The FBI’s Hustle

The contradictions of U.S.'s domestic and international policies manifested by its wars on drugs, terror, and the country's Black communities.

Photo: The Root.

As depicted in the recent film “American Hustle,” throughout modern U.S. history the FBI has embarked on certain investigations for dubious reasons. (In “American Hustle” the FBI enlists an art thief to entrap a New Jersey mayor.)  However, beyond being source material for a cutesy romantic comedy, the White supremacist political establishment has often used the FBI to carry out targeted campaigns to marginalize the aims of self-determination by communities of color in the United States.

Living in Rio de Janeiro now, and witnessing the pacification of the favelas by Brazilian federal troops from a close(r) distance, I can’t help but think back to my faded memories of the ‘war on drugs’ while growing up in the U.S. So when – in the wake of the occupation by the Army of the Maré Complex in Rio’s North Zone – I went online to read a little about the history of Rio’s gangs, I noticed some mention of populist roots in the beginnings of the Commando Vermelho, which is quite similar to the history of the gangs that occupied the Midwest U.S. city I grew up in. I hit Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge of the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation; a name familiar from my childhood in the Midwest.

The Almighty Black P. Stone Nation and its Islamic offshoot El Rukn were two organizations with roots in the Black American empowerment movements of the early 20th century – inspired by such organizations as the Black Panthers and the Moorish Science Temple of America. Although they became involved in drug trafficking and violent crime, their ideological roots served as a strong draw for marginalized Black youth in American cities.

Then in 1986 Jeff Fort, the co-founder of the Stones and founder of its El Rukn offshoot, attempted to meet with Libyan representatives of Muammar Gaddafi’s government, allegedly to purchase weapons. It turns out that the Libyans were actually FBI agents, and Fort and his partners were immediately arrested. Natalie Y. Moore, co-author of a new book on the Stones writes about the trial on The Root, how the contended “… that they heard Fort on tape belittle Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan for getting money from Qaddafi [the Libyan leader’s name gets various spellings – Ed.]. In turn, Fort yearned for some of that Libyan largesse for the El Rukn Nation. Farrakhan had received a $5 million loan from Qaddafi in the early 1980s to start a line of black personal-care products.”

The feds set up a sting in which an undercover agent approached a group of El Rukns with the prospect of selling an M-72 Series Light Anti-Tank Weapon. For many, the consensus was that Fort wanted to find a way to procure, or con, money from Qaddafi. But the El Rukns gave the feds fodder by having contact with a country on the enemy list. The 1987 terrorism trial proved to be highly sensationalist.  Metal detectors and a state police dog greeted entrants at the door. Some jurors said they received threatening phone calls and alternates had to step in. In and out of court, the El Rukns sported red fezzes, cornrows, fur coats and white flowing robes. “This case concerns organized crime, with a twist of terrorism,” the prosecutor said in closing statement. The jury found all six defendants guilty.

The end result was that the whole affair destroyed the El Rukns as an organization. As The Root reports, “… Today the El Rukns still claim a couple of hundred loyal members, but they have aged and aren’t involved in criminal activity. They also don’t have any power on the streets.” But there was a larger legacy from all this:

The biggest lessons come from the War on Terror banner under which we now live. United States v. Jeff Fort et al. laid groundwork for the government to link street gangs to radical Islam and terrorism, even more so after Sept. 11. Two decades after the El Rukns trial, another South Side Chicago man, charged with plotting to work with al-Qaida operatives to blow up the Sears Tower, ended up with a similar fate to Jeff Fort’s. In fact, prosecutors evoked Fort’s name during the trial, comparing Narseal Batiste to the convicted Fort. Like the El Rukns, Batiste fell into an FBI trap. This time a man claiming to be an al-Qaida operative from Yemen who met with the bankrupt Batiste was actually a paid informant. Although Batiste wasn’t in a gang, his boasting fit a certain profile for which the feds searched. This nerdy kid-turned-community organizer ended up in the crosshairs of a federal government wanting to allay the nation’s fears of homegrown, radical terrorism.

I appreciate Moore’s drawing a connection to the trial of Batiste and the Liberty City Seven. To me, this is one of the most shameful displays of American hypocrisy in the post-9/11 era. A group of disaffected young Black men were targeted and set-up in a witch hunt, solely to put mainstream America’s mind at ease about the capability of their government to fight domestic terror. The public wanted to see the monster, so the FBI fabricated a bogeyman. In the process they provided justification for the further stripping of citizens’ civil rights.

However, that’s not the only interesting connection to be made here.

In a New York Times article on El Rukn from 1985 (H/T @Oldmoneycrime), Jesse Jackson is mentioned as having praised the organization, for helping in voter registration efforts during his bid for the presidency in 1984. This was two years before the organization would be set-up by the FBI for trying to purchase weapons from Libya.

Ironically, it was also Jesse Jackson who was to play a central role in the failed negotiated settlement during the Sierra Leonean civil war, by advocating for leaders such as Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor who themselves were trained in Gaddafi’s Libya. I’m not trying to suggest that Jackson was doing anything more than reflecting official policy of the Clinton Administration in Africa at the time. However, these cases are just more evidence of the contradictions inherent to the U.S.’s domestic and international policies in its wars on drugs, terror, and its Black communities.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.