You hear it all the time from some members of the Black conscious community:
“Don’t say or write that! The government is spying on you!”
“Don’t you know that the white man monitors your phone calls, emails, texts and social media posts?”
“Any attempt to raise consciousness or organize people using social media is foolish!”
“If you spend so much energy spreading political information with the enemy watching/listening, you must be an agent!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard these sentiments over the years, I’d be featured on the Forbes list of richest activists! But is there truth to this notion? Should we be politically paranoid, Black people? Does adopting this mentality push the Black Liberation Movement forward, or plunge it backwards?
Let’s begin by defining the term. According to Wikipedia,
Paranoia is a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system.
The political paranoia existing in our community differs in some degree from the clinical version. For example, a clinically paranoid person displays unwarranted or impractical fears (i.e. being abducted by aliens from another planet or having internal organs removed by NASA scientists and sold on the Black market).
Most reasonable people would agree that the likelihood of occurence for either scenario is low to nonexistent. Those of you reading this who seriously think “actually both scenarios are highly likely,” might have paranoid tendencies.
Political paranoia in our community however, is very nuanced and partly understandable. The Tuskegee Experiment, MK Ultra, Cointelpro, and revelations of the Church Committee, all provide documented evidence of this government’s long history of deceptive maneuvers to persecute and control its citizenry – particularly those citizen-residents of color.
The verdict therefore is clear: Biological warfare, assassination, unjust imprisonment, mind control experiments, IRS harrassment, surveillance, slander, forgery, planting and hiding “evidence”….. all of these have precedents in this country. ALL of these acts actually occurred (and still occur on some level) and all had horrific impact on our activists, organizers, and leaders and liberation movements.
Therefore, when conscious brothers and sisters voice concerns or admonitions about such things, they are not crazy or living in a fantasy world. They are in fact, reminding us of how our enemies operate, in an effort to protect and prepare us (see my essay, “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong.”)
If this is true, if they have legitimate reason to feel unsafe, how can we refer to some of our folk as being politically paranoid? For one, such individuals exxagerate the perceieved threat and cause unnecessary hysteria by doing so.
Secondly, their hysteria makes it seem as though conscious bloggers, social media activists, or those who participate in online organizing are ALL enemies of the state….and therefore ALL in jeopardy of state persecution.
I already conceded that there are valid reasons to distrust this government and be concerned about the repression/persecution of progressive or revolutionary activists and leaders.
However there are a few things we should clarify or else this political discretions becomes hysteria which threatens to cripple us and set us on a backwards course.
- Our enemies’ job is to sabotage, confuse and ultimately control and subjugate us. We should not be surprised by this, but should expect it, accept it, and prepare accordingly.
- While we should remind, caution and adequately prepare our people, there is a thin line between doing these things, and scaring our folk half-to-death or demoralizing them.
- We should NEVER operate from fear. Fear robs of us initiative. Fear paralyzes and leads to apathy. The conversation cannot just provide harsh warnings or a frantic appeal to caution, it must also provide suggestions for how to move more effectively and strategically. I suspect that some of our politically paranoid brothers and sisters are not operating from caution or disvretion, but FEAR – of white backlash. This is understandable. However, such individuals should be honest.
- Understand from the outset that any Black person who chooses to advance or defend Black people, will experience some form of persecution. You will either lose friends and jobs, be subjected to unfair criticism and character smearing, isolated, misunderstood, physically attacked, conspired against, imprisoned, etc. Each choice of life path comes with an array of circumstances. The life of an activist/organizer/leader is not for everyone. Some can make their contributions quietly and in anonymity, but some must push the envelope. You will need to be decisive without being hasty, and strategic without suffering from the “paralysis of analysis.” Don’t choose this path if you’re unwilling to deal with the unique challenges and consequences that doing so brings.
- No Black person should be under the naive impression that we can completely guard or hide our activities from the prying eyes of “the establishment.” Your complete privacy ended once you acquired a social security card, completed a W-2 form, filed taxes, received social services, attended school, or obtained a driver’s license or state ID card. The same applies if you were ever a registered leader/member of a Black Nationalist or activist organization, or on public record voicing strong political rhetoric.
- Are you part of the Black Liberation Movement or a top-secret spy organization? How effective can you be speaking up and standing up for Black people, educating and transforming the masses, or resisting the empire’s oppression if you’re overly concerned about that empire spying on you?
In conclusion, I assure you that I am no fool and I dont suggest that Black folk be foolish either. If you can encrypt your emails, cellphone calls (the free app Redphone does this) or texts to circumvent invasive government snooping, do so. It is your right and responsibility. Doing so in no way indicates your involvement in illegal or unlawful activity. Given new regulations, it is also wise to exercise discretion when talking on the phone or corresponding online/via email. You wouldn’t want to be unfairly accused of “domestic terrorism” because someone misinterpreted your communications, right?
Protecting yourself – especially in a time of unprecedented government surveillance – is your right and responsibility. Using discretion in actual or virtual public is always recommended. Yet as anti-empire folk, isn’t it our partial job to disturb the empire, to make it uncomfortable and vulnerable? Aren’t we who are conscious supposed to stick our necks out at critical times to inform, inspire and organize our people? Abused animals have more rights and value and receive more sympathy than slain Black people in this country and all we can offer is “Watch what you say?”
At this critical historical moment, students, workers and community folk are waking up and speaking out. We cannot afford to join the political hysteria crew, and become the back-seat drivers of this movement. We all desire safety and some degree of comfort. But if our quest to attain these things compromises our willingness to wake up, clean up and stand up, we should resign from the Black Liberation Movement and go into the entertainment industry where we can get paid well to continue “acting” like freedom fighters and social justice workers.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.