Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Truest statement of the week II

Hoover’s memo offers us a troubling glimpse of a forgotten dimension of COINTELPRO, one that has escaped notice for decades: the FBI’s war on black-bookstores. In addition to Hoover’s memo, I uncovered documents detailing Bureau surveillance of black bookstores in a least half a dozen cities across the U.S. in conducting research for my book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. At the height of the Black Power movement, the FBI conducted investigations of such black booksellers as Lewis Michaux and Una Mulzac in New York City, Paul Coates in Baltimore (the father of The Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates), Dawud Hakim and Bill Crawford in Philadelphia, Alfred and Bernice Ligon in Los Angeles, and the owners of the Sundiata bookstore in Denver. And this list is almost certainly far from complete, because most FBI documents pertaining to currently living booksellers aren’t available to researchers through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The FBI’s reports on black booksellers were highly invasive but often mundane. The FBI reports note phone calls from Coates’s number to his former comrades in the Black Panther Party—but also to Viking Press and the American Booksellers Association. Agents in New York reported an undercover source’s questionable claim that the Lewis Michaux “was responsible for about 75 percent of the antiwhite material” distributed in Harlem, but another report conceded that he was “no longer very active in Black Nationalist activity as he is getting old.” In Philadelphia, agents traced a car’s license plate at a Republic of New Africa convention to Dawud Hakim, but not long afterwards they quoted sources stating that the RNA was “now defunct in the Philadelphia area” and that Hakim “has not shown interest in any Black Nationalist Activity.”

While perhaps not surprising, it is deeply disturbing that Hoover and the FBI would carry out sustained investigations of black-owned independent bookstore across the country as part of COINTELPRO’s larger attacks on the Black Power movement. But Hoover’s order that agents track these stores’ customers represented not just an attack on black activists, but also an absolute contempt for America’s stated values of freedom of speech and expression. Any citizen who stepped into a black-owned bookstore, it seemed, risked being investigated by federal law enforcement.

-- Joshua Clark Davis, "The FBI's War on Black-Owned Bookstores" (BLACK AGENDA REPORT).

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