Art

How a 500-Page FBI File Sparked an Intergenerational Conversation on Activism

by

Sadie Barnette first requested her father’s 500-page FBI file in 2012. She thought it would arrive at her door by courier in one of those boxes stamped CONFIDENTIAL in red ink, but instead it was delivered to her inbox as a PDF. Four years after she’d requested the documents, the federal Freedom of Information Act permitted Sadie access to what was, it turned out, a catalog detailing years of daily surveillance of Rodney Barnette, founder of the Compton Black Panther chapter.

“Do Not Destroy,” Sadie’s solo exhibit at the Baxter Street Camera Club of New York, reads like an intergenerational conversation. The file pages are displayed in a chaotic array suggesting an invasive element, with splashes and blotches of neon paint and rhinestone adornments the artist describes as a daughter’s effort to take back power and ownership over her dad’s story. Rodney Barnette was labeled a “terrorist” by the FBI, whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, publicly characterized the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” Many Americans still imagine the Panthers as rifle-wielding radical black nationalists who plotted to overthrow the government.

The elder Barnette, a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient, returned home from Vietnam to find a war being waged against his neighborhood by local law enforcement. “I just wanted them to stop hurting black people,” says Rodney, who responded by joining the Panthers. The exhibit meticulously re-creates the investigation into him, which included detailed interviews with high school teachers, co-workers, neighbors, military officers, his brother’s wife, his parents’ neighbors, undercover informants — anyone, essentially, he had ever come in contact with. The answers become redundant, as no one expressed anything less than affection; one informant even noted that “he dresses really nice.”

“This is our family tree,” Sadie says, pointing out pages that indicate dates and places of birth for uncles, aunts, grandparents — as well as their occupations and former residences, here listed alongside the names of the informants who provided them (though these have been “redacted” and stamped “racial matters”). Rodney had always speculated that he was being monitored by the FBI, but there was never solid evidence to substantiate his suspicions. Thanks to the relentless COINTELPRO, he was fired from his job as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, lovers abandoned him, associates in the movement were murdered or locked away in prison cells, and he could hardly discern friend from Fed — until now. Until now he couldn’t determine if he was actually being surveilled or if paranoia was consuming him. Until now he couldn’t see the lists of other Black Panther deputies whom the FBI had checked off as “neutralized,” “deceased,” or “detained.” Until now, he didn’t know for certain the lengths to which the government would go to dismantle citizens’ right to organize.

“I don’t feel like a free man,” Rodney says today, “but it gives me a sense of relief. A sense of freedom.”

“Do Not Destroy” provokes a dialogue that explores the differences in activism from one era to the next. One of Sadie’s pieces is a framed blank letter addressed “Dear 1968” and signed “Love, 1984,” the year Rodney founded the Compton chapter and the year Sadie was born. A passing of the torch, from one freedom fighter to the next. “My entire family fought in wars dating back since the Civil War,” Rodney says. “We’ve been loyal to America forever.”

But what can today’s activists learn from the organizers of yesteryear? The dawn of the Trump era has awakened the agitator inside of many Americans who might have felt protected under previous administrations; others, like the Barnettes, continue to question the intentions of our democratic institutions. “Supposedly the laws protect everybody. Like Jim Crow, for example — that just makes it difficult for people to know what they’re fighting for,” Sadie says. “Trump proves that maybe the government is not always looking out.”

Happily, though, our tech-besotted era has gifted the modern activist a variety of useful tools. Consider social media: The Panthers might have used it to wrest their own narrative out of the hands of the FBI, which was sadly able to define them to the public. Today, outlets like Twitter allow for organizations to communicate their intent in real time and without filter; we’ve just recently witnessed how word of the Women’s March on Washington spread online in the weeks prior to Trump’s inauguration, eventuating in women from Nairobi to New York joining hands in solidarity and resistance.

Still, how protest might translate to power remains an open question. As efforts at equality evolve, so do the government’s tactics for “neutralizing” such movements. If the immediate removal of pages relating to civil and LGBTQ rights, climate change, and the Affordable Care Act from the White House website is any indication of what’s to come, organizers must start from scratch with strategizing. The Barnettes and “Do Not Destroy” have begun a dialogue that encourages the study of prior movements, picking out the elements that worked while refining them to fit the current climate of activism in America.

Sadie Barnette: ‘Do Not Destroy’

Baxter Street at CCNY, 126 Baxter Street, baxterst.org

Through February 18