What to Read, What to Watch and What to Listen to…

As I write this, it is the 51st anniversary of the murder of US Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The murder took place in Chicago where a young Hampton was fighting for breakfast programs and community control of the police. One of his last speeches was at Northern Illinois State University, in November 1969, a few weeks before he was murdered. One line in his speech at the university that sticks is, “It’s a class struggle goddammit.” He was only 21 when the police killed him. In this segment on Democracy Now, author, lawyer and activist Jeffrey Haas describes how the FBI gave orders to the Chicago police, who shot more than 90 bullets into Hampton’s apartment at 4.30 the morning of Dec. 4, 1969. Earlier the FBI had obtained a floor plan of the apartment. The cops finished off the job by shooting Hampton in his bed at point blank range. The FBI depended on their informant, William O’Neal who was an agent provocateur. At one time he worked for the Chicago Panthers’ chief of security, and then as Hampton’s personal body guard. Jeffrey Haas’ 2010 book is The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.
We tend to forget the carnage wrought by the local police, the FBI – in this case the COINTELPRO Program and the CIA in the name of protecting ‘democracy’ in the US. Their goal of the police and their bosses was to eradicate Communists and their sympathizers, destroy Black lives, communities and activism, and wipe out the American Indian Movement.

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in front of the Dirksen Federal Building, Chicago, 1969. Photo courtesy of Paul Sequeira, from BlackPast

The CIA ties to the Murder of Orlando Letelier

2020 also marks the 44th year since another COINTELPRO-backed assassination on US soil. The murder of Chilean lawyer, economist and diplomat Orlando Letelier took place Washington DC on a September day in 1976. Letelier, 44, who was member of Chile’s Socialist party, former minister in Salvador Allende’s short-lived deposed government and its one-time ambassador to the US, was blown up by a bomb planted under his car. He was on his way to work at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a left wing think-tank which had recently been burglarized and spied upon as part of the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program. Not only was he killed, but in the car with him were two IPS co-workers – Ronni Moffitt and her husband. At only 25 years of age, Ronni Moffitt bled to death from her injuries minutes after the explosion. Her husband, Michael, managed to survive.

Clockwise from left: Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, awarded by IPS annually; John Dinges 2012 book about CIA wrongdoings; Ronni Karpen Moffitt, Orlando Letelier; Monument to Letelier and Moffitt on Sheridan Circle, Washington, DC; photo of author and filmmaker Saul Landau with Fidel Castro in Cuba.

On the Chilean side, the murders were ordered through Operation Condor. Operation Condor waged a 10-year campaign of political terror against the Left. Condor linked six South American dictatorships with close ties to the US state department and the CIA: Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia. More about Operation Condor and the plot against Letelier are detailed in this great article, “The Murder of Orlando Letelier”, here in Jacobin magazine.

Operation Condor was established to carry out assassinations on socialist or communist leaders living outside the six countries, but connected to them. For example in it’s heyday, Condor murdered 23 left-wing Italians – in Italy. Chile’s head of security, strongman Manual Contreras controlled DINA, basically the secret police. We know that tens of thousands of Chileans disappeared, and were abducted and tortured by police at many torture centres. Some were drugged then dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean. In this connection, Chris Marker’s excellent film “A Grin Without a Cat”, is worth seeing—you can borrow the film on DVD at the Halifax public library. In October, in this blog, I reviewed The Audacity to Hope, a book by Dr Sheila Cassidy. A British physician in Santiago in the ‘70s, Cassidy was one of DINA’s victims who survived torture and wrote a book about it.

The CIA, which recruited the fascists in the Cuban National Movement to carry out the bombing, also contracted Michael Townley, a young, white, American who was a garage mechanic and amateur electronics aficionado. For more read Asassination on Embassy Row, or the article in Jacobin here.

1980 book about who was responsible for the Letelier-Moffit murders

As a matter of interest, Halifax Public Library obtained my copy of the book, through an inter-library loan from the Facility Library, the US Navel Facility, Argentia, Newfoundland. We can see who else is interested in these US-orchestrated murders.

More Against the Police

On Friday, CBC radio’s The Current ran one of their less than satisfactory half-hour stories. It was about a secret group of police in London’s Metropolitan Police who from the late 70s to – maybe today—infiltrated left wing organizations. For good measure, and a lot of fun and free sex, the undercover police officers formed deep love relationships with women activists in several organizations including Greenpeace. In at least one case, a cop even fathered the child of a woman activist – who never knew his true identity or that he was a cop who was married to someone else and merely on assignment.

Below is Helen Steel and David Morris at the McLibel trial. Photo credit Matthew Fearn/PA. Top right is Helen Steel and undercover policeman John Dines. They lived together for two years in the late 1980s; she only discovered his true identity in 2010. Bottom right: Steel at the Royal Courts of Justice, London in 2014, photo credit: Martin Godwin, The Guardian.

Helen Steel and the McLibel case…

The police hid their identities by searching headstones in cemeteries. The undercover cop chose new identity based on a long dead child—who (had they lived) would be the roughly the cop’s age. The cop then adopted the name, got driver’s license and other documents in the name of the dead child.

This was commonly done in undercover policing. Rosemary Barton, The Current’s guest host, interviewed Helen Steel, one victim of the scam, who was a left-wing London activist. Steel was frank and furious – she is one of the many women testifying at a public inquiry about police methods to infiltrate more than 1,000 organizations over the last 40 years.
You may remember the name Helen Steel because she and her co-defendant David Morris were taken to court by McDonald’s for distributing a leaflet which lambasted the corporation for company policies, paying low wages, doing harm to the rainforests, and peddling food low in nutrition. Steel and Morris did not author the leaflet but distributed it. The trial began in 1993. Steel and Morris were denied legal aid, though Steel and Morris had little money: she worked as a barmaid, and he was a postal worker. The two had to act for themselves (with some advice from sympathetic lawyers) while McDonald’s had an bevy of blue-suited, corporate lawyers. Supporters of the two defendants raised £40,000 pounds ($110,000 Canadian in today’s money) but that merely covered expenses, travel and court costs. The trial ended in 1996 with a determination that the leaflet was in part libelous, it was also in part true. Still, Steel and Morris were fined £70,000, reduced to £40,000 on appeal. But McDonald’s – due to adverse publicity in the David vs Goliath drama – never collected their money.

In 2004, Steel and Morris launched an action against the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They claimed the UK government, by denying them legal aid, breached the defendants’ rights to a fair trial. The pair won and the government had to pay them £57,000 (about C $150,000 today).

This is to tell you a bit about Helen Steel, the same woman who was duped by an undercover cop. The book Undercover tells you more. To find out more about the horrendous practice of deceiving and using women for sex in order to burrow into left activism, read Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police by journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans. The book is really chilling and reveals that the Met (Metropolitan Police) exported this tactic as far away as Australia, and likely Canada. I think I may have unknowingly been involved with cop in the early 1970s in Toronto. A radical young man — who seemed to come from nowhere — surfaced in a left group I was part of. He and I moved in together. Once I tried to call him at work and found out they’d never heard of him at the lumber yard where he said he worked. My suspicions about him, and never knowing who he really was – prompted me to walk out on him hours before our wedding. Now that’s a story that begs to be written.

What to Watch…

There’s quite a good policier about a woman cop in Rio, Brazil. It’s called Veronica. The acting is good and the cases are not as straightforward as most police procedurals. Watch the first series on Netflix. Warning: it tends to be graphically quite violent.

The Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto runs from Dec. 3-10. For free, you can watch discussions, films and talks on the arts. The other night I watched “Objector.” It’s a documentary about an 18-year-old Jewish Israeli woman who is trying to decide whether to go into the army, or refuse –which risks include going to jail. She doesn’t want to serve on the West Bank, or to put down Palestinians, or to blow up their homes – so she seeks advice from her parents, her grandfather and the “refuseniks” she knows. It’s a fascinating film, and visually stunning. Below is the short Trailer for Objector.

The Crown

Lately, I’ve watched the fourth season of The Crown. I started there because I was first wondering how the series handled the Lady Diana “scandal”. Now I’m hooked. High production values, great writing, interesting dialogue, great understated humour and lots of politics. My favourite episode is the one about the unemployed painter and decorator, Michael Fagan, who stole into the Queen’s bedroom to have a chat with her – at six o’clock one morning. However the funniest episode is Episode 6, with the joke about sex and bear hunting. Brilliant. It’s on Netflix.

Crown and sceptre made of Lego. Photo credit Brickman Exhibition 2017.


On Netflix you can find Waco. In its six episodes, you get a good understanding of the Branch Davidians, their leader David Koresh, and the trigger-happy role of the Texas police. The “Waco Massacre” took place 27 years ago in Texas – way before 9/11 and before all the paranoid wars that the US has been embroiled in for the last two decades. The siege lasted 51 days, and this article in the Atlantic gives a bit of background. The dialogue is earnest, well-written and fast paced; the acting is believable. And it’s well worth watching.

Scenes from the miniseries, photo credits: Paramount Network.

What to Listen to…

The Guardian Long Reads has a good podcast by a “first person” called “Try Again Next Time” here. Nkiacha Atemnkeng, who is a published novelist in Cameroon, tried to get a visa to attend an international literary residency in the US. As he joked in the podcast, “The American embassy is like some serene elephant that cannot be disturbed.” The way in which Atemnkeng was treated, and the rudeness of the US gate-keepers at the embassies could be laughable if it weren’t so nasty and racist.

Author and failed visa applicant Nkiacha Atemnkeng. Photo credit JM Giordano, The Guardian.

I highly recommend Season 2 of Thunder Bay—called Return to Thunder Bay. The second episode, “It Happens Because You’re Indigenous” – is excellent. The zinger anecdote near the end of the episode actually happened to and is recounted by Senator Murray Sinclair. The former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission explains it all! You have to listen to this series to hear the depths of anti-Indigenous racism in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Listen here.

From NPR in the US, comes Hidden Brain, a great program about psychology in everyday life. A new podcast added is “Conspiracy of Silence”. It delves into why we fear so much what others think of us. You can listen to it here.

I wouldn’t spend a precious minute watching American Murder: The Family Next Door on Netflix. It’s a repetitive and boring 80 minutes about a devoted wife and mother, plus her two pre-school daughters, who go missing from a nice ranch house in small town Colorado. The police investigation is lethargic until they find the culprit – who immediately confesses. Spoiler alert: it’s the husband. And we all knew it from the start. I must have been desperate or delusional. That would explain why I bothered to watch it.

Featured painting: Leningrad Memories– Public Bath, by Paraskeva Clark (1964; Canada), Ottawa Art Gallery.

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