An article by Kevin "Rashid" Johnson on the abuse of "gang" labels to censor dissent. This article was previously published by the San Francisco Bay View, and readers who find it useful may wish to donate to their fundraiser.
Using racism to create political bogey men
Socially and politically charged labels have long been used – or misused – by officials as a cover for abusing and discriminating against Black and Brown people and suppressing political views that challenge or question the status quo.
During the Cold War, when the U.S. and its Western allies were engaged in a propaganda war against Communism, the “Communist” label was used to discredit and as a pretext to justify attacking people and political views officials disliked or opposed. During the Civil Rights era, anyone – especially whites – who opposed Jim Crow segregation, lynching and the many overt abuses faced by Blacks was labeled a Communist.
In fact, the FBI targeted Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X under its COMINFIL (Communist Infiltration) program, using the pretext of investigating them for supposed backing from Communist countries as cover for surveilling, harassing and ultimately murdering them to counter their leading struggles against white supremacy and capitalism in Amerika.
The real basis and method that officials used to incite anti-Communist sentiment across the U.S. white population wasn’t political; it was racial. They did this by linking Communism with white fears of Black integration and Civil Rights in the public mind.
Officials openly advanced these views. As the chairman of the Washington State Investigative Committee expressed: “If someone insists that there is discrimination against Negroes in this country, or that there is inequality in wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a Communist.” Also, the head of the board of the Federal Department of Loyalty expressed, “Of course, the fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly does make you look twice.” 1
The FBI perpetuated the same views, targeting people accordingly. “FBI agents spotted white Communists by their ease and politeness around Negroes, or by the simple fact that they socialized with Negroes at all.”2
In 1948 President Harry Truman aimed, according to his own political strategist, “to identify [presidential candidate Henry Wallace who promoted liberal views on race] and isolate him in the public mind with the Communists.”3 As a result of these policies linking anti-Communism with race, when Wallace toured the South during the 1948 election campaign, violent white mobs screamed charges against him and his entourage, shouting “Communist” and “nigger lover!” This, in the South, was the “Communist Menace.”4
Officially manipulated racism formed the basis of the mass hysteria that fueled the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the Cold War.
The pigs even tried to use the Communist bogey man to turn Black communities against the Black Panther Party. Of course, it didn’t work, because Blacks had no racist basis upon which to manipulate them to fear Communism, while they whole-heartedly supported the BPP’s community service programs like the Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren program.
Fred Hampton Jr., the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the BPP, described the pigs’ failed attempts, like how they tried to turn the community matrons against the party by describing the BPP and its programs as communist – although the BPP actually was a communist organization. Here’s Fred in his speech, “Power Anywhere There’s People!”:
“[Y]ou ain’t seen nothin’ till you see one them beautiful sisters with their hair kinda’ start gettin’ grey, and they ain’t got many teeth, and they were tearing them police up! They were tearin’ ‘em up! The pigs would come come up to them and say, ‘You scared of communism?’ And the Sisters would say, ‘No – scared of it? I ain’t never heard of it.’
“‘You like socialism?’
“‘No, I ain’t never heard of it.’
“The pigs, they be crackin’ up, because they enjoyed seeing these people frightened of these words.
“‘You like capitalism?’
“‘Yeah, well, that’s what I live with – I like it.’
“‘You like the Breakfast for Children program, ni**er?’
“‘Yeah, I like it.’
“And the pigs say ‘Uh oh.’ The pigs say, ‘Well, the Breakfast for Children program is a socialistic program. It’s a communistic program.’
“And the women said, ‘Well, I tell you what, boy. I’ve been knowing you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper, ni**a. And I don’t know if I like communism and I don’t know if I like socialism. But I know that that Breakfast for Children program feeds my kids, ni**a. And if you put your hands on that Breakfast for Children program, I’m gonna come off this can and I’m gonna beat your ass like a …’”
Inventing new bogey men – terrorism and gangs
As the late historian Howard Zinn observed, when the Soviet Union collapsed at the turn of the 1990s, U.S. officials had to create a new racially charged bogey man with which to incite majority public opinion against those countries, people and ideas they opposed.
This time they used “Arab terrorism.” But this label didn’t work so well in whipping up fear within the U.S., using people of color who remained marginalized and whom the establishment desired to continue to hold back socially, politically and economically. So, another racially charged bogey man had to be created and used that could be readily applied to people of color within the U.S. This was the “gang” label.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, U.S. officials systematically targeted for destruction independent Black political leadership like Malcolm X and members of the BPP who were winning and influencing large numbers of Black youth to take up the fight against segregation, racism, endemic poverty and the myriad abuses that inhere in the capitalist system.
In turn, through blacksploitation films and other entertainment media, hustlers, drug dealers, pimps and especially the mafia were glamorized to poor urban youth as the images of social rebels whom they should emulate and imitate, while outright government terrorism was used to discourage them from identifying with and joining groups like the BPP.
At the same time the government flooded the poor Black communities with narcotics and assault weapons that destabilized the communities and gave rise to the growth of, and violent conflicts between, youth street gangs. The resulting drug epidemics and gang wars were used to bolster the bogey man image of gangs by officials bent on continuing to marginalize, exploit and repress Black people.
I discuss and extensively document the government-engineered process of dumping drugs in the Black communities and generating the violent rise of gangs and gang conflicts in my article “Kill Yourself or Liberate Yourself: The REAL U.S. Imperialist Policy on Gang Violence vs. the Revolutionary Alternative” (2010).
With gangs as the new bogey man with which to demonize and justify repressive policies against the Black community at large, officials maneuvered to label any and every young Black male and view they opposed as “gang related.” Indeed, they labeled Black youth who didn’t even exist as gang members to inflate gang databases created to stigmatize entire Black communities as gang affiliated.
Officials used the drug infestation and gang proliferation that they created themselves to carry out this agenda. As one report explained:
“Operation Hammer [a campaign created by the LAPD targeted at the Black communities of Los Angeles] was a counterinsurgency program that sometimes resembled the Phoenix program in Vietnam. There were hundreds of commando-style raids on ‘gang houses.’ More than 50,000 suspected gang members were swept up for interrogation based on factors such as style of dress and whether the suspect was a young Black male on the street past curfew. Of those caught up in such Hammer sweeps, 90 percent were later released without charge, but their names were held in a computer database of gang members that was later shown to have included twice as many names as there were Black youths in Los Angeles. [LAPD chief Darryl] Gates sealed off large areas of South Central as ‘narcotics enforcement zones.’ There was a strict curfew, constant police presence and on-the-spot strip searches for those caught outside after curfew.”5
Alongside these attacks on the Black communities, a parallel program was occurring inside U.S. prisons and jails, where officials were engineering the growth of gangs – purging them of leaders who might steer groups toward positive directions and replacing them with ones who could be controlled through their own self-interest and desire for power and money into cycles of violent conflict and drug proliferation and addiction.
The pigs use these elements to control prisons, target non-affiliated politically conscious and otherwise “problematic” prisoners and to justify increasingly draconian calls for increased funding and resources for “gang intelligence” measures and staff and the construction of more prisons – especially supermax and solitary confinement units.
The security threat group label
To allow the gang label to be applied more generally to any prisoner or prisoner group officials wish to target, prison officials have created the term Security Threat Group (STG), a more broadly inclusive euphemism for gang.
As with the cops on the outside, every person and idea prison officials wish to suppress they label as STG related. More often than not, the STG label is used to target things in manners that are facially absurd and in no way relate to any STG matter. Often, the motives are blatantly racist.
Indeed, most STG investigators and their staff are white and have no connection to communities or cultures of people of color. Yet the vast majority of prisoners targeted as STG affiliated are Black and Brown. The few exceptions in cases of more racially diverse STG officials occurs in prisons that are located in areas where there is a more diverse local population. But in many such cases the STG staff are still white officials shipped in from other places to run the STG operations.
Overall, the entire STG corps is trained into a hostile doctrinaire view of the so-called gang culture, which stereotypes Black and Brown communities, culture, people and history and is blatantly ignorant of and prejudiced toward them. In all prison systems, the STG label is used to suppress and censor literature that expresses views and teaches histories from critical Black and Brown perspectives. Often, it’s used to censor media that criticizes racism and racist groups.
Florida prisons, where I was confined from 2017-2018, routinely banned publications as “STG material,” citing articles that criticized racially discriminatory government practices or the actions of white supremacist groups in society.
I’ve witnessed over and again STG officials endorsing and permitting the spread of white supremacist groups and their teachings while targeting and repressing Blacks and Browns.
As an example of how absurdly the STG label is abused and used as an illegal tool of censorship by so-called “expert” gang officials and investigators, a recent issue of Socialist Viewpoint magazine was banned by STG investigators here at Indiana’s Wabash Valley prison, where I’m confined. They claimed the magazine violates the prison system’s STG policy – policy # 02-03-105, which can be read on the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC)’s website).
The magazine, they claimed, had “hand signals” in it. People from all walks of life are routinely seen using hand signals. Presidents use the “V” for victory – which among others is a general peace sign – and even the clenched fist. Sports people and rock stars are commonly seen with thumb and pinky finger extended, or thumb, pinky and index fingers extended, and so on.
But in the fevered minds of prison gang “experts,” any and every hand sign in a publication delivered to a Black or Brown person is problematic. Aren’t these “expert” gang investigators supposed to know how to distinguish between gang communications and everyday people using everyday body language? Of course they are, which is what demonstrates the foul motives behind what they do. This case is telling.
The IDOC’s STG policy which was cited as banning the magazine in no way applies. As a threshold matter, the policy defines an STG. Here’s what it says:
“SECURITY THREAT GROUP (STG): A group of offenders that set themselves apart from others; pose a threat to the security or safety of staff or offenders; or are disruptive to programs or the orderly management of the facility.”
By this policy’s own definition, Socialist Viewpoint has no connection to any STG. This magazine, which can also be viewed online, is a socialist magazine published and edited by two elderly white women, with obvious Jewish last names, who are not prisoners and have never been to prison. They are obviously not a “group of offenders.”
We already know that officials don’t like socialist and communist views and have linked suppressing those views with racist opposition to equality for Black people. Indeed, they’ve used racially charged labels to suppress those views, which is exactly what is occurring in this case. The racially charged STG label is being deliberately misused to suppress a socialist magazine.
From “communism” to “terrorism” to “gangs,” the agenda of using racially charged labels to suppress people of color and ideas that officials dislike continues. It’s the same racist imperialist shit in the same racist imperialist toilet.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! All Power to the People!
Send our brother some love and light: Kevin Johnson, 264847, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 1111, Carlisle IN 46391.
- 1David Coute, “The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower” (NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978) p. 168
- 2Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963” (NY: Simon and Shuster, 1988) pp. 209-10
- 3Robert Griffin, et al., Athen Theoharis, “The Politics of Scholarship: Liberalism, Anti-Communism and McCarthyism,” The Spectre: Original Essays on the Cold War and the Origins of McCarthyism (NY: New Viewpoints, 1974) p. 278
- 4Patricia Sullivan, “Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era” (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1996) pp. 260-63
- 5Alexander Cockburn, et al., “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press” (NY: Verso, 1999)