The Plight of Seeking Rights, and Domestic Terrorism on U.S. Soil

According to the United States, domestic terrorism is defined as “activities that – involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the United States or of any State… to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…”. The U.S. has not, however, ever explicitly admitted to utilizing terror on its own soil, but it has had history supporting governments overseas that would prove conducive to American interests. Despite this, the United States Government has exercised covert and overt terrorism on its citizens throughout various periods in its history, such as Indian Removal, the Gilded Age, and the Civil Rights Era, in order to maintain its power and stability against disenfranchised citizens who were trying to gain equal rights in the political, social, and economical aspects.

The first population that would be subject to state terrorism would be the Native Americans, of which the U.S. Government has had, and continues to have, a tumultuous relationship with. Before the Tribal Appropriations Act of 1871, the United States dealt with the Natives in terms of negotiations and treaties, treating their governments somewhat as equals in their attempts to chart out reservation lands and borders, although almost every single one of these borders would not be respected and would be slowly encroached upon by opportunistic ranchers and western settlers seeking cheap land and economic opportunity. In the Southeast existed the “Five Civilized Tribes”, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations; they were labeled this way due to their assimilation of western socio-economic norms and culture, such as literacy, adoption of christianity, written constitutions, and slaveholding, likely done in an attempt to maintain good relations with the anglos and deter further bloodshed. War veteran and statesman Andrew Jackson would pursue an aggressive removal policy against the Native Americans when he became president in 1829. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by Jackson, would begin the institutional effort of forced relocation of the Civilized Tribes to federal land west of the Mississippi, later known as the Trail of Tears. The Seminole and Creek resisted removal and some would take up arms against the federal government, leading to the Second Creek War and Second Seminole War, while the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw would obey the removal order through signing several treaties. Of the combined population of roughly 78,000 natives and slaves, about 8,700-17,000 would die as a result of removal, due to the horrid conditions that the Natives endured. They would suffer from disease, starvation, abuse, and exposure on their 2,200 mile march, as well as occasional murder from white settlers. Many were put in chains and walked at gunpoint, and were often made to stop in order to bury the dead in shallow graves along the trail; “Marshaled by guards, hustled by agents, harried by contractors, they were being herded on the way to an unknown and unwelcome destination like a flock of sick sheep”. All of these hardships took a considerable toll on the Natives, as they completely restructured their societies in new lands vastly unfamiliar to them. These actions constitute terrorism as they blatantly resulted in loss of life of these people who only wanted sovereignty of their nation, of which the U.S. Government promised to respect, but failed, to uphold. It was not until 2009 where a joint resolution was signed that would formally apologize to “Native Peoples” for “a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government”.

After the Civil War had ended in 1865, the United States economy boomed as a result of industrial and technological advances, such as the transcontinental railroad, use of new resources, the telegram, rise of urban life and cities, but at the costs of scandals, corruption, and rampant income inequality. As such, the rise of “big business” came about, as large-scale projects such as city and infrastructure construction would require large workforces managed by corporations and companies. These companies would often grow so large that they would monopolize markets, which grew to the point that the Federal Government found the practice to be anti-competitive, leading to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which banned these practices. 3 years later, the nation was embroiled in an economic recession, known as the Panic of 1893. George Pullman, the manufacturer of the Pullman sleeping car and founder of a company town named after him, would resort to lowering the wages of his workers in Pullman, Illinois in order to maintain his profits. In Pullman, some 4000 workers would be unable to keep up with the rent, which remained at the same price, so they decided to strike without a union. Seeing an opportunity, unionist Eugene Debs organizes the workers together under a union, the American Railway Union, which develops into a nation-wide union with the strike peaking at 250,000 railway workers walking off the job, with the goal of getting Pullman to negotiate for wage increase and rent reduction. The Federal Government becomes involved due to the ARU’s interference with mail cars, obtaining an injunction against the Union and Debs, ordering them to stop immediately. The strikers do no comply, and President Cleveland orders federal troops to sweep in city by city and stop the strikers, resulting in violent clashes, riots, and sabotage, resulting in approximately 30 deaths, 57 injuries, and roughly 80 million dollars in damages. The police, local strikebreakers, and federal troops were not merciful in their methods. In Chicago on July 6th, 1984, “Company C. Second Regiment… disciplined a mob of rioters yesterday afternoon at Forty-ninth and Loomis Streets. The police assisted and… finished the job. There is no means of knowing how many rioters were killed or wounded. The mob carried off many of its dying and injured” . Not soon after, Eugene Debs was arrested and imprisoned, and the ARU dissolved. The strike was deemed a failure, and Pullman placed a new clause in his contracts declaring that in order to be an employee they had to swear to never join a union. The Pullman Strike was among tens of other strikes and conflicts across the nation that aimed to highlight the implications between labor and capital, with the impact of the Federal Government siding with “big business”, utilizing the Sherman Act as justification for their involvement. The incident constitutes as terrorism due to the methods of the Federal Government in forcibly putting down the strikes, and their use of brutality was likely utilized in order to portray the power of the government, against workers who really only wanted fair wages as granted for being citizens.

The period between 1964 to 1980, labeled the Civil Rights Era, in the United States brought much political, social, and economic change to the country, with many progressive movements. The Vietnam War was extremely divisive and generated much criticism and protest, second-wave feminism aimed to acquire reproductive rights and combat inequalities, the generational drama through exploration of drugs and sexuality, the looming of the Cold War. Civil rights movements and groups utilized both peaceful and violent methods in order to secure their rights as American citizens. One particular group that was characterized through their use of violence was the Black Panthers, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966 in Oakland California. The Panthers aimed to address government oppression and empower the black individual, instituting community social programs and health clinics as well as armed citizens patrols that would “keep the police in check”, later calling for revolution against capitalism and the country itself . This organization of disgruntled individuals would prove startling to the FBI, with Director J. Edgar Hoover describing the Party in 1969 as “without question… the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. In order to address these growing movements, he launched the Counter Intelligence Program, dubbed COINTELPRO, “thorough, targeted campaign of surveillance, intimidation, exploitation, harassment, and in some cases violence, to destroy the [Panthers] organization.”. The FBI would use various methods, including but not limited to: recruitment of neighborhood informants, wiretapping, mail tampering, negative press coverage, raids of regional offices, forgery, assassination, imprisonment, and witness intimidation. One particularly egregious incident was the assassination of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Party. Hampton’s charisma and leadership qualities thrust him to the top of the hierarchy, and the FBI reacted by placing a plant, who would become Hampton’s bodyguard, to regularly supply the FBI with information. In December 1964, after teaching a political education course at a local church, Hampton went to bed at an apartment with some Panther members and was slipped a sleep agent by the informant earlier. The Special Prosecutions Unit, with a warrant for illegal weapons, stormed the apartment at 4:45 am and shot ninety to ninety-five times into the apartment, killing the door guard Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, who was sleeping on the mattress next to his wife . Both dead bodies were dragged out of the home and the SPU left, leaving the apartment open for people to investigate what had happened; the SPU, praised for their actions, claimed the Panthers shot back and were extremely violent while the FBI denied any involvement until COINTELPRO came to light. COINTELPRO was a covert use of terrorism by the Federal Government on “potentially dangerous groups”, justified by the FBI as “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order”. The numerous illegal activities constituted by the Program was done in order to terrorize and dismantle these organizations, particularly the Panthers, and maintain the Federal Government’s power.

Expressly noted, the Federal Government has exercised terrorism against Native Americans, laborers, and civil rights organizations, all groups of people who laid claim for economic, social, and political rights that they were given as citizens.

When the Natives stood in the way of western expansion and wished for sovereignty, they were forcibly relocated to strange lands under terrible conditions.

When thousands of laborers striked against their corporations for fair pay and working conditions, they were forcibly put down by federal troops in violent clashes.

When civil rights groups became “too powerful” and organized disenfranchised peoples who wanted civil rights, they were infiltrated and covertly eradicated by the FBI.

These events in U.S. history prove a pattern of state terrorism against its own citizens that were seen to threaten the current social order that existed at the time, and highlights a troubling notion that not even the U.S., the “beacon of morality” in the world, is not above using such brutal methods of violence like terrorism. Whenever people mobilize for a cause that proved unconducive to U.S. interests, they may be met with such methods, but the Federal Government has never acknowledged their actions explicitly as ‘terrorism’. Due to the connotations regarding such a term, it is likely that the Federal Government never really will.

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