Our Own COINTELPRO: The Black Britons under surveillance by the Black Power Desk

The Black Power Symbol (P.C. Wikimedia)

On the 8th of March 1971, a small group from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI – an American political organisation – raided the FBI’s office in Media, Pennsylvania. During the raid, they burgled over 1,000 documents about Operation COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was a series of illegal and covert projects conducted by the FBI against American citizens after 1955, on the grounds that those civilians were seen as “politically subversive”.

The American state’s fight against “political subversiveness” is well known, yet its British counterpart, now known as the Black Power Desk of the 1960s and 70s, has little notoriety. Founded in 1967 by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, its composition and formation are still debated. On the one hand, some historians have suggested that the Desk was part of MI5. On the other hand, however, the more popular – yet hardly uncontested view – is that the Desk was part of the former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit, Special Branch. The Desk’s recent discovery in the 2010s by Robin Bunce and Paul Field, and via the Special Branch Files Project led by Eveline Lubbers, has enabled us to finally see some of the Black Power Desk’s intel, operations and implications. 

The most extensive information currently available about those under surveillance by the Desk pertains to people identified as prominent members of the British Black Panthers (BBPM) and the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS). Trinidadian-born Michael de Freitas, known under the aliases Michael Abdul Malik and “Michael X”, is the most frequently mentioned Black Power activist. Abdul Malik’s foundation of the RAAS in 1967 and his North-London-based community centre Black House, made him a key person of interest because of his status as the first non-white person to be charged under the Race Relations Act of 1965 in November 1967. 

Indeed, Abdul Malik’s charge and his supposed tendency for criminality underpin the Desk’s surveillance reports. This characterisation of a British Black Power leader as criminal, orator of hatred towards the white British population and insurgent against the state, embodied the general pattern of reports by the Desk. In December 1968, Obi Egbuna, a co-founder of the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UPCA) and later a member of the BBPM, was arrested and tried alongside fellow members Peter Martin and Gideon Dolo for threatening to murder a police officer. According to reports collated by the Special Branch from their surveillance of the BBPM, informants acquired ‘reliable information’ about plans to destroy police boxes and government buildings in conjunction with the Branch supposedly finding evidence of formulas for explosives written by the BBPM. Of course, the group rebuked these claims, and historians have questioned the “reliability” of such intelligence since the arrest came shortly after Egbuna’s speech on resisting police brutality and injustice that same year. Yet, it is clear that the themes underpinning reports into Malik were along very similar lines to the report into Egbuna.

Finally, the protest on the 9th of August 1970 in support of the Mangrove Restaurant and the emergence of the Mangrove Nine were intricately documented by the Metropolitan Police and sent to the Desk. Three of the nine: Barbara Beese, Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-LeCointe, were leading figures in the Black Power movement and BBPM. Likewise, they had the most detailed and least redacted surveillance files relating to their involvement in the movement, the protest, and personal relationships, including mention of Beese’s absent father. The fact that the three most investigated individuals were three leaders of the Black Power movement cannot be ignored, as it suggests surveillance into them predated the Mangrove Nine and instead was part of the Black Power Desk’s investigation into supposed “subversion”.

It is unlikely the arguments will ever be conclusively proved, as we will likely never know the full extent of the Black Power Desk and its activities. Compared to what we know about COINTELPRO and its campaigns against civil rights groups and the Black Power movement, our knowledge of the full extent of the Black Power Desk’s activities is minute. The struggle Lubbers and her team initially endured gaining access to documents relevant to the Desk and Special Branch reveals the British Government’s reluctance to allow anyone to view them. Additionally, the legacy of the Black Power Desk appears to have outlived its dissolution. According to whistle-blower and former Special Demonstration Squad officer Peter Francis, covert surveillance was in place for the Stephen Lawrence justice campaign during the 1990s. Therefore, it is likely the Black Power Desk engaged in far more surveillance than we know of, yet the likelihood of this being revealed any time soon is minimal.

Stephanie Ormond, Summer Writer

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