Even during times of ‘normalcy’, or non-protest cycles, African descendants’ structural realities are constrained and shaped by oppressive targeting due to pervasive, institutionalized racism and capitalist exploitation. Repression against black people’s resistance activities historically has been especially heightened and involving a considerable amount of violence and public spectacle. For example, during enslavement those who escaped or rebelled were publicly whipped, beheaded in town squares, and subject to medieval torture devices. Prior to the Haitian Revolution, the most successful enslaved people’s rebellion, the French ‘breaking wheel’ was used to disembowel known maroon leaders. Co-conspirators in Denmark Vesey’s 1822 plot in South Carolina were publicly hanged; and members of the 1811 German Coast uprising in Louisiana were beheaded and had their heads put on spikes dotted along a major river. In each case, these measures were used to deter other rebels from taking their freedom into their own hands by standing up to societies that were founded on the assumption and structuration of black inferiority and subjugation.
Among others, scholars like Kelvin Santiago-Valles, William G. Martin, and Howard Winant have argued that black resistance struggles against enslavement helped to usher in democratic processes of the modern era. The overthrow and abolition of slavery in the Americas signaled an ending to widespread, state-sanctioned brute force to maintain a captive underclass mainly comprised of African descended people, and the beginning of hegemonic forms of dominance of European descendants over newly freed persons. There were, however, flares of racial violence in the United States that erupted at the turn of the 20th century as a form of social control over black bodies. Race riots and lynchings of activists, business owners, military veterans, sharecroppers, ministers, and ordinary citizens proliferated to prevent African American movements toward social, political, and economic advancement and to preserve Jim Crow segregation. The Equal Justice Initiative’s recent report on lynchings found that African American community leaders were most commonly targeted between 1915 and 1940, the interwar period that overlapped with important grassroots organizing efforts. Television played a significant role in exposing to the mainstream public the brutality used against Civil Rights protesters, which helped to validate the moral claims of the movement.
Contemporarily, repression has tended to take on more subversive dimensions, as in the case of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. After the first World War, the Great Migration of southern African-Americans and African-Caribbeans to northern U.S. cities helped usher in a new protest cycle that eventually culminated in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). Jamaican laborer Marcus Garvey emigrated to the U.S. in 1916, and within four years his organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) ballooned to a membership of nearly two million worldwide. The largest modern era mass movement of African descended people, the UNIA taught racial uplift and encouraged black people to only support black owned businesses. Further, Garvey’s political philosophy included economic investment in and physical returns to Africa to “redeem” the continent from European colonization and underdevelopment.
The UNIA is also noted for having been the target of one of the earliest examples of repression in the form of a counterintelligence program at the behest of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigations under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover viewed Garvey’s radical ideas and formation of the Black Star Line shipping company as a threat that could potentially agitate and mobilize the masses of U.S. African descendants. Some of the counterintelligence tactics undertaken by the FBI included accusations of fraud that eventually led to Garvey being deported from the U.S.
During the Civil Rights – Black Power era, similar COINTELPRO tactics were continued to be utilized to undermine and confuse leadership figures of both movements. Infiltration and misinformation were used against attempts to desegregate Mississippi schools, as depicted in the documentary Spies of Mississippi; and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself was under federal surveillance at the time he was murdered. The Black Panther Party was deeply infiltrated by FBI informants who spread misinformation, enflamed ideological differences, instigated physical conflicts, and even aided in the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton in Chicago.
What lessons can present-day activists take from these past examples of repression against black social movements? More specifically, how can activists anticipate and defend themselves against covert forms of repression, such as misinformation, infiltration, and sabotage, which seem to be an effective way authorities have sought to undermine black mobilizations? Today, forums that are designated as “safe” online spaces are trolled not only by those with white supremacist leanings, but by anonymous posters using “digital blackface” to delegitimize, dominate and/or redirect conversations dedicated to anti-racist dialogue and organizing. How might this be understood within the broader context of repression? One text of interest might be Christian Davenport’s (2015) How Social Movements Die, an important contribution to the study of social movement repression. Davenport focuses both on external factors as well as the interpersonal issues that lead to the dissolution of movements, specifically the Republic of New Afrika in Detroit, MI. His insights are helpful for understanding the covert repression enacted by the state against movement organizations of the Black Power era particularly and black nationalist movements more generally.