The appearance of the hip-hop artist Common at the White House last May reopened some old wounds from the 1970s. In his music, Common has praised Assata Shakur (formerly Joanne Chesimard), convicted for the 1973 murder of a New York State trooper, who was shot in the back of the head with his own service revolver. After escaping from prison in 1979, Shakur fled to Cuba, where she remains a guest of the Castro government. Police organisations in New Jersey denounced the Obama administration’s invitation, which the White House declined to withdraw.
Shakur was a major terrorist figure in 1970s America—a decade of “indigenous American berserk” in the words of the novelist Philip Roth. During this period, the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, bombed the Pentagon, New York police headquarters, corporate offices, and other symbolic targets. The violent escapades of Weather’s well-educated middle- and upper-class members radiated a kind of toxic glamour that continues to fascinate some younger political activists. During the 1970s, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a tiny band of violent extremists led by a prison escapee turned “general field marshal” vaulted to international notoriety through one of the most audacious terrorist “spectaculars” of the era: the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress who under the nom de guerre “Tania” would go on to fight as an SLA “urban guerrilla.”
The Common contretemps brought some fresh attention to the Shakur case. But the terrorist group to which she belonged, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), remains largely forgotten. The BLA was loosely organised and small, never numbering more than 25 or 30 hardcore members. But it was far more lethal than the WUO or SLA. During the early 1970s, the BLA robbed banks (“revolutionary appropriations,” in the language of the day), kidnapped drug dealers, and killed a dozen policemen—“assassinations,” in the BLA’s parlance.
Historical amnesia about groups like the BLA is unfortunate. For many U.S. government officials, policy analysts, and academic specialists, terrorism effectively began on September 11, 2001. During the following ten years, the only domestic violent extremism that seemed to matter was the plots hatched by American Muslims. Lacking any historical perspective, policymakers have framed “homegrown” Islamic terrorism as uniquely dangerous and therefore requiring extraordinary countermeasures.
Re-examining the BLA reminds us of the obvious but often overlooked point that terrorism is a tactic that isn’t confined to Muslims. Moreover, the successful campaign against the BLA reinforces the idea that at least in some cases relatively conventional means such as persistent police work, criminal prosecutions, and prison sentences can be highly effective counterterrorism tools.
What was to become known as the Black Liberation Army emerged from the Black Panther Party, the pre-eminent “Black Power” organisation of the late 1960s. From its founding in Oakland, California in 1966, a clandestine wing existed inside the party. (Maintaining revolutionary discipline among underground cadres was not always easy, according to one former member, who felt the need to remind his fellow revolutionaries that “our struggle was a class struggle, not an ass struggle.”) But the BLA did not emerge as a separate entity until 1971, when the West Coast central committee expelled the New York Panthers. Banished party members went on to form the nucleus of an independent BLA.
The group made its violent debut in June 1971 with a machine-gun attack on two New York policemen guarding the Manhattan district attorney’s apartment. Two days later, two police officers were shot to death while on patrol in Harlem. In a letter delivered to local media, the BLA announced that “the armed goons of this racist government will again meet the guns of oppressed Third World Peoples as long as they occupy our community and murder our brothers and sisters in the name of American law and order.”
Throughout is existence, the BLA framed its violent attacks on police as a legitimate response to the forces of colonial occupation in the nation’s ghettos. As Shakur declared, “[o]ur backs are against the wall [and] now more than ever we need an army to defend ourselves and fight for our liberation.” During the next three years, the BLA wounded or murdered policemen in New York, New Haven, Philadelphia, Atlanta and St. Louis. The BLA’s area of operations extended as far as San Francisco. In August 1971, members carried out a string of bank robberies, attempted to murder a policeman, and mounted a nine-person attack on a precinct house that left a police officer dead.
The BLA described its attacks on dope peddlers as another form of self-defense and as resistance to what it claimed was a government conspiracy to flood communities with heroin and anaesthetise restless ghetto denizens. In an undated communiqué, the BLA issued a general warning to social undesirables, including “pimps, ho’s [sic], howalkers, trickwalkers, bodyguards, tricks, dope pushers, and owners/operators of trick houses. Anyone found guilty . . .would be dealt with.”
Although the BLA’s reach extended across the country, New York was the center of BLA operations. Attacks on the police fostered a climate of fear within the ranks of the NY Police Department. As one patrolman said in early 1972, “I’m carrying my police special plus two non-reg weapons and I’m still scared shitless to walk on my beat.” As far as the New York police were concerned, the BLA was a criminal, cop-killing enterprise—despite whatever revolutionary rhetoric it chose to spout.
The FBI saw things differently. The BLA was criminal, to be sure, but it was not a gang of ordinary lawbreakers. In the bureau’s view, the BLA was a national security threat, primarily domestic in nature, but with possible links to hostile governments in the Middle East. The FBI seldom used the term “terrorist” to describe the BLA. In a July 1973 bulletin, the bureau drew a distinction between terrorists, who sought to “focus attention on a particular grievance,” and guerrillas, who are “working toward revolution.” In the opinion of a senior FBI official, the BLA clearly was in the latter category: “[the] avowed aim of the BLA is revolution.” To thwart such subversion, the FBI undertook what it termed “full penetrative investigations” which relied heavily on informants who were close to the BLA.
Although the FBI did apprehend some BLA fugitives, local police in New York, San Francisco, and New Jersey were responsible for capturing (or in some cases killing in shootouts) most of the individuals responsible for BLA violence. One ex-BLA member, writing in 2003, claimed that “techniques of ‘low intensity warfare,’ of counterinsurgency, of terrorism . . .were perfected over a period of time and were used in very effective ways against the Black liberation movement.” In reality, the BLA was taken apart by persistent police work, manhunts, and long prison terms. By the mid-1970s, the BLA was defunct, with most of its members dead or behind bars. However, according to a 1983 FBI memo, various “black and white ‘revolutionaries’ of several radical/terroristic groups” continued to invoke the BLA’s name, which apparently retained some vestigial incantatory power.
Ironically, the BLA received its greatest notoriety after it effectively ceased to exist. BLA alumni (and one alumna) participated in two more major violent episodes. In November 1979, ex-BLA members sprang Shakur from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence for murder. Former BLA members also took part in a botched Brinks armored truck robbery in upstate New York in October 1981 that left two policemen and one guard dead. The group responsible for the failed heist (the “Revolutionary Armed Task Force” in a subsequent communiqué, but among themselves, the “Family”) included ex-BLA members as well as stars of the 1970s terrorist firmament, including Kathy Boudin, Judith Clark, Susan Rosenberg, David Gilbert, (all former WUO members) and Marilyn Buck, who the press described as “the chief gunrunner and the only white member of the BLA.”
The case of the BLA does not offer any tidy counterterrorism lessons. But it does help us remember that homegrown U.S. terrorism did not begin on 9/11. Moreover, the BLA reminds us that domestic violent extremism is not confined to individuals or groups who identify themselves as Muslims. Finally, the campaign against the BLA shows that even extremely violent terrorist groups can be dismantled by relatively mundane counterterrorism tools like police investigations, aggressive prosecutions, and long prison sentences—in other words, by treating terrorists like dangerous criminals.