“We Just Want to Talk” COINTEL in New Orleans: Then and Now

Today, efforts to undermine New Orleans’ leftist movements don’t seem to have ended, only to have changed shape.

The names of recent arrestees have been changed, and only “they/them” pronouns are used to protect the arrestees from retaliation.

In 1972, a young radical Marxist named Harry “Gi” Schafer staged a demonstration at the University of New Orleans, demanding that their Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter be officially chartered. Schafer climbed up on a bench, lecturing the 200 students and faculty in attendance. When the school’s dean arrived, Schafer ripped papers from the dean’s hands, called him a pig, attempted to out-shout him, and was eventually arrested alongside two others.

The next day, on a judge’s order, SDS was banned from demonstrating without permission on campus. A few months later, courts banned SDS from campus entirely. No student would join the local chapter of SDS—then the nation’s leading leftist student organization—while he was leader. SDS would never become a chartered organization at UNO, and a powerful leftist movement would not develop on campus. It was a terrible blow to organizers at the university, but it was not a miscalculation by Schafer.

Schafer was a paid FBI informant. For years he, along with his wife, Jill, spied on and undermined burgeoning leftist movements in New Orleans, well after the official termination of COINTELPRO.

The COINTELPRO program was (is) a series of covert and illegal operations meant to surveil, infiltrate, and destroy legitimate leftist organizations, from the Black Panthers to the anti-Vietnam War movement to the civil rights movement to the American Indian Movement. COINTELPRO also financed and armed right-wing paramilitary organizations. At one point, paid FBI informants made up as much as one fifth of the KKK’s total membership, all while claiming they were powerless to curtail the group. They harassed, tapped, falsely imprisoned, and assassinated actors seeking justice and those organizing the poor.

When a group of activists burgled an FBI field office in 1971 and then publicized stolen documents proving the existence of COINTELPRO, then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover pledged to discontinue the program. But in Hoover’s memo announcing the program’s end to all special agents in charge, he noted that “future COINTELPRO actions will be considered on a highly selective, individual basis with tight procedures to insure [sic] absolute security.”

So did New Orleans make Hoover’s “highly selective” cut for spots to continue COINTELPRO operations? Today, efforts to undermine New Orleans’ leftist movements don’t seem to have ended, only to have changed shape.

Protesters ascend the Crescent City Connection on June 3 (photo by Angela Calonder)

During the first week of June this summer, New Orleanians were among those across the country who filled the streets in an uprising against the racist, murderous brutality of American police. The first day, protesters filled Duncan Plaza in front of city hall and marched to the district court. On the second day, in larger numbers, the crowd surged up the onramp and onto I-10 where police, in a rhetorical gesture, “took a knee” while dressed in riot gear.

On the third day, the crowd—larger still again—mounted the interstate and walked to the Crescent City Connection, where they sought to cross the river to express solidarity with Jefferson Parish, where the brutality against and murder of several Black men (Daviri Robertson, Modesto Reyes, Keeven Robinson, Leo Brooks, Armond Brown, Eric Harris, and others) by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has gone largely unaddressed.

Rather than escorting the protest across the bridge, the NOPD used a chemical weapon—atop an elevated bridge during a respiratory virus pandemic—and shot rubber bullets and projectiles into the peaceful crowd. Many protesters, choking on tear gas, retreated and began to file down the ramp and off the bridge.

Around this time, two organizers we’ll refer to as “Chris” and “Jane” were moving toward the front line of the protest. Chris and Jane are organizers with Southern Solidarity, an anti-imperialist grassroots group that fights for Black liberation and housing justice. The policy of the group around protests is one of support: Chris and Jane, as white allies, would remain at the front as long as Black protesters wished to hold the line. The idea was to reduce the chance that a Black protester would be left alone and vulnerable in front of the police after crowds thinned and reporters left, which is when police are more likely to drop the façade of comradeship and get back to brutalizing.

A few minutes after much of the crowd had retreated, police lowered their riot shields, indicating they intended to push forward. At this point police, some on horseback, outnumbered protesters. The protesters who remained at the front linked arms in order to stay in place and protect one another. Police pushed forward aggressively, shoving the protesters back, and one by one, snatched five protesters, dragging each of us across police lines and arresting us.

Chris was zip-tied tightly enough that it was painful and that the attending officer later struggled to cut the ties off. Jane still has scars on their knees from being aggressively wrestled to the ground. A third arrestee, cuffed in the back of a cop car, still had in their pocket the projectile they’d been shot with, which they would later use to help prove NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson was lying about police use of force.

Interestingly—mysteriously!—the next day, false reports came out from WDSU and other outlets. We, the arrestees, were framed as outsiders; two were reported as being in their early 20s instead of early 30s; one was portrayed as male instead of female. In effect, the disinformation made us fit the narrative of young male “outside agitators.” In reality, we all live and work in New Orleans, and only one of us is a man.

We were released the next morning after spending the night in holding, charged with “crossing or traversing a police cordon.” A few days later, the FBI came.

The FBI agents arrived in a very clean, very large black pickup truck. They parked across the street and waited while Chris took out the trash.

Two agents in plainclothes flagged Chris down as they were about to step back inside their house. One of the men carried a manila folder with Jane’s name on it in black Sharpie. Jane has had no previous encounters with law enforcement, so what, if anything, could be in that folder is a mystery. The shorter one did most of the talking.

“Good morning,” he said. “Is Jane home?”

Chris told him they weren’t available and asked who the men were. They identified themselves as FBI agents. The shorter agent then apparently presumed that Chris was lying and assured Chris that he just wanted to talk to Jane, not arrest them. Chris repeated that they were unavailable.

“Oh, so you’re Jane,” the shorter one said.

Chris repeated that they were not Jane, and asked why the agents had come. The agents turned hostile.

“Nope,” said the shorter one, turning back to the truck. “If you’re not cooperating with us, we’re not cooperating with you.”

The FBI agents visited each arrested protester in turn. At another arrestee’s house, the agents tried to convince an arrestee to let them into their yard so they could talk. When the arrestee refused, pointing out that they were able to talk just fine through the fence, the agents again left in a huff, warning over their shoulder: “Good luck flying!” This seemed like an implicit threat that we would be placed on a “no-fly list,” a purely punitive measure and—so far—an apparently empty threat.

At the house of the fourth arrestee, “Charlie,” the FBI knocked very loudly and asked to speak to them. When Charlie’s roommates said they weren’t home, the agents tried the same tactic, presumably trying to scare the roommate into giving more information by implicating and thereby intimidating them: “Oh,” one agent said, “So you’re Charlie.”

The FBI (as our lawyers later affirmed) had come to look into affiliations with “antifa.” In fact, just two days before our arrests, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices of Louisiana announced that they would be working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) to “identify criminal organizers” and that federal resources would be directed at “apprehending and charging the violent radical agitators who have taken over peaceful protests and are engaging in violations of federal law.”

New Orleans, then, turned out to be one of several places where the FBI has harassed protesters, organizers, and everyday citizens in connection to the antifa boogeyman: questioning protesters in NYC, arresting a Black organizer over a Facebook post, and offering a man in Charlotte the chance to be an FBI informant after he tweeted “Hi, I am the leader of Charlotte, NC Antifa” at the FBI’s Twitter account.

This is, on its face, ridiculous. Antifa is a loose anti-fascist ideology (or a tactic) instead of an actual organized entity. Yet as recently as September, the the Director of the FBI was insisting during a hearing that antifa (as an organized syndicate of some kind) are “a real thing,” adding that the FBI are currently conducting “quite a number of properly predicated domestic terrorism investigations into violent anarchist extremists, any number of whom self-identify with the antifa movement.”

In effect, the establishment is engaging in psychological and political warfare. The FBI is being used—here in New Orleans!—as a blunt politicized instrument to thought-police dissidents. The “good luck flying!” comment seems to indicate that people expressing their protected right to protest against state brutality and express political objections may be subject to intimidation or even punishment, possibly without due process, like domestic terrorists. The FBI conjures up  the menace of “antifa”: an imaginary, violent, subversive entity now used as a scare tactic in much the same way “commie” was used in previous generations. That apparition serves to distort the work of legitimate antifascist grassroots organizations and individuals.

The FBI sows terror in the public with their stories of violent anarchist extremists and outside agitators. They sow terror among organizers and protesters by demonstrating that they can pursue charges based on invented spectres. They use this terror and intimidation to coerce the civilian population, all in furtherance of the FBI’s political objectives.

If only there were a word for a group that uses terror in this way!

Part of what makes the FBI’s intimidation of New Orleans protesters so disturbing is that New Orleans is, though beloved in the cultural consciousness, not a high profile hub of political action. We’re a relatively small city, and while the protests were powerful, they were tame in comparison to those in, say, Atlanta or Philadelphia or Portland or Minneapolis. The FBI’s JTTF showed up all the same, and while they may not have made arrests at the time, the effect they had—instilling paranoia and anxiety in organizers, deterring organizers who may have otherwise been keen to conduct protests or direct action—was concrete and damaging.

“It was part of the purpose of the… administration and the FBI to make illegitimate in people’s minds what is really legitimate political opposition.” This describes the strategy of the FBI and administration today, but these are the words of UNO History Professor Joseph Logsdon in 1975, speaking to the UNO student paper Driftwood about COINTELPRO and undercover FBI operative Schafer, one of his former students.

Schafer and his wife, Jill, are just one part of the history of the FBI’s strategies of entrapment, intimidation, and sabotage in New Orleans. In the late 1960s, UNO, with 9,000 students, was host to some nonviolent demonstrations, but was in no way radical. But during the 1975 Church Committee, a Senate select committee which investigated abuses by the CIA, NSA, and FBI, Senator Mondale observed that apparently “no meeting was too small, no group too insignificant to escape their attention. It did not seem to matter whether the politics of these Americans were legal or radical or whether the participants were well known or obscure.” Senator Mondale also noted that there was “an underworld within the FBI” which “took justice into its own hands by seeking to punish those with unpopular ideas.” As part of this extrajudicial underworld strategy, Schafer had been planted as an informant.

Schafer warned the FBI of planned actions. He sowed division amongst leftist groups. He took bizarre and aggressive stances to scare off new members and discredit the movement. Perhaps most insidiously, he derailed the creation of a campus SDS chapter. The SDS differed from the other on-campus movements because the SDS did “not think that reform as such is possible” and instead sought radical solutions. Schafer would go on to do sabotaging work at the occupation of Wounded Knee, undermining the American Indian Movement by diverting supplies that he, as a licensed pilot, had pledged to drop down by parachute to help those under siege.

The Schafers posed as Marxist radicals for years while receiving financial compensation for their spy work. Jill Schafer delivered membership lists to the FBI. Another informant in Tampa later recalled their work inventing the “Red Collective,” one of several bogus political groups created by police and FBI agents. Jill passed as a radical so effectively that she was invited to China, where she met with the Premier and smuggled notes back for the FBI in her suitcase, notes spoken into a tape recorder in her hotel room with the bath running to cover her voice. Meanwhile, as later reported in the New Orleans States-Item, Harry Schafer approached students at a Loyola antiwar meeting saying that he knew how to make explosives, and “wasn’t it wonderful that we were situated in Southeast Louisiana where there were oil wells that could be blown up.”

This attempt at entrapment might ring a bell for those familiar with the story of Brandon Darby. A megalomaniacal so-called anarchist turned agent provocateur, Darby arrived in New Orleans post-Katrina alongside his longtime ally and defender scott crow and worked at the helm of the Common Ground Collective in conjunction with former Black Panther Malik Rahim. Both Darby and crow engaged in what scholar Rachel Luft, writing about post-Katrina New Orleans, terms “disaster masculinity,” wherein the sexism of white men engaged in disaster response furthers racism and the criminalization of the surrounding Black community, perpetrating the exploitation that these outsiders claim they’ve come to end. Darby, long an authoritarian and domineering presence, and facing accusations of sexual assault against female co-organizers, at some point became an active collaborator with the FBI. At the 2008 Republican National Convention (held in St. Paul, Minnesota), Darby convinced two other young men to create molotov cocktails for use at the protests. The men made them, but quickly decided not to use them. They told this to Darby and made plans to go home. The next morning, before their outgoing flights, they were arrested in a raid. One was sentenced to two years, the other to four. Darby testified against them. He is currently a blogger for Breitbart.

Government agencies’ use of intimidation and entrapment in New Orleans to derail leftist movements also includes a more disturbing history of direct violence, torture, and murder. In late 1972, two years after the killing of white student protesters at Kent State, sheriff’s deputies in Baton Rouge, who had been sent in to quash demonstrations, allegedly murdered two 20-year-old Black students at Southern University, then the largest HBCU in the country. During an otherwise nonviolent protest, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith were fatally shot. No one has ever been charged for their deaths, but a state-appointed commission linked the murders to law enforcement.

The next year, three Black Panther Party members were arrested in an FBI dragnet. During interrogation, when the Panther members would not confess to a murder they hadn’t committed, two policemen working with the FBI left the room and the men were then tortured by NOPD officers for days using cattle prods and electrodes. As recently as 2003, those same two investigators, Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz, were deputized by the feds and were investigating the Panthers alongside the FBI.

The brutalization of Black people in the United States at the hands of local police, under either explicit or implicit mandate by the feds, continues to this day. The racism at the core of our institutions makes protest movements like this year’s uprisings necessary. When comparing the FBI playbook of the 1970s with the latest tactics revealed in BlueLeaks (which, for example, describe white nationalists as “anti-antifa” rather than as neo-Nazis), we see how little has changed.

Today, the FBI bundles nonviolent grassroots organizations and white-supremacist groups all under the umbrella of domestic terrorism. “Black Identity Extremists,” as the FBI calls Black activists, are now surveilled along with white supremacist groups under the umbrella term “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.”

There are, of course, significant differences between the activities of progressive activists (Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights orgs, environmentalists, etc.) and the activities of white supremacist groups (Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, etc). The former are involved in activities that range from community support to property destruction, overwhelmingly nonviolent acts of civil care and civil disobedience, while the other is statistically more likely to be dangerous to human life.

The same thing has been happening in the U.S. since Reconstruction: the state expends energy on surveilling left-wing organizing and turns a blind eye to—or actively participates in—white-supremacist violence.

The propaganda, the FBI’s intimidation of protesters—including little nobody protesters in a small city—and the huge financial resources allocated to the police are all part of a cohesive strategy in the U.S. of maintaining white supremacist power.

We’ve shared this story to disrupt that strategy. We reached out to some of the other arrestees from this summer to hear if they’d been questioned by the FBI, but they were understandably reticent. Still, we want to expose these operations to air. Transparency is its own benefit. The exposure of COINTELPRO and subsequent Church Committee investigations arguably set the precedent that intelligence agencies are also beholden to law. That isn’t justice, but it’s some measure of protection for the public.

If this happened to you—if you feel safe enough—talk about it. If this happens to you in the future: do not talk to the agents. Do not let them inside without a warrant. Just because they say you aren’t part of an investigation, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Get a lawyer, and if possible, get the agent’s business card. For more thorough information on your rights and best practices, you can check out “If An Agent Knocks” created by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The FBI benefits from our silence, and they seek to leverage our fear, as they have been doing for decades. They never stopped. They’re doing it here. They’re doing it now.

Documents featured here can be found at vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro.

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