Newark under Surveillance: Highlights of the COINTELPRO files, and Confessions of an Undercover Cop (1988)

It’s a good time to think about surveillance and its history. We have a nakedly racist administration escalating and further militarizing the already cruel and counterproductive monitoring, harassment, and deportation of Latino/a people. Meanwhile, in the fraudulent name of national security, they’re trying to bar people (read: Muslims) from seven nations responsible for zero acts of domestic terrorism, as part of their New Crusades Theater-spectacular. One of the first things the Trump administration did was to round up data on which federal scientists were doing their fricking jobs by tracking climate change, and if native-born white U.S. citizens somehow still think they’re exempt from all of this, oh hey, they’re also checking IDs at exits from domestic flights.

None of this is normal, that can’t be emphasized enough. But neither is it a radical break from the grotesque U.S. history of internal domestic surveillance of radicals, people of color, queer people, etc. During the Obama years, the NYPD shamefully spied on the Rutgers Muslim Student Association, and as recently as last month continued to refuse to confirm or deny its possession of surveillance records. And don’t get me started on the PATRIOT Act and its travesties.

Congressional Democrats aren’t going to save us—the very day I’m writing this, eleven of them voted to confirm scumsucking racist mouthbreather Rick Perry to head a department he literally did not remember existed in the recent past, just the latest capitulation in a shameful month-and-a-half descent into Trumpism. The only hope for American democracy to survive this onslaught comes from two sources, in my estimation: first, the resistance that has galvanized millions of Americans to put their bodies on the line in streets, airports, town hall meetings, and elsewhere; there are more of us than there are of these jackbooted fascists, and if we can stay focused, angry, and active, we have at least a chance.


Newark Liberty International Airport, 28 January 2017

Our second—and maybe more powerful—hope is the sheer ineptitude of the national security state. Nearly all of Trump’s appointments veer toward utter slack-jawed stupidity, Perry’s not alone: Ben Carson and his mushmouthed ramblings, Betsy DeVos and her delusions that HBCUs grew out of a “choice” in Jim Crow America, and most tellingly Michael Flynn, before he was deposed by his lying: the very man who was supposed to head the NSA tweeted fake news because he couldn’t tell the difference. And then there’s Steve Bannon, a man so desperate to be perceived as an evil genius that he misuses the term “deconstruction” (not synonymous with destruction, which is what he seems to intend for the administrative state) because it sounds like . . . wait, those smarty-pants professors that I thought we were supposed to hate, and whose earlier career as a director of dud rightwing documentaries was so pathetic that a recent Film Comment podcast compared it unfavorably to the cinematic works of Alex Jones and Dinesh D’Souza. I apologize for so many italics here, but just let that sink in, seriously. I actually saw his Sarah Palin movie, and while it made me fear his ability to pander to racist, nationalist chestbeating, I did not walk away awed by his intellect, to say the least.

All of which leads back to COINTELPRO. I don’t need to rehash the whole story, but the fact that COINTELPRO did immense—and immoral and criminal—damage to the Black Panther Party and other radical groups does not mean it was not governed by an abject stupidity that prevented it from doing even more harm (the failed 1964 letter encouraging Martin Luther King, Jr. to commit suicide was one of the single most shameful moments in the FBI’s history, which is saying something–but also just pathetic).

COINTELPRO’s files are available, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (which Trump hasn’t yet seen fit to revoke through unconstitutional executive order). But because they’re scanned on what appear to be fax machines from 1986, they’re not internally searchable (OCR: clearly a liberal conspiracy). So if you wanted to track COINTELPRO activity in Newark, it certainly shows up in the “Black Extremist” files—to J. Edgar Hoover, any black person who thought unrelenting police brutality was kinda/maybe/sorta not totally great was, by definition, a Black Extremist—but you have to wade through 23 separate lengthy pdfs in search of it (you can also do a word-search in the Freedom Archives’ digital version of Ward Churchill’s and Jim Vander Wall’s The COINTELPRO Papers, probably the most extensive case study, and get the basics).

More palatable for a local case study, then, are the New Left files, broken down by city. Hoover hated longhaired lefties almost as much as he hated black people, and so the list of cities surveilled is extensive. Newark’s file is a modest 107 pages, and as good a place as any to show the Security State Follies of some deeply unhip feds trying to outwit a bunch of hippies who, even at their most stoned-and-sloganeering, ran circles around these buffoons. It is enough, or nearly so, to give us some glimmer of hope (one imagines a young Jeff Sessions pretttty sure that’s some wacky-tobaccy they’re smokin’ out there at the Dead show).

The Newark FBI office got its COINTELPRO marching orders to disrupt the New Left in May 1968, and took up the challenge:

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You’d think ridiculing people in sandals and beads would be easy, but right away they showed how square they were, coming up with a plan to make Tom Hayden look like a “fink.” As HQ replied, um, guys, Hayden has left the building:

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What that left to do was apparently some true thumb-twiddling. They undertook intense investigative research, like . . . getting a headcount on Rutgers-Newark Students for a Democratic Society members by reading the student newspaper.

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And then mailing out copies of the Weatherman manifesto because . . . because . . . um, I’m grasping here, but note the waste of resources that went into disguising the origins of sent copies of something that was already available in the public domain:

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At Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, there was no active SDS chapter, but one protest by a whopping ten students sent the COINTELPRO goons into overdrive, assiduously doing another anonymous mailing, to the university’s president, who was presumably deeply impressed by a reprinted article with red ink scrawled across it. It probably reached him right in time, just before he invited Bernardine Dohrn to campus to teach Bombmaking 101, too!

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The Newark FBI office monitored Princeton and Rutgers-New Brunswick too, among other places, but their single most awesomely boneheaded scheme went down in the very building where I work, Conklin Hall at Rutgers-Newark, site of the shocking consumption of the “extremely obscene” underground paper Screw by those durn hippies again—“filth that could only originate in a depraved mind,” declared the goons, ironically enough agreeing completely with Al Goldstein’s own self-asessment.

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This time, a fake letter to a state senator from an imaginary Rutgers student was the brilliant solution. It’s really a high point of anti-countercultural uptightness:

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I’m not sure how any of this turned out, but a 1969 admission of “no known tangible results” gives a hint.

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Obviously, it wasn’t all doofy lulz at Newark COINTELPRO. Personal attacks were part and parcel of the Hoover style, and some ugly gay-baiting was a defining feature of these scurrilous character assassinations. The bisexually active Dave Dellinger made for one target, when his 1949 subway station men’s room arrest was dredged up, in a memo written by an agent whose favorite prose stylist was apparently Spiro Agnew (note that alliteration, oof):

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According to scholar Jared Leighton in a just-published and quite interesting article, “’Character Assassins’: How the FBI Used the Issue of Homosexuality against the Black Freedom Struggle,” (Journal of Civil and Human Rights, 2.2, 2016), COINTELPRO stepped up its antigay “poison pen” letters after the 1967 urban unrest. As late as 1966, the FBI couldn’t even tell for sure whether James Baldwin was gay, but it shortly deployed homophobia as a weapon in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Winston-Salem, and elsewhere. According to Leighton, no Black Power activist became a more recurring target than Huey Newton, who threatened the white supremacist status quo to its core.

But while the ugliness of COINTELPRO tactics escalated, the competence did not; in Newark, witness the failed creation of “Huey the Homo.”

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Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this withering assault on Newton’s very masculinity was tempered by the fact that . . . by late 1970, there wasn’t really an active Newark SDS, so the pretense was a little thin. Oops.

And with that, Newark’s New Left COINTELPRO operation faded into deserved oblivion, a prime example of useless and incompetent state surveillance that accomplished nothing.

Various other forms of spying persisted, of course, but since this is ostensibly a blog about films shot in Newark, let me turn attention to a later episode that became fodder for a 1988 HBO documentary, Confessions of an Undercover Cop, which has the distinction of being a shoddily made film about a pathetic police operation, in which the viewer is forced to make hard calls about which is worse.

Confessions follows Mike Russell, former New Jersey state trooper (or maybe not!), who infiltrates the Newark mafia in the mid-80s. The film’s central conceit is its hidden-camera footage, which might sound revealing and exciting, until you see it. Basically, this is a film of paunchy middle-aged white men dawdling around pizzerias, shot from a distance. Russell’s narration viscerally enlivens things, with such commentary as “he’s walking to the car . . . he’ll probably go to the phone, yep, he’s going to the phone,” redolent of one of those William Friedkin DVD commentary tracks where he misses the point and explains to us that Linda Blair’s head is now spinning or Gene Hackman is running after a drug dealer. We begin to see why Hollywood gangster movies might cast people who look like actors, since the verite approach gives us…

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Russell makes a poor narrator/hero. Confessions opens with him describing “my workboots, which are only dirty from walking the streets of Newark,” so we know he’s got a melodramatic flair, only without the flair. He recounts how he got in with the mob, after witnessing a minor fender-bender involving one white guy and two black guys—“I evened up the odds…I smacked one of the guys, knocked him on his ass,” as we think, wait, you’re bragging about what sounds like straightforward racist violence? (to be fair, probably a good way to ingratiate oneself with white Newark mafia dudes, but still).

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Russell wound up hanging out at Jed’s Luncheonette, running errands and performing favors like dumping some spare toxic waste (!!). His guided tours of North Newark—“Newark’s Little Italy,” he explains—offer some of the doc’s few virtues in their scenery, though his overwrought narration (undercut by his frequent references to “the bad guys,” more Boy Scout than Wiseguy) makes it sound like every storefront in the vicinity is a mafia front. It’s true to some extent—Premium Petroleum, where a big bust goes down, really is a casino front—but in his painful attempts to seem hardboiled, it all comes across as clownish exaggeration. A landscape of White Heat-style shootouts, this just ain’t:

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When the big bust finally happens, it all just feels pretty threadbare. These guys aren’t John Gambino, they seem more like small-stakes numbers runners, though Russell appears to consider himself a cross between Ronald Reagan and Rambo (seen in a poster on his wall).

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Russell narrating their narrating perp walk in a video editing booth is not exactly Godard in his mid-period reflexive works (“there’s Andy… he don’t look too happy.”). And then it’s over.

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Confessions of an Undercover Cop failed to wow the critics (here’s the L.A. Times shrugging in bemusement), and sunk into its own oblivion—I could only find it spread across four parts on YouTube, with the fourth randomly switching to a TV screen shot by an iPhone or something (complete with reflected ceiling fan spinning in the image).

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So, again, the spies and goons of America, from the FBI down to wannabe New Jersey undercover cops, ultimately ain’t that daunting. We live in bleak times, and we need to resist the racist deportations that an increasingly unaccountable ICE is undertaking, the shocking demands for ID at exits of even domestic flights, and the pathological obsession with where, when, and how trans people are performing basic human bodily functions. The people running these travesties, though, are not invincible, and they’re certainly not brilliant. They can be defeated, and they will be, if we continue resisting. That’s one lesson from Newark’s COINTELPRO files and Confessions of an Undercover Cop.

Per my Blogging against Trump policy, with this post I’m donating to the ACLU. You should too, if you care about your freedom.

And I gotta be honest, if my family had HBO at the time, I’d have rather watched Masquerade. That movie was hot.




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