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"
Yesterday I posted an excerpt from my recent research on the history of U.S. national security, particularly its specific origins in the FBI's COINTELPRO campaign against black-radical groups. The following excerpt returns to the 1975-76 Senate Church Committee to show how national security is a form of institutionalized racism. Given the attention to the NSA-files leak, it's important to remember who the targets of national-security operations are: threats to white U.S. supremacy.
The second aspect of the committee’s work I want to highlight concerns the COINTELPRO campaign against the Panthers, to which the committee gave special focus. In the report on COINTELPRO, the Panthers are the only targeted group to receive its own sub-report, titled “The FBI’s Covert Action Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party” (“Book III” 185). The report begins by noting that the Panthers were not among the original list of groups targeted when the black-nationalist campaign began in August 1967. However, “[b]y July 1969, the Black Panthers had become the primary focus of the program, and was ultimately the target of 288 of the total 295 authorized ‘Black Nationalist’ COINTELPRO actions” (188). The report further notes that despite COINTELPRO’s ostensible mission to prevent violence, “some of the FBI’s tactics against the BPP were clearly intended to foster violence, and many others could reasonably have been expected to cause violence.” Indeed, the report concludes that the FBI “engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest” (189).
The report goes on to detail numerous examples demonstrating these claims, but I think this last point—that the FBI “responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest”—is the most useful for thinking about how the U.S. national-security apparatus is responding to the “deep-seated social problems” of today. That is to say, if Islamic terrorism is largely motivated by opposition to the U.S.’s global political, military, economic, cultural, and secular imperialism, then the U.S. government, not limited to intelligence agencies, has responded—most recently—by waging two wars in Muslim-majority countries and using drones to prosecute the more nebulous “war on terror” in several other Muslim-majority countries. This point is often made—that U.S. warfare in the Muslim “world” incites terrorism—but I would argue it bears greater significance knowing that this model of protecting national security has its roots in a domestic context: namely, the FBI’s battle with the Black Panthers.
The Church Committee report on COINTELPRO contains one more point that deepens my aforementioned claim: that instead of protecting national security and preventing violence, as the FBI said its purpose was, the program was really about preventing “dissident” groups from changing the existing “social order.” I want to quote at length from the committee’s description of the program:
COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government’s power to proceed overtly against dissident groups; it ended in 1971 with the threat of public exposure. In the intervening 15 years, the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence. (“Book III” 3)
Three pages later, the report points out the falsity of the national-security rationale:
Protecting national security and preventing violence are the purposes advanced by the Bureau for COINTELPRO. There is another purpose for COINTELPRO which is not explicit but which offers the only explanation for those actions which had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity. The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order. (6)
What becomes clear in these passages is that whatever purpose COINTELPRO may have had vis-à-vis national security, the program’s actions had nothing to do with national security. Instead, the program worked to “maintain” a particular social order. In this way, national security was imagined as the reason for COINTELPRO’s mission, and the “political violence” of groups like the Panthers imagined as the “threat” to that national security. In contrast to this imagined dynamic, however, COINTELPRO deployed political violence to prevent dissident groups, but particularly the Panthers, from changing a social order that was, and remains, white supremacist. The “dangerous ideas” of the Panthers weren’t a threat to national security but to white power. The dangerous ideas were conflated with material danger—“dangerous groups”—in order to promulgate the imagined vulnerability of the nation, when in fact it was white nationalism that was vulnerable. COINTELPRO became a way to further marginalize already marginalized groups by overriding their “First Amendment rights of speech and association.”
Accordingly, COINTELPRO’s management of the racial threat must be seen in the context of other forms of institutional racism carried out by other institutional actors in the late 1960s and continuing until today. I’m reminded here of Rod Ferguson’s work, for instance, on the ways the public university managed racially diverse students at the onset of open admissions. But unlike public universities, which operate in public and are thus subject to public pressure, such as the student activism at City College that forced the institution to accede to certain demands about inclusion, COINTELPRO operated in secret and was therefore more able to deter inclusion.
We must keep this legacy of exclusionary “national security” in mind as we consider the expanded version of COINTELPRO tactics currently deployed against Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. That is to say, the “war on terror” is more properly understood as a war on ideas, in which the ideas have been figured as a violent threat to national security. This may seem a self-evident point to some, but certainly it’s a more influential point given the history from which it emerges. If the U.S.’s prosecution of Islamic terrorism is seen as part of a national pattern of political discrimination and not as an initiative uniquely warranted by 9/11 or phantasmatic “facts on the ground,” the case against exceptional politics—to stop surveilling Muslims for no other reason than they’re Muslim—would seem to gather strength.
Cross-posted to my research Tumblr.
Previously: "The #NSAFiles and the End of COINTELPRO"
When the NSA files story broke last Thursday, I'd just finished a seminar paper that argues the FBI's secret COINTELPRO campaign against the Black Panthers from 1967-1971 is a valuable, if unrealized, precedent for the U.S.'s post-9/11 dragnet against an omnipresent, pervasive, imagined Muslim terrorist "threat." Today Edward Snowden announced he was the leaker of the files, joining the company of Bradley Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, and the anonymous Citizens' Commission activists who brought COINTELPRO to a halt in '71. An excerpt from my paper:
But whereas the Panthers and other black-radical groups were a rather narrow “threat” to national security—that is, the threat was defined as membership in one of a specific set of groups—in the post-9/11 context, anyone who’s Muslim is regarded as a threat—as a subject who can be radicalized. I want to argue that this is the first critical benefit of extending the current U.S. state of exception to encompass the COINTELPRO campaign against black-radical groups: it reveals how U.S. national-security apparatus and discourse have grown exponentially since that campaign began in 1967. As both the FBI’s infiltration of Salahuddin Muhammad’s New York mosque (“Entrapment or Foiling Terror?”) and the New York Police Department’s much more extensive infiltration of Muslim communities in the New York City metropolitan area (“Highlights of AP’s Probe”) show, there’s no longer a limit to what law-enforcement agencies can do in their effort to root out the terrorist/radical threat.
There once was a limit, though: COINTELPRO, a secret program since its inception, was halted in 1971 six weeks after a group known as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a field office outside Philadelphia and “stole at least eight hundred documents,” as Tim Weiner writes in his 2012 history of the FBI (a history that contains only nine references to the Panthers). The burglars, who were never caught, disseminated the files, describing FBI informant operations on 22 college campuses and the surveillance of the Panthers’ Philadelphia chapter, to members of Congress and the media, though it took a year before either group acted. Nevertheless, Hoover acted first, ending COINTELPRO before the “deepest secrets of the FBI [were] exposed” (293). I believe this is the second critical benefit of returning COINTELPRO to the frame of analysis concerning post-9/11 exceptional politics: that pernicious national-security programs can be held accountable, and even ended, by public knowledge.
Four years later, the public knowledge of COINTELPRO, along with U.S. intelligence operations overall, would grow substantially with a Senate investigation. The Church Committee, as the Senate committee charged with the investigation became known (after its chairman, Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho), was the progenitor to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (currently chaired by Dianne Feinstein). The committee released 14 reports in 1975 and 1976, totaling thousands of pages, which detailed the illegal actions of U.S. intelligence over the years, everything from the Army opening the mail of civilians to the CIA’s attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Altogether, the committee’s findings were an unprecedented public archive of information concerning national security; an additional 50,000 pages were released in 1992. This Church Committee archive, however, would later be surpassed exponentially by the national-security archive Bradley Manning gave to WikiLeaks in 2010, which, among other documents and videos, included some 500,000 reports produced by the U.S. Army (according to various news reports).
In terms of the deliberative work of the committee, I want to highlight two aspects central to my developing argument in this essay. The first concerns the committee’s conclusion that U.S. intelligence programs as a whole tended to operate outside the law—which is to say, based on exception:
The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the “national security” the law did not apply. (“Book II” 137)
Thus, 26 years before the Patriot Act greatly expanded U.S. intelligence gathering to respond to 9/11 and the Islamic threat, creating a new state of exception on the basis of protecting national security, a U.S. Senate committee had rebuked the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies for their illegal tactics in service to national security. Not only were the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens “infringed,” but the “law did not apply.” We would do well to remember this history when considering the politics and policies of terrorism today. On the one hand, there’s a precedent for illegal U.S. intelligence work, to which current illegal intelligence work adheres. On the other hand, there’s also a precedent for ending such work, which suggests that today’s illegal activities may well come to an end as well. Perhaps, contra Agamben, security need not inexorably increase; perhaps it has a limit.
Cross-posted to my research Tumblr.
*Or, Why I Like BLDG BLOK
Last night I participated in the inaugural public event of BLDG BLOK, a start-up housed at the DUMBO NYU-Poly incubator that's using mapping and other digital tools to rediscover urban history. My task was to respond creatively to a history of Tompkins Square by writer Francis Morrone; I had five minutes, or about 1200 words. Following is what I wrote and read.
When I think of Tompkins Square, I think of rats. Two summers ago, the square—or park, or gathering place, or historical site, or whatever you deem the most appropriate description of the space for your needs—was infested with rats, as local parents complained to media; their burrows—the rats’ burrows, that is, not the parents’ burrows, which are a different kind of burrow—ran adjacent to the playground on the square’s west side. At night you could see the rats scrambling over the mulch, or venturing across the Avenue A sidewalk to pick through garbage. Rats are shy animals—they disappear if you get too close. But they need humans to survive.
During the rat infestation—I understand it’s lessened now—I happened to live, just for a short time, on Seventh Street between A and B, which is the south side of Tompkins Square. Accordingly, I had many opportunities to observe the rats. I was interested in photographing them, I guess to capture them, to hold them in time for longer than a moment—that is, permanently. In one photograph I took, there were 22 pairs of rat eyes glinting in the dark. Stopped in the image, they seemed to look at me with the same mix of curiosity and fear with which I gazed at them.
Rats are as much a part of New York City history—of any city’s history—as they are a part of my history in New York. Twelve years ago, shortly after I moved to this metropolis, I hit a rat with my foot as I crossed Broadway on Fourth Street. I didn’t see the rat—I just felt a soft, semi-squishy thud. Immediately a high-pitched screech overcame the corner; I looked down and saw a furry oblong scurry away zig-zag-like. Passersby glared at me as I stood there, stunned, as if I’d been hit by a car—an unexpectedly traumatic collision. But I might as well have collided with history itself.
Rats, as we know, are ancient animals—so ancient that the zoological designation “Old World rats” for the black and brown rodents we live with in cities doesn’t refer to the pre-modern era but to the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-modern era: specifically, the Pleistocene epoch, which began more than two million years ago and ended eleven-thousand-and-seven-hundred years ago. At some point during this enormous span of time—scientists aren’t sure when—the rats that now commingle with us and our refuse in Tompkins Square originated in the forests and scrublands of Asia. Our rats, of course, aren’t a million years old (obviously)—their average life span is only a year. But their bodies carry within them a history of the world, both spatial and temporal. They’re living documents of human civilization. Don’t believe me? Ask the next rat you see. He’ll tell you if he could.
Like rats, architecture carries within it a spatial-temporal history of the world, only you can’t stop a building—a design—in its tracks with your foot. As eminent architectural writer Francis Morrone reminds us in his chronological history, the area that’s now Tompkins Square was once a swampy mass filled with birds of the snipe variety; Manhatten men of a certain stripe hunted them. The snipe hunt later became synonymous with the wild-goose chase, a madcap search for an ostensibly real but actually fictional object. Indeed, that meaning is so prevalent today that to use “snipe hunting” to refer to a kind of bird hunting would be archaic. And yet this seemingly outmoded definition is embedded in the phrase; it can’t be separated out. Etymologies are not linear but coextensive—meanings are ever present.
When I think about architecture, I often find myself thinking of Orhan Pamuk’s incredible novel Snow, in which the provenance and style of buildings are as important as any other theme. After years of living in exile in Germany, the novel’s protagonist, a poet, returns to Turkey for his mother’s funeral. Subsequently, he’s offered a reporting assignment that takes him to the eastern city of Kars, a remote outpost of have’s and have-not’s—mostly have-not’s. His first stop in town is the Snow Palace Hotel, an “elegant Baltic building…two stories high, with long narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard and an arch that led out to the street. The arch was 110 years old and high enough for horse-drawn carriages to pass through with ease.” When the poet-reporter walks under the arch, he feels “a shiver of excitement.”
The novel takes place in the 1990s. A hundred-and-ten years before then—in the 1880s—Kars belonged to the Russian empire, and Turkey, as a nation, didn’t yet exist. At the beginning of that same decade, Tompkins Square had become a public park—“one of the most attractive spots in the city,” as the New-York Tribune hailed it. Within 60 years, however, the park was no longer attractive: as the New York Times noted—and these references are Morrone’s, by the way—neglect was visible everywhere, the playground vandalized.
Kars—you may have sensed I was going here—suffered a similar degradation: “elegant Baltic buildings” turn out to be a rarity in the city as rendered by Pamuk in Snow. Instead, as the novel’s poet-reporter walks through the snow, he finds “decrepit Russian buildings with stovepipes sticking out of every window,” a “thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and the electric generators,” and “a five-hundred-year-old stone bridge,” where a “pack of dogs bark[ed] at every passerby.” The forlorn scenes force our man to wonder if Kars is “a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.”
I read this moment, fictional or not, as the end of history—the end of a progressive chronology of the world that relegates the past to the past—forgotten. In contrast to a chronological view of history, I propose a kairological perspective, in which the past is never forgotten but always insistently here. In this regard, I follow the great Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who declares: “Against the empty, continuous, quantified, infinite time of vulgar historicism must be set the full, broken, indivisible and perfect time of concrete human experience; instead of the chronological time of pseudo-history, the [k]airological time of authentic history; in place of the total social process of a dialectic lost in time, the interruption and immediacy of dialectic at a standstill.”
Architecture can interrupt this dialectic of putative progress, as can rats. So can, perhaps ironically, the digital—or digitality, or technology, or invention, or whatever you want to call it—which makes visible simultaneous—kairological—historical experiences. This is what BLDG BLOK does, and this is why I like it.
Moving west to east, the second building of the East 10th Street Historic District, number 295 (above), is part of the same set of houses that includes 293 and ends with 299. All built in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, they're attributed to the architect Joseph Trench. As before, this building incorporates Queen-Anne-style alterations, such as the cornice; the main entrance was also moved to the basement.
Previously: The East 10th Historic District—Photos
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously this past January to elevate the north side of East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to the status of historic district. The district contains 26 buildings, most of which were built in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s, following the opening of Tompkins Square Park, which the buildings face, in 1834. A few of the buildings went up around the turn of the twentieth century, including the McKim, Mead, & White-designed public library at 331 East 10th.
These buildings, though not the library, have been altered greatly since their construction, and as such they're fascinating historical assemblages. I live near the block, and since I'm addicted to Instagram, I thought I'd photograph and post each of the 26 structures. Above is building one, on the northwest corner of the block: 293 East 10th. Originally built (circa 1846) in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, it was later updated with a Queen Anne-style cornice. (This information, and all subsequent information about these buildings, comes from the East 10th Street Historic District "designation report," prepared for the preservation commission.) Other alterations—they are numerous, as you can glean from the image—include moving the main entrance to the basement and removing the window lintels. The current occupant of the storefront is the Horus Cafe and hookah lounge, which has a sidewalk cafe.
Among the people living in my building in 1940: stenographers, investigators (one for "N.Y.C. Social"), lawyers, waitresses, a hatmaker and a dressmaker, a hospital dietitian, and a "photographers" salesman. Though they mostly hailed from New York, quite a few were born in Russia, Austria, Poland, Germany, and Denmark, as well as New Jersey and Maine. Just a snapshot of what you can find on the 1940 Census site, which has been bombarded with more than 37 million "hits"—so cute, the Archives!—since nine a.m. Monday.