In this third and final excerpt from my recent work on U.S. national security, I consider the case of Assata Shakur, retroactively designated a "domestic terrorist" under the post-9/11 Patriot Act. The continuity between the national-security response to black radicalism and the present heightened response to Islamic radicalism made me think about security at large as an inherently racialized, racist form.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle or else it will define us,” President Obama said in his recent “dronetánamo” speech in which he laid out plans to scale back the war on terrorism. But the example of Assata Shakur shows how much terrorism already “defines us.”
On May 2nd, just weeks before the President’s speech, Shakur was added to the FBI’s “most wanted terrorist” list—40 years after her alleged murder of a New Jersey state trooper. Long in exile in Cuba, she was first designated a terrorist in 2005, under the Patriot Act’s reconceptualization of “domestic terrorism.” According to this new definition, which is U.S. law, an act of domestic terrorism must
A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. (“Patriot Act” 106)
But the FBI has never explained how Shakur meets part B of this definition. In its press release announcing her addition to its “most wanted terrorists” list, it simply calls her a “domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style” (Woodruff). Furthermore, Shakur was already convicted of this crime; she’s wanted for extradition to serve the remainder of her prison sentence. Finally, Shakur’s conviction—which the government pursued through three acquittals, three dismissals, and one mistrial on separate charges—remains disputed (“Who is Assata Shakur?”). After all, the FBI didn’t just act violently against black-radical groups, or foment violence between them. It also outright manufactured charges of violence, as in the 1969-1970 prosecution of the “Panther 21,” who were charged far in excess of their alleged plot to dynamite two New York City police stations and a school—and were acquitted largely because the jury recognized the defendants had been framed for political reasons (Zimroth 6-7). Given the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiatives against both black-radical groups and Cuba, the “most wanted terrorist” label, which comes with a poster of Shakur “prepared in English and Spanish” and a $2 million reward for “information leading to [her] capture and return” (Woodruff), seems designed to lay the groundwork for an illegal mission to retrieve her from a country imaginatively considered a state sponsor of terrorism. As the U.S. continues to violate other nations’ sovereignty in pursuit of its terror objectives, a well-compensated tip on Shakur’s specific whereabouts in Cuba might be all the FBI needs to get her.
Against such institutionalized, operative definitions of terrorism, which hold that the U.S. can never be the perpetrator of terrorism but only the victim of terrorism—whose national security is always at risk even as that national security is used as a pretense to make other nations insecure—there would seem to be no way out. Although COINTELPRO ended because of public exposure, the forms of national security today remain mostly hidden, classified and accessible to only those with the proper security clearance. And certainly the stakes are higher today given the wider reach of the global war on terrorism. The Citizens’ Commission members who stole incriminating files from an FBI field office were never apprehended, but if they had been, it’s not hard to imagine what they would’ve been charged with: burglary. That was the charge the Watergate burglars were slapped with in 1972, the year following the Citizens’ Commission action. Today, Bradley Manning stands charged with aiding the enemy, which carries a life sentence. Aiding the enemy “usually means material aid—the statute mentions ‘arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things’”; the last time someone was charged for passing information was 1863 (Davidson). Manning is also charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, the same charge the Justice Department is pursuing in its investigation into who leaked national-security information to the AP and other news outlets. It would seem the U.S. government is using all its power to stop the flow of its secrets to the public.
Manning’s contributions to WikiLeaks go some way toward detailing the excesses of the U.S. war machine abroad, but that’s just one aspect of the national-security apparatus. Within the “homeland,” national security is deployed in various ways: in the context of immigration and border security; nuclear and other weapons storage; currency and monetary policy; and, as we have seen, state secrets. It’s also deployed against U.S. citizens, as the NYPD’s comprehensive infiltration of Muslim communities in the New York City metropolitan area shows—an operation the NYPD, working with the CIA, has yet to be held accountable for (although it has admitted the operation yielded no useful intelligence). According to the Associated Press’s Pulitzer-winning coverage, which relied heavily on Freedom of Information Act requests, the NYPD’s action here bore the main hallmarks of COINTELPRO’s involvement with black-radical groups some 25 years earlier: specifically, a wide-scale surveillance program coupled with the use of double agents and informants. The AP’s reporting, and the raw files it obtained by FOIA, are available on a website (“Highlights of AP’s”), but the overall archive of the NYPD’s operation remains to be built. As a public investigation seems unlikely, that archive will have to be constructed with FOIA requests. Such a tactic suggests that opponents of the state of exception can use exceptions to the state’s rule by law to mount a counter-offensive.
Finally, it’s important to note that New York area Muslims aren’t the only people to be racially profiled by the NYPD. Though 9/11 gave the department a rationale to do so—the kind of rationale I’ve been calling imagined—it has systematically racially profiled people of color, via stop-and-frisk, over this same time period as well. Whether this means the NYPD’s exceptional response to 9/11 has influenced other forms of policing is unclear, but it does make me wonder whether the very notion of security—national or municipal, public or private, or intersecting versions of these and others—is inherently racialized. Given the settler-colonial origins of the U.S., in which security was established, materially and conceptually, in opposition to the brown bodies of indigenous tribal peoples, it would seem that the figure of security has always been white, and the figure of the threat to that security always of color. In this way, the FBI, CIA, and NYPD are only the latest figures of security, and Al Qaeda, Muslims, and black and brown New York City men—and radicals of all kinds—the latest figures of threat.
Cross-posted to my research Tumblr.
Previously: "National Security as Racism"