The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s record of surveillance of domestic dissidents has long been known to be detrimental to democracy. But to actively obstruct an elected official’s governance shows a contempt for democratic decision-making that is incredibly brazen even for America’s bulwark of domestic authoritarianism.
When FBI foe George Crockett Jr was elected in 1968 as a criminal court judge in Detroit, Michigan, the FBI didn’t see fit to respect his election as the will of the people. In fact, the FBI had actively worked to sabotage his previous electoral efforts when he ran for city council.
The National Black Law Journal wrote of Crockett at the time that he had “unleashed the fury of Detroit’s silent majority by applying the law to the poor as if they were rich” and “aroused the wrath of Detroit’s ‘finest’ by using the judiciary as a shield protecting ghetto citizens from police lawlessness.”
When the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment meant local police needed a warrant to conduct a search, the Michigan legislature amended the state’s constitution in an ill-advised attempt to overrule it. Crocket, recognizing the move as blatantly unconstitutional, refused to enforce it. When police responded to a shootout with black separatists by illegally arresting 140 people en masse in a church, Crockett sprang into action. He kept blank habeas corpus forms in his home, and after being visited by the church’s pastor at home, he headed to the police station to hold an impromptu hearing.
While other Detroit judges acquiesced to a prosecutor’s demand to fix outrageously high bails for alleged rioters, Crockett refused to budge. And in his boldest move, Crockett openly refused to sentence to prison anyone who had been a victim of police brutality. In at least one case, Crockett would go so far as to appoint an independent investigator to determine whether such claims were true.
Crockett had another unique qualification. He had served fourth months in federal prison after representing the leadership of the Communist Party. He openly spoke about how all criminal judges would benefit from such an experience, as their ruling would be more informed by the realities of the prison system.
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, hated this. Local rulings — and the Detroit Recorder’s Court is a local court well outside the jurisdiction of the FBI — seldom garner national attention. Yet Hoover used his Congressional testimony in 1970 on the topic of “parole and clemency abuse” to lambast Crockett’s rulings. He refused to call Crockett by his name, as internal documents show he and the Bureau felt Crockett was too “despicable” to dignify in such a way. Besides, after internal deliberations, the FBI felt Crockett’s ruling were so “reprehensible” that people would recognize them without Hoover having to demean himself by uttering a name so odious.
Crockett’s constituents disagreed. Crockett had campaigned on his legacy as a civil rights activist. He had openly stated that substance abuse was not treated by incarceration. He had articulated ways in which the law could better protect the rights of Detroit’s working-class black residents, as opposed to being used to rubber stamp the abuses of police and prosecutors. As an unelected entity, why should the FBI get a veto over their decision?
The FBI, however, had been monitoring Crockett for decades. And it wasn’t just Crockett. The FBI acted as the nation’s political police, making sure to relentlessly hound and pursue radicals. Democracy wasn’t on their agenda before Crockett was elected. And they didn’t see fit to add it after.
Hoover had denounced Crockett in his congressional testimony, but the FBI wasn’t content with just speechifying. The Bureau was actively and clandestinely working against Crockett.
During this time, the FBI had a formally named “Mass Media Program,” which was intended to allow the Bureau to disseminate information through friendly journalists. Crockett’s FBI file shows that as part of the Mass Media Program, a memo was produced recommending that:
The communist associations of subject, the judge in Detroit who high-handedly released black extremist arrested in connection with the shooting of two police officers, over the District Attorney’s protest, be furnished a [sic] trusted media source on confidential basis.
The information to be turned over to the trusted media source was all publicly sourced, so as to avoid its origins being discovered. This memo is shocking for a number of reasons. The FBI not only sought to manipulate the media — they had willing collaborators in the press. Crockett was also being targeted for a judicial decision respecting due-process rights. And, as one FBI agent pointed out, Crockett was an elected official. Crockett had openly campaigned on implementing the types of reforms the FBI found so unpalatable.
The FBI was at the same time meddling in the media, the judiciary, and the electoral system.
Coming up with material to furnish its trusted media source most likely wasn’t very hard for the Bureau. Crockett had been on the FBI’s radar long before he was a judge. He was even on an FBI list of suspected subversives.
Crockett’s early biography seems innocuous enough. Wanting to fight racism and inspired by the New Deal, Crockett went to law school. He alternated between private practice and working for the federal government, including both the Department of Labor and the President’s Commission on Fair Employment Practices.
As a black man in a deeply racist society, Crockett faced a number of obstacles. The Florida Bar Exam was traditionally administered in the chamber of the State Senator. Horrified by the thought of a black applicant sitting in the desk of a white State Senator, Crockett was made to take the bar at table set outside the chamber.
Crockett rose quickly within the Department of Labor but would later be told that while qualified for a promotion he had advanced as far a black attorney could expect. As an attorney for the United Auto Workers (UAW), Crockett was betrayed by the union’s president Walter Reuther, who had promised the UAW would not sign a contract with General Motors absent a nondiscrimination clause. When the UAW signed a contract without an anti-discrimination clause, relations between Crockett and Reuther soured. When Reuther became union president, Crockett was forced out.
The earliest entries in Crockett’s voluminous FBI file date back to this period. In Crockett’s telling, he was considered for a position as District Attorney for the Virgin Islands. However, his association with UAW raised red flags. Crockett refused to red-bait the union. When asked about the Communist Party, he stated that if they wanted to fight racism he welcomed them to the movement. Predictably, he was not hired.
Crockett’s FBI file includes an extensive investigation conducted as part of a background check for an unspecified “legal position” at the Department of Justice. Given the timeline, it is almost certainly District Attorney for the Virgin Islands. A background check for such a position is not surprising. What is shocking is that in conducting this background check the FBI was able to rely on extensive network of informants across multiple states.
Even though Crockett had not yet been under surveillance or even known to law enforcement, in nearly every state Crockett had ever lived, the FBI’s informants could provide information on him. For example, an informant in West Virginia told the Bureau,
on one occasion [Crockett] entered a Fairmount [West Virginia] restaurant in company with a white man and demanded service which was refused. It is also reported that he caused a negro to demand equal seating privileges with white patrons in the Warner Brothers Fairmount Theater, and that he took a militant stand on the question of racial discrimination and equality.
Another informant recounted how seven years earlier (!), Crockett told a meeting of the American Jewish Youth Council “there was no adequate defense against Fascism except by allowing the Communist Party to remain openly active.” Other informants inside the Civil Rights Congress, which was closely aligned with the Communist Party, reported on Crockett’s support for the organization’s work. A long-term acquaintance of Crockett’s, whose name is redacted, told the FBI “the commies might have sold [Crockett] a bill of goods.”
To be clear, the vast majority of friends, former coworkers, and colleagues told the FBI that Crockett was qualified for the job, of reputable character, and had no affinity for Communism or other “un-American” ideas. Crockett, nonetheless, did not get the job. What the role the FBI’s investigation played in that is unclear. Nonetheless, it was able to produce a frighteningly large amount of information on Crockett.
Crockett’s life would change in 1949. The US used the Smith Act, which criminalized advocating the overthrow of the government, to prosecute the Communist Party’s leadership. Crockett, believing that precedents set by the repression of Communists would be used against civil rights activists, joined the defense. Not only would the Communist Party leaders be convicted, but all of their lawyers would also be charged with contempt of court. For his defense of democracy, Crockett was rewarded with a four-month prison sentence.
The FBI closely followed the legal saga. Crockett’s file shows the FBI was interested in the legal team of the Communist leaders from the very beginning. It also documents how as the defense attorneys appealed their own contempt sentences, the FBI continued following the case. Hoover appears to have personally received copies of court rulings and even legal briefs filed by the defense. In a bizarre move that was ultimately rejected by both Hoover and the US Attorney’s Office, it was suggested within the Bureau that FBI agents present during the Smith Act trial testify as witnesses during the contempt trial.
Crockett, unsurprisingly, emerged from prison a fervent opponent of McCarthyism. He represented individuals called before the House Un-American Activities Committee or persecuted under Cold War-era anticommunist legislation. As part of such activity, Crockett undeniably not only represented Communists, but maintained close friendships with Party members.
Crockett was now on the FBI’s radar and placed on the “Reserve Index,” a list of subversives. His overseas travel was monitored and was far from free of the long arm of the FBI. Crockett and his wife took regular trips to Mexico City. Documents from the FBI’s Mexico City Legal Attaché reveal an FBI informant based in Mexico City reported on Crockett’s meetings with supposed Communists. This practice would continue even after Crockett was an elected judge.
Crockett was also vice president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). The NLG had been founded in 1937 as a progressive alternative to the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA, at that time, refused to admit nonwhite members and opposed the New Deal. The Guild’s official mission was to ensure human rights were viewed by the law as more important than property interests. During the 1930s, the NLG attracted left-leaning labor attorneys, supporters of the New Deal, and genuine radicals to its ranks.
When the repressive atmosphere of the Cold War meant that such alliances were no longer permissible, the NLG was one of the few organizations not to purge its ranks of Communists. This made the NLG not only one of the few organizations to challenge McCarthyism, but also a target of merciless state repression.
An NLG a lawsuit against the FBI, CIA, and NSA confirmed that the NLG had been subjected to decades of illegal, politically motivated surveillance. As part of a settlement, the Attorney General acknowledged that the FBI had repeatedly broken into the NLG’s office, wiretapped their phones without warrants, placed informants in the NLG, and added its members to the Security Index and other watch lists. This lawsuit also resulted in the release of over 300,000 pages of documents detailing government surveillance of the Guild, including Crockett’s file.
As part of his work with the NLG, in 1964 Crockett took on the dangerous task of setting up an office in Mississippi to assist the Civil Rights Movement. When Crockett returned from Mississippi, he sought a seat on the Detroit City Council but lost. Crockett attributed this to redbaiting but noted that his civil rights advocacy in the Deep South had won him support in Detroit’s African-American community. From this realization, the seeds to run for Recorder Judge were planted.
Crockett’s campaign was victim of more than just redbaiting. It was a target of COINTELPRO.
COINTELPRO, or “Counter Intelligence Program,” is perhaps the FBI’s most notorious abuse of power. Under this program, the FBI wasn’t content to merely surveil or monitor dissenters: it sought to disrupt and “neutralize” political movements. For the nation’s premier law enforcement and intelligence agency to target an electoral campaign under such a program has grave ramifications for democracy.
As part of the COINTELPRO actions against Crockett’s campaign, FBI counterintelligence agents sent in questions about Crockett’s subversive associations to a televised candidates forum. Per standard protocol, the agents made sure these questions could not be traced to the Bureau. They went so far as to use a PO box and “locally purchased stationary.” Later, FBI confidential informants reported back to the FBI about Crockett’s intent to run for Recorder Judge.
An interesting find in Crockett’s file is a request from Lyndon Johnson’s White House staff asking the FBI for information on a list of Democratic candidates. All of the other names besides Crockett’s are redacted, but the FBI sent over a memo outlining Crockett’s Communist associations and City Council candidacy. A copy of the memo was also sent to the Secret Service at the White House’s request.
The FBI didn’t just spy on Crockett in spite of being a judge; the FBI used this as reason to intensify its actions.
In the early 1970s, FBI agents made a request to include Crockett in the Administrative Index, a list of individuals to be surveilled or even detained in the event of a national emergency. The justification? His “position of influence as a Recorder Court Judge at Detroit, Michigan and the likelihood he may furnish financial or other aid to revolutionary elements ….” This request was rejected, but it’s not clear if the impropriety of obstructing an elected official played any role in the rejection.
The FBI’s sabotage ultimately didn’t persuade the voters to reject Crockett. In 1974, Crockett was elected to the position of Chief Judge of the Recorder Court. Although he retired from the court in 1978, two years later he was elected to Congress.
Crockett’s FBI files released as part of the government’s settlement with the NLG only go to the late 1970s. However, it was discovered in 2014 that the FBI continued to have it out for Crockett after he was elected to Congress.
As part of FOIA researcher Ryan Shapiro’s ongoing efforts to bring to light the full scope of the US government’s action against Nelson Mandela, the FBI’s files on the former African National Congress leader have been released. These files show that throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the FBI viewed Mandela as a Communist and thought US-based activism calling for his freedom was a Communist plot. Crockett had sponsored a Congressional resolution calling for Mandela’s freedom. A 1984 FBI memo on this resolution noted Crockett’s Communist associations as proof of who was really behind opposing apartheid.
This discovery raises serious questions about whether there are more FBI documents about Crockett. Not only was he opposed to Apartheid; he was a leading Congressional opponent of Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy. He went so far as to bring suit against Reagan, arguing that he was waging a war in El Salvador without Congressional approval. It’s known the FBI engaged in extensive surveillance of opponents of US-El Salvador policy during this time frame.
When Jacobin and Defending Rights & Dissent requested Crockett’s FBI files, the only documents received were the 533 pages released as part of the NLG’s lawsuit. Given that this excluded the 1984 memo about Crockett’s role in sponsoring a resolution in support of Nelson Mandela, it clearly isn’t the full breadth of records the FBI has on Crockett.
Undermining judicial respect for due process, meddling in elections, and using the media to spread propaganda all run contrary to the US’s projected image as a nation with strong democratic norms. And none of this was because of anything illegal Crockett had done. The types of rulings that aroused the wraith of domestic counterintelligence agents were squarely within Crockett’s powers. Crockett frequently argued that by strictly upholding the due-process rights of Detroit’s working-class black residents that Crockett was showing greater fidelity to the text of the law than his colleagues.
We are told all of of this is behavior attributed to authoritarian societies and could never happen in the United States. But it did happen. And Crockett’s case isn’t exceptional. His FBI files are just a mere 533 pages of the 300,000 pages of documents pertaining to government surveillance of the NLG. The NLG was not the only target of such practices. The indexes of subversives, COINTELPRO, and the Mass Media Program were all institutionalized and carried out over decades.
Given recent revelations about the FBI’s surveillance of Occupy Wall Street or its use of the bogus moniker of Black Identity Extremism to portray activism against police racism as a threat, these FBI abuses may be more than historical incidents from a bygone era.