We tend to define our history through experiences that echo through the eyes, hearts and out of the mouths of our parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents, through their victories and defeats. I stood observing, studying and soaking in all the history pinned to the blank-white canvas wall. A past-life resuscitated through the heart of a fellow millennial about events that preceded her own life, but continues to live on in the midst of it. Rodney Barnette’s history is Sadie Barnette’s history. Sadie Barnette’s history is my own history. That much is real and true.
I waited in anticipation for activist Keegan Stephan to arrive. Throughout those 30-odd something minutes, I studied the wall, alone. My heart raced with excitement to explore from whence I came and fear of discovering the real, unbeknownst limitations on where I could go.
Keegan arrived to the Do Not Destroy exhibit on bike, fresh from a meeting at City Hall. We greeted, exchanged a few words, then we both delved into the history before us with different perspectives. Me, a black 21-year-old college student, approaching graduation and entering an all-too-real and familiar world of joy, success, discrimination, stagnation, victories and defeats to carve my own place in. Keegan, as a white paralegal and activist utilizing his legal background to fight for a cause rooted in my own history. A cause re-birthed with the same menacing threats, for which his participation, I later thanked him for.
On that Friday evening (Feb. 17), I walked into the Baxter St. Camera Club hungry and eager to connect surveillance during the Civil Rights Movement to the threat of surveillance today, during the Black Lives Matter Movement. What Keegan provided me was a host of organizations, federal institutions, and laws that formed a slurry in my brain. I thought it’d be simple. I learned, history is anything but.
Here, Stephan deconstructs the history of the government’s surveillance of civil rights activists and how those tactics are still present in today’s fight for justice.
On this day, March 8 in 1971, a historic breakthrough was made because of the two different perspectives of attention between a small group of activists and the rest of the country. While the masses had their ears glued to their radios and eyes plastered to their televisions awaiting the fate of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier match up, John and Bonnie Raines, along with others, retrieved over 1,000 documents-worth of what was rightfully due to the public and delivered them to the intermediaries: the media. The couple was the face of the Media, Pennsylvania raid on the FBI office that uncovered the agency’s surveillance of various activist groups. Forty-six years down the line, and activists, such as Keegan, civilians and black and brown communities, along with other marginalized groups, continue to pry hidden and unlawful information from the hands of new demons.
While Keegan informed me of the laws such as FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)—“a [national] law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government”—the slurry started to break apart into their own segments of organized truths. While FOIA discourages surveillance from federal agencies, the “Handschu Decree” makes it illegal for the NYPD to initiate investigations without “unlawful activity, or indicating an apparent intent to engage in unlawful conduct” on the accused party’s side.
“Basically, the FBI is not allowed to [surveil] anymore. They’re not allowed to get personal information on people who are doing things that are First Amendment-protected,” Keegan said. “Which is what it seems like all of this was. Even though they think they’re doing a criminal investigation [Laughs], there’s no indictment. They don’t seem to be doing a criminal investigation, there’s no allocation of the crime.”
VIBE: They’re just stalking them.
Keegan Stephan: Yeah, they’re just stalking them. Which is what they do to activists because they know it has this chilling effect. They obviously know from this time period (in reference to Rodney Barnette). And the NYPD is not supposed to do it, either. There was this whole court decision called the “Handschu Decree”—it’s a person’s last name, a lawyer/activist in the ’70s—because of the undercover work that was being done against her by the NYPD. The court consolidated a law around it stating “[the NYPD is] not allowed to keep dossiers on activists that are engaging in First Amendment-protected activity.” So things along this line are technically against the law for the NYPD to be doing. Although lots of police forces can get away with it and do get away with it. So if we get something like this back from the NYPD it’s like patented evidence that they were breaking the law and what they’re supposed to be doing around this. And it’s sort of what we suspect that they have, because what we have seen from them is photographs collected from various activists and some descriptions of some activists. So you know, that’s like crossing that line.
The Ice-Cold Deception
This is where the chilling effect is birthed. There’s already visual and physical proof of mistreatment towards marginalized and minority communities fighting for equality and justice (Mike Brown, Deray McKesson, Alton Sterling, etc) then to imagine what kind of effect hearing that the men-in-blue meant to “serve and protect” are repeating an often-fatal stalking pattern trailing from the history of their federal ancestors is incomprehensible. When the advances in technology are incorporated from Rodney Barnette’s years to now, that chill transforms into ice.
How did it make you feel seeing proof that the people you knew were being followed? Or did they confide in you on how it made them feel to know they were being watched, and that it could potentially lead to this [points to the seemingly-endless wall of documents], if it doesn’t go the “right way?”
KS: Yeah, I feel like I’m concerned about it more than a lot of people these days. I feel like people are very cavalier about it. It’s sort of a baseline assumption for groups that parallel the Black Panthers in overtness, politics and visibility that those are the breaks [surveillance].
And with much visibility comes much deception in the case of activism. Dating back to the surveilling efforts coined COINTELPRO initiated by the FBI, the agency under J. Edgar Hoover’s reign sought to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organization and groupings…” On the portion of the Bureau’s website dedicated to COINTELPRO efforts, they list the Black Panther Party, alongside the Ku Klux Klan, which Eddie Conway would agree focuses solely on the self-defense component of the party inciting an image of violence and hatred. This sort of propaganda directed towards groups seeking to create equality for their communities, while forming their own necessary protection against the police, created fear not only in the remainder of the American people, but in law enforcement as well – and still continues on today.
We want to know when they’re undercover because we feel like there’s subversion that can occur. I mean like that last document [refers to exhibit] is talking about how they were concerned that this person was causing disruption. That’s what you worry about. When you have someone in the group that’s constantly derailing your conversations and inciting violence or being abusive in relationship with people. It’s like ‘this person can be a cop or instigating this intentionally.’ There have been times where I’ve shared videos of people who are protesting and chanting “F.T.P. (F*** The Police)” and then you’ll see them go over and shake hands with cops and clearly be relaying information. They’re more deep undercover. They’re the people who are probably writing things like this [points to one of the many documents from Barnette’s file; one of which labels Barnette a “Negro male” who has been “identified as a prominent member of the L.A. Black Panther Party and a participant in an abortive ambush attempt on patrol units of the LAPD”]. It’s not necessarily against the law unless they’re crossing one of these lines that are sort of set out where they create a dossier on an activist.
The fear of repeating an era of martyrs is the trepidation that holds the courage of activists and concerned citizens, hostage. Intimidation has been the key factor in the vehicle of the law in the case of a protesting America. Fred Hampton was preyed upon and murdered in the name of “liberty.” Assata Shakur suffered “legal lynching” in the name of “liberty.” And Angela Davis, similar to Shakur, was derived a portion of her life for a crime she was innocent of.
“There was one page of ostensible numbers of the Black Panther Party members that they were surveilling and two thirds of them were deceased,” he said. “Like that was just suspicious [Laughs]. You know, it’s like they were making a list of people and killing them.”
As Keegan searched for answers through me in an epidemic he battles with, I reflected and was exposed to the effect this entire ordeal had on me, and possibly others like me. There’s a grave chance that the threat of a halted or deceased life is a fear that is silently clawing and rumbling away in the back of the brains and pits of the stomachs of a host of other black and brown Americans. If so much of our present circumstances represent verbatim regurgitations of the past, why would any woke individual allow that doubt to flee from their minds?
It’s just scary to see the same pattern being repeated and to think that maybe one day, it could revitalize itself if it’s not controlled, if it’s not watched. So, thank you for controlling and watching it as much as you do.
KS: I do a little bit, yeah [Laughs]. It’s really a dogged fight. So, you’re an undergrad. Do you do any political organizing or related work?
No. I feel like I don’t have enough knowledge because everything you talked about today felt like a bombardment. I feel overwhelmed. As I researched and prepared to talk to you, I just… I have no words. I knew the extent of what’s going on, but for me, it was a wake-up call like, ‘Man, this is actually happening.’
KS: I mean, is that intimidating? Or do you have any propensity to get involved?
I want to, I just don’t know where to start. But, you could probably help with that.
KS: Come to People’s Monday. But, it’s interesting. Maybe it’s the people who end up being lifer-activists who just don’t give a f***. But from my perspective as lawyer, I really care about First Amendment protections and protecting activists and keeping them out of jail. Keeping them active is important in democracy. It isn’t a threat to me when the government is doing things that are clearly illegal and clearly have the intent of inciting this chilling effect of activists. This surveillance, possibly some of it is to try to prevent some crimes, but I think it’s largely to chill dissent. To stop people. You know, what did they think the Black Panthers would do? What do they think they wanted? They wanted better communities, they wanted free education, they wanted food.
“Just in general, and especially in this movement, I look to black leaders who are organizing, I take all of my cues from them… it’s my role to take all of my cues from them and to do as much of the leg work that I can since I’m a white ally.” – Keegan Stephan
Right and the one thing that scares me is, and I’m sorry I keep saying it, but history is just being repeated. My brain always darts to the worst case scenario. So all I’m seeing is that even though the Panthers and other activists were fighting for positive things—often things that they were marginally deprived of—they were still killing them. I don’t know, that’s all just alarming to me.
KS: Yeah, that’s what I was trying to figure out. Does it intimidate you from getting involved?
Kind of… but, it’s also partially due to my lack of expertise in the legal area. So, if I were to be in a situation where a police officer approached me and said, ‘Hey, what you’re doing is wrong.’ I would probably just say, ‘Okay.’ You know? Because I don’t really know these laws in their entirety.
KS: While I’m learning the law right now, I’m like, ‘Man, this should’ve been taught in grade school.’ Why don’t we get in-depth constitutional law in high school?
It’s ridiculous. We learn the same topics in the same subjects over and over again. We’re taught the same history topics in high school, that we learn in first grade.
KS: That’s my concern. Is that keeping people from getting involved? It’s this double-edged sword in fighting for disclosure. I want to know if the cops are breaking the law because I want to stop them from breaking the law. Ultimately, them violating the law is undercutting the point of the First Amendment, the point of activism, our ability to democratically change the system. But if I expose the fact that cops are still keeping dossiers on activists and trying us and watching us and possibly building criminal cases against us, when we’re not doing anything wrong, at the most extreme, killing people, is that feeding the system? Does our victory of disclosure make it more intimidating to get involved? If we hadn’t exposed that they’d been sending under-covers in and tracking us, maybe more people would be willing to get involved. So, that’s a hard road to walk. But, I also like fighting them so… [Laughs]
By the time the tables turned and Keegan began to take the role of the interviewer, I was inspired. Not to say that this is the only thing or the first thing to do so, but a necessary thing. Not solely because he was able to nonchalantly laugh (in a desperate manner due to the lack of a more appropriate form of communication) at issues he fought for alongside his NYC Shut It Down team, that were fearful to most, while simultaneously seeming to be beyond anyone’s capacity to handle. Partially because he’s one of the few white people I’ve come across in my limited lifetime who, without any indication of encouragement from my end, genuinely attested that it’s his role as a white ally to take all of his cues from the black organizers he works with. Mainly because he assisted in refining a hunger inside of me to educate myself on the things that scare me most.
Often, the importance of organization and abiding by the law while facing that same giant is overlooked in such momentous fights, especially at a nationally and internationally organized level. The larger the movement becomes, the more difficult it is to unify the purpose and demands. When you mix in the emotional damage of the issues, the law seems to flee the heads of oppressed individuals, while anger, frustration and feelings of being tired of being sick and tired make a home in their hearts, instead.
Keegan also noted, and knows more than me in his own respect, that this road is a hard road to walk, but concludes his fondness of fighting back overrules all. While honorable, he, nor John or Bonnie Raines, can never fully comprehend the truly ice-cold, intimidating effects law enforcement’s stalking tactics have on communities of color as I do, or as Sadie and Rodney Barnette are all-too-familiar with.
And that’s okay.
We all come from different walks of life because of the differences in balance between melanin and pheomelanin in our skin, but that hasn’t and won’t change our connections to the battle of a state of neutrality and justice.
History repeats itself. While the situations repeated aren’t okay, the new perspectives that are given life through old battles, are. The effect that Keegan’s perspective had on me—and I hope was translated well enough so that it does the same to you—is reminiscent of the sonic soul food stylings of Earth, Wind And Fire completed with a message from Fred Hampton: “Don’t hesitate because the world seems cold”… because “you can kill the revolutionary but you can never kill the revolution.”