Stop the Deadly Rumours
(First published in ZNet)
In the 1960s and 1970s, the US political police, mainly in the form of the FBI, infiltrated, spied upon, and violently attacked various social movement organizations. This effort, documented in Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s book, “The COINTELPRO Papers” was successful in helping to undermine poor people’s movements.
An important tactic in the COINTELPRO arsenal was the spreading of rumors. False accusations about trusted activists and important organizers broke the bonds of friendship and trust that people needed in order to challenge authority, challenge themselves, and maintain their courage in the face of repression. Once those bonds of trust and friendship were broken, the organizations themselves were easy prey. Activists have tried various methods for dealing with COINTELPRO type tactics, including variations on “security culture”.
These tactics were not limited to domestic movements in the US. When done abroad they were mainly conducted by the CIA and called “psychological warfare” (see William Blum’s book, “Killing Hope”, for examples).
The power of such operations is that they can be used to undermine a movement while retaining plausible deniability. And the sad truth is that it is often hard to tell if our organizations have been infiltrated because all too often we don’t need to be infiltrated to implode, because of our own political errors, personal insecurities, and mistakes.
I, for example, will never know whether the group I was a part of from 2001-2003, the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign (CCSC), was undermined by some kind of coordinated campaign, or simply by our own failures as individuals and as a group.
I do know, however, that the rise and fall of our group fits an established pattern. A small number (sometimes just one or two) of energetic individuals does a lot of work to make a political project happen. The project enjoys some success, some visibility, and even effectiveness in some limited sphere. There is backlash: from political opponents, too often from political allies, from individuals. The backlash focuses on one or two leaders, preferably just one. The rumours start to fly: of financial corruption, sexual impropriety, insufficient devotion to antiracist or feminist politics, of fraud. The content of the accusations matters much less than that they be unanswerable, and preferably so vile that even hearing them mentioned makes you want to either shun the accused, or dismiss the accusations as beneath consideration, sometimes blinding you to real problems. Examples that might be familiar: Ward Churchill, accused of falsifying his indigenous ancestry, of being personally violent, and academically fraudulent. Noam Chomsky, usually accused of being a denier of some form of genocide.
In my group, one of the energetic initial “leaders” was a Colombian-Canadian surgeon named Manuel Rozental. Manuel brought to the CCSC connections to Colombia’s union movements, its Afro-Colombian movements, its women’s movements, its peasant organizations, and its indigenous peoples, built over decades of courageous and dedicated political engagement in that country. He was closest to the indigenous of Cauca, whose struggle plainly inspired him and who, when he talked about their example in Canada, moved others [See my photo essay on the Nasa of Northern Cauca for an introduction]. He also brought a unique analysis of Colombia to the table.
To Manuel, Colombia was not the victim of a “culture of violence” or an interminable civil war. It was, instead, just the most extreme example of a model of “development without people”, in which the people were driven from their territories in order to hand those lands over to multinationals that could exploit Colombia’s vast resources and take huge profits off to their head offices in the wealthy countries. In the cities, the worker’s movement, the organized opposition to the same interests, was being liquidated by violence, to facilitate the same process. The civil war, the “war on drugs”, these were pretexts. Colombians didn’t need charity or aid or even ideas about how to solve their problems. Colombia had wealth, and there were plenty of people with ideas and strategies for a better future. They needed a reprieve from the savagery of the externally imposed economic model, and a chance to weave their own disparate struggles.
Those needs suggested a strategy for those outside Colombia: International solidarity efforts that would help Colombians coordinate with each other, rather than a sector-by-sector, funding-driven approach that did more to divide Colombian movements than to unite them. A recognition that Colombian movements had plenty to teach and that North American movements had much to learn. And a strategy for trying to protect movements from violence, based on communication, so that each violation of human rights would lead to greater exposure of the underlying interests and forces. Since the movements were under attack by paramilitaries, the paramilitaries were a wing of the government, and the government was serving the US and the multinationals, the attacks had to be made detrimental to the masters. That was a task for everybody, but it was also a case where the small, day to day acts of human rights activism (research, letter-writing, press work, event organizing, demonstrations, accompaniment) could make a big difference, especially if each small action was part of a larger strategy.
The analysis and the strategy made as much sense to me as anything I’d heard before or since. It was all spelled out in four principles of solidarity. To others, evidently, as well. The CCSC became very visible in Canada and Colombia, especially at the time of the FTAA meeting in Quebec City in 2001. We organized two major exchanges, one (March-April 2001) in which 6 Colombian movement leaders came to Canada, and another in which 30 Canadian activists – unionists, NGO workers, indigenous activists, students, and others - traveled to different parts of Colombia, learning from their movement hosts. That second delegation took place in late August 2001. The principles, the lessons, and the idea of reciprocal solidarity were of great value and I still believe in them. Though Colombian movements had it harder than ever after September 11, 2001, it was harder for them to get much attention, even on the left.
Also, the CCSC’s analysis had its detractors. Manuel’s critique of the traditional solidarity sector, which proved prescient, was harsh. One could focus on procuring funding for safe projects and distributing it in ways that demobilized, or one could step out of that comfort zone and risk one’s funding, one’s office, and one’s lifestyle. The CCSC never had an office and Manuel earned his living performing surgeries. The work was collective and based on a set of declared political ‘principles of solidarity’: all who subscribed to the principles could work under them, but no one could control the process, even if they brought funding or resources to the table. Perhaps that explains something too. When the CCSC began, there was funding from various NGOs, church groups, unions, even the Canadian International Development Agency, to bring the Colombian activists to Canada and to send the Canadians to Colombia. After some time, though, CCSC lost most of its funding.
Though rumors had been spread about our work from the beginning, they got much worse as our capacity to work declined – partly as a consequence of the rumors. They followed the predictable pattern. They focused on Manuel. There was mud slung from diverse directions, and of many kinds. From friends and allies they consisted of trying to hold Manuel to standards to which they would not hold any human being, let alone themselves. From those less familiar with our work, the accusations got filthier, in concentric circles. At the outer circle were the filthiest accusations, made by those with the least knowledge. Manuel was a CIA agent (something there could be no proof for). Manuel denounced other activists in public (though no public record could be found). Manuel supported terrorism. Manuel used the indigenous cause to personally enrich himself. No one, of course, would stand behind such statements in public – if evidence was asked for, another “source” for them would be found. Ask that “source”, and get sent off to the next source. But the whisper campaign worked. The CCSC ground to a halt, with meetings being called for the express purpose of denouncing Manuel. One day, after one of those meetings, I went home and wrote an email announcing my resignation, and shortly afterwards I suggested that the group be dissolved.
In Colombia, an Afro-Colombian leader, a union leader, and a peasant leader, all of whom had worked with the CCSC, all found themselves threatened and accused. The Colombian counterparts of the CCSC collectively decided to dissolve the campaign, rather than to try to answer the threats and further risk their lives. The group was consequently dissolved, with all the ugliness and hurt feelings implied, and with Manuel getting the worst of it.
Manuel never denounced those who had attacked him. Instead he went back to Colombia to work directly, and this time quietly, with the movements he had tried to work for in Canada. As before, he was closest to the Nasa in Cauca, and he was in Northern Cauca for a couple of years during which the Nasa of Northern Cauca became the spark for a resurgence of political resistance in Colombia.
When he left Canada in 2003, Manuel didn’t announce his departure or where he was going. Sometimes, in those years, people in Canada who I suspected of being part of the rumor mill would ask me about him, pretending nonchalance. Worried about his safety, I was vague. Rumors in Canada were difficult enough. Rumors in Colombia can be a death sentence. They caught up with him there, in late 2005, transmuting into death threats [See Naomi Klein’s article on Manuel Rozental on this], and he was forced to return to the place where the rumors started, where the technique of slander for demobilization was perfected, where “solidarity movements” can chew up and spit out the best and most decent people.
The threats forced Manuel out of Colombia at a time when the Nasa organizations wanted him to be there. National elections are coming up. The indigenous sparked a campaign for “Freedom for Mother Earth”, recovering land in a process similar to that of the MST in Brazil and in a context that is even deadlier for activists [See Hector Mondragon’s article on “Freedom for Mother Earth”].
And now that he is back in Canada, on cue, we begin to hear the filthy rumors again.
This time around, unlike in previous years, after a bit of investigation, we have various names of people who are “sources” of the accusations against Manuel. But the point is to stop, not to extend, defamation. Let us instead set out some basic principles which, if adhered to, would stop the rumors flying and would take the wind out of the COINTELPRO tactics.
1. Unless I have seen credible and convincing evidence that an individual working in the progressive movement is a CIA agent or a paramilitary agent, that he has personally enriched himself from his political work, or that he has denounced other activists, I will not make claims or rumors to that effect.
2. If I do have credible and convincing evidence of any of these things, I will make my accusations in public immediately, providing the evidence, and standing behind it personally.
3. I recognize that making unsubstantiated accusations is an unethical practice, and takes on a particularly unethical dimension in contexts where such accusations can be fatal.
4. If I have political disagreements with any activist, I will raise them in an appropriate way, publicly, according to the norms of public debate and discourse. The usual rules of evidence, the presumption of innocence, and the right to face one’s accuser, should all apply.
Manuel needs to get back to his work for his people. I will start the signatures, but I would like others to sign on*.
*I have posted this article to the ZNet Wiki and will add signatures that are emailed to me at email@example.com to it. You can also sign into the wiki to add signatures.