Oh, the irony: The right attacks the FBI, the same agency with a history of targeting Black movements

OPINION: But unlike the FBI's sinister actions during the civil rights era, which were mostly done in secret, the raid on Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago property—reportedly to retrieve documents related to nuclear weapons—was legal and appears to be completely justified.

The seal of the F.B.I. hangs in the Flag Room at the bureau's headquarters March 9, 2007 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The right’s hysterical hissy fit in the aftermath of the FBI’s unprecedented (yet completely legal) raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property would be just plain ironic if it were not also disturbing. Their rhetoric—including conflating agents with the Democratic Party and going so far as to allege that evidence against the former president has been planted—has already led to one violent attack on an FBI field office in Ohio and that could be just the beginning of a nationwide reactionary uprising against federal law enforcement. 

The alleged assailant, a Jan. 6 insurrectionist identified as Ricky Shiffer, reportedly called for his fellow MAGA minions to take up arms in a domestic battle against the government on social media prior to the attack. But this is no longer just fringe talk. In the wake of the FBI raid, actual elected officials like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have called for the FBI to be defunded, while others have engaged in all sorts of wild, unsubstantiated speculation about the FBI’s motives and tactics.

Of course, if anyone has a right to be skeptical of the FBI, it’s Black Americans. For decades, the FBI served as one of the most vindictive and, sadly, effective tools in dismantling and undermining efforts of the civil rights movement. There’s a reason they’re the villain in virtually every cinematic retelling of the era. They were officially sanctioned to disrupt the lives and denigrate the activism of MLK, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, just to name a few.

Most of these activities took place under the decades-long leadership of FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover, a man with a well-documented penchant for virulent racism and a creepy preoccupation with the sex life of Dr. King in particular. By many historical accounts, Hoover became obsessed with and terrified by the notion of a “Black Messiah” who would stir up and activate the Black population of this country to demand equal justice and rights under the law. Hoover’s tenure and reach at the bureau were so long that this theory was applied to everyone from Marcus Garvey to Fred Hampton.

This history is not lost on African-Americans, not only because it has been vividly recreated in films like Selma and Judas and the Black Messiah, but also because many of us lived with it and still do. The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, certainly has not viewed law enforcement on the state and federal levels as an ally. Even though the FBI never mentioned BLM by name, it is widely believed that it was one of the groups the FBI had in mind when it released a report warning about the threat posed by “Black Identity Extremists” back in 2017. 

But, demonstrating its sense of humor in a brilliant bit of trolling, BLM’s official social media accounts called out the likes of Rep. Greene and suspected pedophile Rep. Matt Gaetz for suddenly appearing to be aligned with their values now that their king—Donald Trump—appears to be the subject of FBI investigations.

But we should all take a collective deep breath here since the historical antagonism between Black Americans and the FBI could not be more different than the scrutiny Donald Trump now appears to be facing.

For starters, much of the sinister actions of the FBI during the height of the civil rights movement were done in relative secrecy. Hoover founded his own internal intelligence unit—COINTELPRO—with the express purpose of infiltrating and discrediting “subversive” civil rights organizations. Some of this work was done with the tacit approval of presidents both Democratic and Republican, but his methods—like sending threatening notes and recordings to Dr. King and his wife, urging the civil rights leader to commit suicide—were far from legal and ethically unconscionable.

And while Hoover’s death in 1972 by no means absolved the FBI of its history of wrongdoing, it did provide an opportunity for a bit of reset. After decades of acting with relative impunity, the bureau did get put under more oversight in the ensuing decades (and FBI director’s tenures were limited as well). Still, it is an overwhelmingly white and male institution (women were not even allowed to be agents until after Hoover’s death), with, by almost all accounts, a conservative cultural bent. So, there is good reason for many Americans to be suspicious of the bureau’s intentions—but its actual actions must also be examined.

In this case, everything about the FBI’s approach appears to have been above board and by the book. In fact, an argument could be made that the bureau was actually far more deferential to Trump than it would be to most other private citizens potentially involved in a federal crime. It’s almost breathtaking how quickly Trump and his supporters tried to spin the events that occurred on Monday, but rather than creating our own reality, we should review what actually took place.

Trump claimed the FBI search of his home was unannounced but actually, his Secret Service detail on the property was given hours of advance warning before agents arrived on site. He described agents as breaking into his home—but in reality, the Secret Service helped facilitate federal officers, who conducted a legally authorized search that would have needed to be signed off on by a federal judge. This is no small process, especially when it would involve someone as high profile as a former president. The feds would have to establish that a crime was suspected of being actively committed on the premises and have to provide evidence that agents had no choice but to act in this dramatic fashion.

Reports have suggested that this FBI search was related to highly sensitive classified documents known to be in the former president’s possession. Not only was he repeatedly warned that he did not have the right to keep said documents in his far-from-secure home, but previous court orders had demanded that he turn them over. If early reports are true, and these documents had to do with nuclear weapons, one can only wonder if there is any infraction that the former president can engage in that his supporters would not forgive.

A seal reading “Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation” is displayed on the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building in Washington, DC, August 9, 2022. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Breonna Taylor never got any advance notice about the invasion of her home, which ultimately took her life. And countless other Black Americans have either lost their lives or had their lives destroyed because of law enforcement overreach and excessive force. So it’s pretty rich hearing one of the most powerful people in the world whining about being persecuted when all he has lost—so far—are a couple dozen boxes of documents that he never should have had in the first place.

This is not to suggest that anyone needs to be rooting for the feds now or ever. And more information is clearly about to unfold in this case. But any reasonable person can agree that information about any nuclear arsenal should not be in the hands of just anyone and should not be housed in insecure environments. This could have dire consequences for every human being on the planet, and it’s a stark reminder of just how dangerous it was and is to have irresponsible people with this much responsibility for our lives.

For all our lives, Americans have been told repeatedly and exhaustively that “no one is above the law,” even though Trump regularly has suggested he believes he is and certainly acts accordingly. For so many decades, Black Americans have known this premise to not be true. So while there are not necessarily any good guys in the case of Trump and his alleged mishandling of documents, there is something to be said for proving there might actually be an element of truth in that old adage.


Adam Howard is a senior associate producer for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and a producer on the “Full Release with Samantha Bee” podcast. He has written about pop culture, sports and politics for The Daily Beast, Playboy, and NBC News and has recently curated an exhibition of the history of blaxploitation for the Poster House museum in New York City.

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