Law Enforcement Has Long Practiced Double Standards for ActivistsRoundup
tags: Red Scare, racism, African American history, civil liberties, Police, Protest, anticommunism, Law Enforcement
Denise Lynn is author of Where is Juliet Stuart Poyntz? Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021). She is professor of history and director of gender and Africana studies at the University of Southern Indiana.
On Oct. 31, The Washington Post released a report detailing the many federal intelligence and law enforcement failures leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. It revealed that despite being alerted by social media companies and FBI informants of the potential for violence, several agencies did not take the warnings seriously or, in the case of the military, feared that the appearance of soldiers using force would be bad optics. The FBI decided that social media proclamations about bringing weapons to the capital and threats made to lawmakers were all protected First Amendment speech — a markedly different approach from how the FBI and law enforcement have treated Black Lives Matter protesters.
And that is not surprising. When it comes to issues of racial equality, the FBI has regularly violated activists’ First Amendment rights through surveillance, disruption and a variety of punitive measures.
During the Cold War, criticism of U.S. containment policy and advocacy for peace were dismissed as un-American and criminalized. In particular, advocates for racial equality were surveilled, harassed, arrested, detained, deported and condemned as treasonous.
Consider, for example, the case of communist and activist Claudia Jones and her friends Shirley Graham Du Bois and W.E.B. Du Bois — all vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy, which they argued amounted to neocolonial interventions in newly liberated countries. The FBI started its surveillance of Jones in 1942, even while the United States was at war and allied with the Soviet Union. That same year, it opened its file on the well-known professor and writer W.E.B. Du Bois. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI sought to maintain the racial status quo, thus civil rights demands were akin to subversion.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later President Harry S. Truman expanded the bureau’s investigative powers for fear that American communists might be passing information to the Soviets. Hoover took the opportunity to further his own authority by authorizing his agents to break into suspects’ homes, bug phones and open mail.
As legal justification, the bureau used the Smith Act — a 1940 law that criminalized disloyalty and the distribution of seditious printed material — to limit the free-speech rights of radical activists. But this continued well after the war came to an end. As policymakers pursued anti-communism, even more activists came under surveillance as the bureau continued to equate growing civil rights demands with communism.