The FBI vs. the People of Berkeley

November 4, 1980, 9:00 PM. Jimmy Carter had conceded the presidential election earlier that evening. Hundreds of people gathered at the Shattuck Avenue BART station in downtown Berkeley, CA. Most of them were angry and concerned. The man who had made their city the target of his wrath and the foil for his dreams of running the state of California was now slated to rule the United States. After a brief speech from a university student, the crowd moved into the streets shouting slogans against Ronald Reagan and his fascist entourage. As we walked through Berkeley’s neighborhoods, the crowd swelled to at least 2000 marchers. Drummers pounded out a beat; trumpeters played New Orleans funeral music; and the chanting grew louder and louder with each meter we traversed. Eventually we ended up in People’s Park, where Reagan’s forces had murdered a man and permanently injured several others. After a short speak out, an effigy of the new leader of the US was burned. We left with plans to meet up the next day on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.

The next day at noon an even larger crowd gathered on the plaza and listened to music and speeches against the Reagan future. Then, a few hundred of us walked past the UC police and into the campus administration building. We occupied the building until the police removed us. The Reagan years were upon the nation. Things would never be the same.

Reading Seth Rosenfeld’s book on the subversion of California’s civil rights and civil liberties it is hard to figure out why any US citizen except for those on the far right would consider Ronald Reagan to be a decent human being. I have searched for a word that describes my thoughts about him—thoughts that were reawakened reading this book. The only word I could come up with is a simple one. It leaves little room for misinterpretation and fits the man being named well. That word is “pig.”

Rosenfeld’s book, titled Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, is a detailed narrative relating the intense attention the law enforcement infrastructure in DC and Sacramento paid to the radical activity taking place in Berkeley, CA. during the 1960s and 1970s. Culled from FBI files reluctantly released under the Freedom of Information Act (after years of court wrangling between Rosenfeld and the agency), interviews, news articles and information from other police agencies, this text provides a revealing look at the nature of the forces arrayed against left-leaning movements for change in the United States. It is also a foray into the networks of informants, undercover operatives, and other individuals that help those police agencies subvert organizations devoted to such change.

The book reflects the paranoia of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, his reliance on rabid right wing anti-communists for information, and the consequent heightening of that paranoia. Rosenfeld details Ronald Reagan’s intimate relationship with the Bureau and the Bureau’s manipulation of the University’s Board of Regents and the Governor’s office in its determination to impose Hoover’s politics on the university. The uninitiated might be surprised at the intimacy between ultra-right individuals and the government of California. They might also be surprised at the way these individuals painted Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, as a co-conspirator with communists and anarchists in a concerted effort to destroy the university. They might be even more surprised to read that Reagan and the right-wingers he took advice from believed that this operation was directed by foreign powers in Moscow and Beijing. Yet, this was how the FBI functioned.

Since the publication of Subversives, there has been a fair amount of discussion about the book amongst individuals involved in antiwar and anti-racist activities in the 19609s and 1970s. Rosenfeld names various regents, educators and right-wing political operatives as informants on university faculty and staff. He also describes Ronald Reagan’s role as an informant to the FBI. One revelation, of a more questionable veracity, is Rosenfeld’s claim that Black Panther member Richard Aoki may have been an informant. Now, for anyone who worked with Aoki at any time during his political life, this information seems quite farfetched. Indeed, most folks who have spoken up since the book’s publication have stated quite clearly that this claim is just not true. Others have read not only the book, but the redacted files Rosenfeld used in the writing of the book. Let me quote from activist/musician and Aoki friend, Fred Ho, and his response to the Rosenfeld claim (published by the San Francisco BayView:

Here is where the timid scholars who’ve responded to Rosenfeld can’t engage: the political realm. I have argued before that should that informant be Richard Aoki, then his contributions to social change (elevating the ideological engagement of radicals, both then and to the end of his life; the leadership in establishing ethnic studies; his return to activism in the 1990s to fire a new generation of radicals; etc.) should be the primary evaluation to challenge and disavow these allegations. Richard Aoki did not service the U.S. Empire. He did not foment division, dissent, disruption and debilitation, but the opposite: he provided revolutionary leadership, inspiration, discipline, training and was exemplary.

The fact is Aoki was a Black Panther and a revolutionary before he was anything else. No amount of redacted files can change this. When I was researching my book The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, I remained overly skeptical of information I got from government intelligence files. My experience with the information in those files was that it more often than not was tailored to the politics and prejudices of whoever was providing it. Given the rabid racism, sexism and anticommunism of the FBI under Hoover, everything in their COINTELPRO files is suspect. Using them as one’s only source without verification from others is certain to lead to false conclusions. Naturally, I did not and neither does Rosenfeld.

Despite the apparent question around Aoki, the story Rosenfeld tells is remarkable in its detail and complexity. By localizing his efforts to the state of California and, specifically, the city of Berkeley, he has provided a telling tapestry of a movement to change a nation and the chilling efforts of that nation’s authorities to destroy that movement. Not only a good history, Subversives is also a useful textbook for today’s activists, especially when considering the police attacks on Occupy and other protests in the past months; the imprisonment of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest, and the FBI raids (and ongoing investigation) of antiwar activists across the nation in 2011.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.