Throughout its history, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has viewed Black activism as a potential national security threat. It has used its ample investigative powers not to suppress violence, but to inhibit the speech and association rights of Black activists. And its reaction to the protests following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd shows little has changed.
In October 1919, a young J Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Investigation’s general intelligence division, targeted “Black Moses” Marcus Garvey for investigation and harassment because of his alleged association with “radical elements” that were “agitating the Negro movement”. Hoover admitted Garvey had violated no federal laws. But the bureau, the precursor organization to the FBI, infiltrated Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association with informant provocateurs and undercover agents who searched for years for any charge that could justify his deportation.
The justice department ultimately won a conviction against Garvey on a dubious mail fraud charge in 1923. Meanwhile, white vigilantes, police and soldiers targeted Black communities with violence during this period, which included the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and scores of lynchings, did not receive the same focused attention from Hoover’s agents.