost.” Tackwood’s allegations were confirmed in a lie detector test conducted by Chris Gugas, a past president of the American Polygraph Association, who prominently displays an autographed picture of J. Edgar Hoover in his office.

(Karenga lost whatever support he had built up after the murder of the UCLA Panther leaders. He was recently arrested for torturing two black women who he said were trying to poison him, convicted and sentenced to one to ten years in prison.)

The deaths of Huggins and Carter did not stop Panther organizing in Los Angeles. Various community programs were started in Watts despite the intense level of police harassment. But then the level of harassment grew even more intense.

Four days after the raid on Fred Hampton’s apartment, on December 8, 1969, at 3 am, the Special Weapons and Tactics Squad (SWAT) stationed themselves outside of the Central Avenue Panther headquarters in Watts. The SWAT squad, armed with AR-15 automatic rifles, was supported by one hundred policemen, sniper squads carefully perched on nearby buildings and an armored personnel carrier.

At 5:30 in the morning the assault began. The Panthers who were sleeping in their offices, returned the fire of the police and a four-hour battle ensued. The police dumped dynamite on the roof of the headquarters, lobbed in tear gas and kept up a steady stream of gunfire. At 9:45 am the Panthers poked a white flag out of a window and surrendered; six of the thirteen who emerged from the battered building were wounded. Among those arrested was a 42-year-old ex-convict. Melvin “Cotton” Smith, number three in command of the Panther chapter, resident weapons expert and keeper of the arsenal. Cotton Smith was a CCS agent. Like William O’Neal, Smith had been placed in a sensitive position of security within the organization.

The web of undercover police activity was also extended in Los Angeles to entrap supporters of the Panther defense effort in alleged criminal activity. Two leaders of the Friends of the Panthers in Los Angeles, Donald Freed, playwright and author (“Executive Action”), and Shirley Sutherland, actress and then wife of movie actor Donald Sutherland, were arrested in 1969 for allegedly illegal possession of hand grenades.

The hand grenades had been delivered in a wooden box to Freed’s house by a member of Friends of the Panthers, James Jarrett, who had introduced himself to the group as a Vietnam veteran disaffected with the war and racism. Later disclosures in the case substantiated Jarrett’s claim but not his motive. In Vietnam he had been a CIA operative, leading political assassination teams into the countryside to dispose of National Liberation Front cadres. Jarrett had also plied his trade in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Upon returning from Indochina, he served as a trainer of the LAPD SWAT squad, the shock troops in the assault on Panther headquarters.

The case against Freed and Sutherland was eventually dropped after two years of convoluted legal wrangling. By then Jarrett had faded back into the intelligence netherworld and the LA Panthers had been fragmented into bitterly contesting and dispirited Cleaver and Newton factions.

The time from the LA raid to the LA Panther trial (almost two years) was a period of constant FBI and police action against the Panthers throughout the country. A selective chronology illustrates all too well the relentless nature of the government program.


The first major raid of 1970 against the Panthers was aborted by Mayor Wesley Uhlman of Seattle. On February 8, Mayor Uhlman stated that the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Tax Unit of the Internal Revenue Service had requested Seattle police participation in a raid on local Panther headquarters. Uhlman denied the request, because, he said, it “smacked of Gestapo type tactics.” IRS Commissioner Randolph W. Thrower verified Mayor Uhlman’s statement.

In the spring of 1970, Seattle became the scene of one of Cointelpro’s more bizarre outings. According to The Los Angeles Times, Alfred Burnett, a man charged with felonious violation of his parole, was inducted into the FBI inner sanctum as an informer. Burnett served inside the Seattle Panthers until the FBI and the local police apparently decided that in order to show that they could solve a wave of bombings, they would set off a bomb themselves and catch a patsy. Burnett placed a bomb in a real estate office, notified the police, but forgot exactly where he had put the explosive. He swore in an affidavit that he then offered $75 to Larry Ward, a black veteran only two weeks back from Vietnam with no previous political record, to find the bomb. Ward agreed and Burnett deposited him at the real estate office. The police closed in on Ward, who started to run; they opened fire with shotguns, killing him. The majority of a grand jury ruled that the killing of the unarmed Ward was unjustified homicide, but the authorities refused to prosecute. To do so would have unveiled the intricate Cointelpro program.


On May Day, 1970, in Baltimore, 150 police descended on the local Panther headquarters and arrested 10 people. Baltimore Police Commissioner Pomerleau publicly declared that the raid was undertaken because he had received important data from the FBI.

J. Edgar Hoover, in one of his periodic papal bulls, stated on May 9th that the bleeding hearts were wrongly accusing the police of harassment, particularly insofar as the raids on the Black Panthers were concerned. The Director’s judgment was rendered: the Panthers were ranked somewhere below Dr. Martin Luther King in his pantheon of anti-Christs.


Meanwhile, the FBI was drafting a scheme to plant a phony double-agent in the Panthers. A Cointelpro document discloses that the FBI had approached the San Francisco police department to arrange for black policemen to befriend top Panther leaders. The policemen were to appear enraged with this police experience and offer to supply the Panthers with important inside information and plans. In fact, the supposedly dissatisfied cops would be agents feeding the Panthers false information that would sow division within the organization and give the police that much more of a jump on the situation. The ingenuity of the FBI lay in its disengenuous methods.


The National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF) was a group set up by the Panthers specifically to raise the issue of the police raids and arrests. The NCCF was to attract all of the assorted groups and tendencies on the left and coalesce them around the single most vital issue for the Panthers. The Panthers were planning a gathering of these diverse groups under their aegis for the fall of 1970 in Philadelphia.

Late in the night of September 1, Philadelphia police led by Chief Frank Rizzo, stormed Panther headquarters. The Panthers were pushed into the street, ordered to strip, and lined up facing a dirty brick wall. Fifteen people were arrested and 14 held on $100,000 bail. They were charged with assault to kill and various weapons violations, but no one was ever convicted.

There is no doubt of the FBI role in Philadelphia. In March of 1971, radicals turned the tables on the FBI and raided one of their offices located in the sleepy town of Media, Pennsylvania. The Media office was the FBI coordinating point for the Philadelphia area.

There is no doubt of the FBI role in Philadelphia. In March of 1971, radicals turned the tables on the FBI and raided one of their offices located in the sleepy town of Media, Pennsylvania. The Media office was the FBI coordinating point for the Philadelphia area. The documents lifted in the Media heist reveal that the FBI received reports on the Panthers’ most minute activities from informers.

When the Cointelpro directives came down the FBI regional offices split their intelligence gathering into two divisions: squad No. 3 was designated the “OId Left” desk and squad No. 4 became the “New Left” desk. Much of the FBI effort consisted of going to meetings, taking down names and recording conversations. One informer related in a memo that he visited a commune to attend a meeting but discovered it had been postponed. He was cordially invited to stay and talk. He reported, “All individuals were sitting around discussing the coming Black Panther Party Conference and smoking marijuana... A meeting of the Women’s Liberation group was being held in another room.”

Prior to the Panther convention the FBI issued a special 10 point list of instructions to informers. They were told to report names of participants, the convention agenda, contents of literature, plans for travel and housing, and the details of the security precautions. The Media papers also showed the close cooperation between the FBI and the Philadelphia police.


The pace of police-FBI activity was swift after the Philadelphia Panther convention. On September 16, the New Orleans headquarters of the NCCF was raided and 14 people held on charges of attempted murder of the police. A year later a jury found the defendants not guilty.

On September 17, a Toledo, Ohio policeman was killed in a non-political incident, providing cause for an assault on the local NCCF office. Two blacks were wounded although no one returned the fire of the police.

In Detroit, the police and Panthers exchanged gunfire near the headquarters of the NCCF office. Twelve Panthers were charged with attempted murder. A year later a jury acquitted them although three of the defendants, were convicted of felonious assault in a scuffle with the police.

On November 13, 1971 ten people were wounded in shooting between police and Panthers in Carbondale, Illinois and eleven days later police staged a predawn raid on a Panther house in Compton, California. These raids were the last in the series.

Panther strength had been seriously depleted by the attacks. The FBI program had successfully thwarted the rise of the Panthers with the help of many other police and governmental agencies. The Justice Department admitted that it maintained a special three-man “Panther watching team.” In early 1971 the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations was reported to have prepared secret memos on the Panthers for distribution to commanding officers at Air Force bases. The Air Force reports were based on data received from the FBI.

Still, it was the New York Panther trial (1971) which most clearly revealed the incredible extent of FBI involvement. The defendants were charged with conspiracy to blow up the Bronx Botanical Gardens, various department stores and police stations. The bail was set at $2 million. And what was revealed was an amazingly complex network of agents provocateurs and undercover police infiltration.

Information received by the New York City police led to their decision to classify the organization as “hostilely subversive” according to two policemen who testified at the trial. Vincent Broderick, the former chief of the NYPD, stated at a 1971 conference on the FBI that there was a “direct relationship between the FBI and the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS).” BOSS is the intelligence unit of New York City’s police, the spawning ground of John Caulfield and Anthony Ulasewicz.

In 1968, BOSS agents founded the Black Panther Party chapter in New York. They diligently recruited a membership. Detective R. White, who testified under oath at the Panther trial that he was a member of the Party before any of the 21 defendants were, stated that he hired Lumumba Shakur and another defendant to work in a federally financed antipoverty office in the Bronx.

The dynamite that was supposed to be used in the plot was supplied to the Panthers by an FBI informer, Roland Hayes. This fact emerged in pretrial hearings but the defense did not call Hayes, fearing that he might tell any story that suited him. Hayes had never told his fellow agents that he had planted the dynamite and the prosecution was as startled by his admission as was the defense. The 30-count indictment was based on the testimony of six undercover agents, one of whom admitted on the stand to being stoned when the Panther conspiracy was supposedly hatched.

The most intriguing of the BOSS agents was Gene Roberts, an informer in black groups since 1964. Roberts testified that he had infiltrated the organization of Malcolm X, became his bodyguard and on the night of Malcolm s assassination in the Hotel Thersa administered mouth to mouth resuscitation to the dying black leader. Roberts said that he feared the police while pretending to be a Panther because his true identity was not known to them (the police): A shotgun blast might not discriminate between agents and activists.

Two other undercover agents testified that they recorded the conversations of Panthers with a tiny transistor machine hidden in their clothing. In April, 1971 the jury returned after an unusually brief deliberation. It found the defendants not guilty of all charges. But by that time, several of the New York Panthers had skipped bail and the national organization had cracked in half. The pressures of the trials, killings and daring escapes out of the country to the fabled revolutionary land of Algeria, on the one hand, and the abject failure of the insurrectionary posture, on the other, reduced the Panthers from dramatic prominence to scattered isolation. The return of the Panthers to their Oakland lair was a protective, healing retreat.

On March 1, 1971, Earl Caldwell reported in the New York Times the results of a survey he had undertaken of the effect of police activity on the Panthers. He found the Panther Party “only a skeleton of what it was just a year ago.” Stokely Carmichael, who had had his own private dispute with the Panthers, declared from his African exile, “The Panthers are practically finished.”

Some time in 1971 the Cointelpro program was dispanded.

--Sid Blumenthal