Reasons to Defund the FBI—That Have Nothing to Do with TrumpRoundup
tags: FBI, Donald Trump, policing, police abolition
Alex S. Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, and author of The End of Policing. Follow him on Twitter: @avitale.
This week the FBI took the unprecedented step of executing a search warrant on the Mar-a-Lago home of former President Donald Trump. No former president has ever been the subject of such an investigative practice. In response, chief Trump supporter and MAGA cheerleader Marjorie Taylor Greene expressed outrage at the FBI’s actions by tweeting, “DEFUND THE FBI!” Far right Rep. Paul Gosar hit similar notes, tweeting, “We must destroy the FBI. We must save America.” While this about-face on “Back the Blue” is an amusing example of the right-wing ideological confusion that ensues when lawmakers adhere to diehard Trump loyalism, we on the left should use this moment as an opportunity to explore a plan to actually do that. The FBI should indeed be defunded — though the reasons for that have nothing to do with the fact that the agency searched Donald Trump’s home.
The January 6 attack on the Capitol showed us the deep fissures in the Back the Blue concept trotted out by the right in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of recent years. While conservatives claim to support the police, they do so on a very narrow basis. Police authority is desirable to them only as long as it is solely directed at what they perceive to be suspect classes, including poor people, BIPOC communities, trans people, immigrants, anti-fascists, sex workers, and other marginalized groups. Built into right-wing support for the police is an understanding — grounded in history — that police authority should not be exercised against the powerful classes, including the wealthy, the politically dominant — and white nationalists. This understanding is why many on the right do not view images of “Back the Blue” proponents beating Capitol police with their Trump flags as hypocritical.
This seeming contradiction helps us get to a deeper truth about the nature of police power. The FBI in particular, and the police in general, were not created to provide justice. Instead, the history of the FBI is one of repressing movements for liberation and carrying out wars on marginalized communities in the guise of wars on drugs, crime, terrorism, gangs and communism, among other phenomena determined by the state to be threats. The FBI’s long-running stretches of state-sanctioned violence have served to criminalize those that challenge the status quo, either through organized resistance or through survival strategies that interfere with capitalist notions of protecting the private property and individual autonomy of the rich and powerful.
The precursor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation, was created in 1908 in large part to investigate political threats to the power of the robber barons. These threats included striking workers, anarchists and communists. Driven initially by fears of communist revolution following the Russian Revolution and then the massive strikes and labor militancy of the 1930s, the Bureau of Investigation became the primary federal tool for surveilling and subverting left organizing. It was taken over by J. Edgar Hoover in 1924 and transformed into the FBI in 1934, when it became a massive domestic intelligence-gathering operation with files on millions of Americans including politicians, celebrities, labor leaders, journalists, religious figures, and anyone suspected of subversive leanings, many of whom were people of color, Jews, and other members of historically oppressed communities. Tim Weiner, in his book, Enemies: A History of the FBI, meticulously documents the political origins of the FBI and its dirty tricks.
In the 1960s, Hoover identified a new subversive threat: the civil rights movement. The Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), was an FBI-created program that spied on and undermined both socialist leaders and civil rights movement leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., and helped coordinate local attacks on the Black Panthers, the Socialist Workers Party, and many other groups. FBI agents attended activist groups’ meetings, openly photographed license plates of attendees, wiretapped phones, sent fake correspondences, and used informants to plant false rumors about marital infidelities and police cooperation to sow fear and dissension. The FBI was directly involved with local officials in Chicago who conspired to assassinate Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
The FBI has long been a tool of political subversion used to suppress threats to the status quo. But, in contrast to the claims of Trump loyalists, the focus of the FBI’s attacks has rarely been the right-wing extremists that now dominate much of the Republican Party. In his book Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide, former FBI agent Michael German points out how federal law enforcement has largely ignored or excused right-wing violence, leaving a focus on Muslim immigrants, environmental activists and the Movement for Black Lives, among other marginalized groups.
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