Detail from My Father’s FBI File, Project III, 2017. Laser prints, aerosol paint, rhinestones, mounted on plexiglas, 28 pages, each 10 1_2 x 8 3_4.© Sadie Barnette. Courtesy of the artist.

In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI put Rodney Barnette on a watch list after the Vietnam veteran became co-founder of the Compton, California, chapter of the Black Panther Party. At the time, the FBI was running COINTELPRO at full speed, illegally using government operatives and resources to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise “neutralize” the Panthers.

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For years, the FBI tracked Rodney’s every move, creating a 500-page dossier that his daughter, artist Sadie Barnette, finally secured after a four-year effort to obtain the files under the Freedom of Information Act. From these files, Barnette has crafted an incredible work, titled Dear 1968…, now on view at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in Pennsylvania through October 13, 2017.

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For Dear 1968, Barnette mines her father’s personal and political histories, using documents from the file, family photos, and drawings to reclaim Rodney’s humanity and reveal the U.S. government’s systemic abuse of power to oppress African-Americans operating well within their rights under the constitution.

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Founded on October 16, 1966 in Oakland, CA, by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was specifically created to protect American citizens from the abuses of the state. Under the protection of the Second Amendment, it created armed citizen patrols to openly monitor police officers and defend against rampant acts of police brutality.

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“Our position was: If you don’t attack us, there won’t be any violence; if you bring violence to us, we will defend ourselves,” Seale explained. But they didn’t stop there. Well versed in the letter of the law, the BPP established the Ten Point Platform and Program t hat called for freedom, full employment, reparations, housing, education, military exemption, end to police brutality and murder, freedom for the incarcerated, Constitutional rights during trial, and full self-determination.

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The BPP filled a void and met a need, quickly mobilizing nationwide and setting up chapters in 68 cities within five years. Invariably, the United States government, which had long profited under the systems of slavery and Jim Crow, was incensed by this act of self determination and self preservation, and began a system of counter operations designed to take down what Hoover described as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

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Detail from Untitled (Dad, 1966 and 1968), 2016, Two c-prints, 46×40 each.© Sadie Barnette. Courtesy of the artist

COINTELPRO had been operating illegally for years until the historic 1971 break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, which exposed the weapons of the government that had been using surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and ultimately murder to destabilize, discredit, criminalize and ultimately destroy the movement.

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The break-in was organized by eight anti-war activists, including the late Haverford Professor of Physics and of Mathematics William Davidon. In response, Barnette has created a new work for the show titled “Untitled (Citizen’s Commission).”

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“For this exhibition, I created a drawing that imagined a logo for the name the eight ‘burglars’ gave themselves—the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” said Barnette. “By giving themselves this official title, they imagined a world where the government is accountable to the people. They broke in because they rightly suspected that the FBI wasn’t simply gathering information, but was actively sabotaging their antiwar organizing. They weren’t fighting for privacy; they were fighting for the right to dissent.”

 

Barnette has been showing works from Dear 1968… throughout 2017, but they have taken on increasing significance following the actions in Charlottesville, where police officers were suspiciously absent from the right-wing protests and the current regime openly stood behind the KKK and Nazi movement. It would be naïve to think that COINTELPRO was a unique or ahistoric event, but it is not. It is simply the scheme that has been uncovered, while so many others operate under the cover of darkness and disinformation.

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In bringing the story of her father’s persecution to light, Barnette reveals a truth: that some of the greatest terrorists we face as a nation are hiding in plain sight. Their paychecks are drawn from tax dollars and their missions against upstanding citizens of this nation are supported by the regime.

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Karl Marx observed, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” — but he was wrong. The second, third, fourth, fifth, infinite repetition of the act is far from absurd. It is evidence of a malignant and despotic nature that is yet to be destroyed.

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Detail from My Father’s FBI File, Project III, 2017. Laser prints, aerosol paint, rhinestones, mounted on plexiglas, 28 pages, each 10 1_2 x 8 3_4.© Sadie Barnette. Courtesy of the artist

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