Black Power Activists Accused Government of Spying, but They Weren’t Called Heroes

Whistleblower Edward Snowden is considered a hero for claiming what blacks have been shouting for decades.

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Huey Newton of the Black Panthers (with raised fist) at a Revolutionary People's Party Convention in 1970

David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Perhaps we’ve got our definitions of “hero” twisted, but I have yet to hear a convincing take on what makes Edward Snowden one. Ultimately, this cat is not the post-modern neo-geek who hacktivists and fake libertarians profess him to be. All I’m picking up is yet another middle-class Caucasian kid road-tripping the globe—putting our international reputation at risk.

Let’s wave our hands through the smoke for a moment. Not sure how Snowden ends up in the pantheon of civil rights humanitarians who risked lives, families and sanity in the name of liberty and free speech: Gandhi, King, Mandela. The list runs on. These brothers stayed put—with bruises, bullets, whip marks and jail time to prove it. Many cats all over the world, including those unnamed, continue slugging it out in the mud of oppression. Mandela hammered rocks in the hot sun for 27 years. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest. Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai (who should have ended up as Time magazine's Person of the Year instead of as a runner-up alongside Snowden) still walked to school despite real threats from tyrannical local Taliban. 

Yet, 51 percent of Americans—according to a recent Angus Reid Global online poll—think Snowden is “something of a hero who should be commended for letting the public know that our governments are running electronic surveillance programs that threaten people’s privacy.” But, when didn’t we know government had us under surveillance since, like, the beginning of government? What, for real, is so spectacular and fresh about this latest string of punk-hits-then-runs revelations from a distant totalitarian land?

I can’t help wondering what the reaction would be if Snowden were, instead, black. Of course, we’d see this scenario play out a bit differently. In fact, we already have. Civil rights activists, Black Panthers and even African-American members of Congress have for decades highlighted the scurrilous surveillance activities of federal agencies from the FBI to the CIA. Yet, in this episode, COINTELPRO rings no bell. We prefer skipping along in Snowden Fantasy Land, lauding him up in some mythical Dos Equis’ redux as “The Most Interesting Whiz Kid in the World.”

Just not buying it. Americans never blinked this much, never raised alarms, never got this tied up about government fuzz in the basement of the NSA snooping through the phone records when it was happening to those mentioned above. Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), for all her quirks, was lampooned and laughed out of Congress for even mentioning such things. For years, media outlets and cynical journos repeatedly gave activists of color the collective I-don’t-wanna-hear-it hand, dismissing them as “conspiracy theorists” and “fringe” crackpots with dissent agendas—even in cases when they did their due diligence.

How ironic: In our social media selfie bliss and over-sharing narcissism, we are suddenly so concerned about privacy. We weren’t all that concerned about it when the last president bullied through the Patriot Act. Few were this concerned about NSA encroachments during that long post-9/11 decade when conservatives successfully guilt-tripped and silenced everyone from the Dixie Chicks to critically thinking students in the classroom. And where was über-conservative “Birther” backer Larry Klayman—the mastermind behind this latest NSA lawsuit—when President Bush was busily reconstructing the 21st-century surveillance state? 

On many levels, the brand-new anti-NSA blowout bash has little to do with folks suddenly feeling creepy about federal agents going through their digital underwear. This has more to do with clueless college-age kids and drama-hungry pundits helping Snowden max out on his White Privilege Card. You see, surveillance states were all good when Texas was running things—but it’s (oh) such a big problem now that a black man runs our national intelligence apparatus. Just saying …

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.

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