Federal Bureau of Investigation files indicate that Ernest Withers, prominent photographer of 1960s Civil Rights activism, was also a federal informant. According to the Washington Post, he provided photographs, scheduling information and biographical sketches on Civil Rights leaders to the FBI.
Whether Withers was trying to cash in on information he considered harmless, playing a counter-intelligence game, or considered himself a loyal government servant, the FBI considered him useful.
Also this week, Indymedia reported that the FBI gave names and addresses of individuals who corresponded with prisoner Eric McDavid to local field offices and law enforcement agencies (“Political Prisoner Correspondence and the FBI”, September 12, 2010). McDavid was convicted of conspiracy charges in 2007 on the basis of a federal informant’s statements.
And earlier in the year it was revealed that the late historian Howard Zinn’s FBI file was more than 400 pages long.
Some might find it hard to understand why the FBI would spy on Martin Luther King, compile information on individuals who contact prisoners, and treat public intellectuals as threats. But it makes perfect sense when you understand the state’s priorities.
To fundamentalist adherents of state power, the control exerted by the state is what holds the world together. It’s administered by people who think it only natural that they happen to be the ones in charge. Anyone who threatens their power, anyone with whom they can’t work out a “reasonable solution,” is seen as a threat to public safety. The tendency to protect power at the expense of individual life translates in reality to harming individuals in the name of safety, tearing lives apart and causing havoc in the name of order.
In light of the state’s open hostility toward and covert operations against freedom, it is prudent for the individual to create security strategies for his or her situation. The benefits of obscurity versus the benefits of publicity should be weighed.
Rev. Joseph Lowery, a major Southern Christian Leadership Conference figure, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying “There was nothing [Withers] could report on us that would hurt us,” because “We were quite open with what we were planning to do” (“A Downer for Civil Rights Community”, 9/15/2010).
A skillful agent of the state can twist careless words into calculated plots, or use charisma and personal skills to lead an unsure activist into a trap. The state has body bags full of dirty tricks to bring the big players down.
An activist’s actions on interpersonal and public levels can be used as countermeasures. If it is known that you do good then their claims might be harder to stick on you. Julian Assange is crushing bastards on a global scale, probably because of good planning and operating skills.
Minimizing the damage of government surveillance involves countering the climate of paranoia that it is meant to create. We can still talk with one another and build communities of free individuals that oppose authority. And that is where real change will come from.