With support from the Digital Studio and Publishing Studio, I am continuing work to adapt and remix a play that presents historical research in a provocative and entertaining way. The original play, Cointelshow: A Patriot Act, by L. M. Bogad, explores the workings of counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) that the FBI used to “discredit, disrupt,” and otherwise “neutralize” activists of the Civil Rights Movement. My adaptation includes a focus on not just overt repression of social justice movements by the state, but how this repression has adapted over time, and is carried out with cooperation from corporate partners. The remix, Cointelshow 2.0, also includes numerous examples of how this repression has played out in Iowa. My work adapting this play began as Republican-backed legislation, continuing the long tradition of authoritarian repression and appealing to white supremacy, forced me out of a career in education.
Teaching social studies makes obvious how much our individual and national identities are based on our understanding of history. My experiences in the classroom around this help to inform Cointelshow 2.0. During the first week of middle school social studies, I would often give students prompts in order to gauge their understanding of history and society. One particular response was unforgettable, a comic drawn to answer the question “What is America?” The student’s first panel showed a white hand holding a whip, beating a Black man in chains. The second showed a Black man speaking to a crowd, labeled “MLK.” The final panel showed a handshake between two hands – one white, one Black.
The student’s understanding is not uncommon, and while not factually incorrect, the silences it includes are devastating. It is convenient to see our world today as continually rising above injustices of past. Yet, to see history only as an inevitable march toward fairness limits our understanding. More than that, it can, as James Baldwin noted, trap us. If our histories are only those of progress, possibilities for understanding ourselves and how we might move in the world are foreclosed. When our understanding of the past and society disregards the role of structures, systems, or power, it limits us. Such whitewashed histories can limit our imaginations and restrict our action to that which reinforces our current power structure.
Our current power structure is deadly. We find ourselves in a “very dangerous time” where many find it easier to “live in an invented delusional world” than to challenge whitewashed histories and the identities resting on them. In the 2022 collected volume of Bogad’s works, Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia, Bogad invents a name for our landscape, “fasctasia.” Fasctasia is defined not just as classic fascism, but as the “post-truth, racist, xenophobic, and doublethinking media and cultural environment in which nativist, authoritarian movements are nurtured, sustained, and mobilized.” Cointelshow 2.0 attempts to challenge the forces behind fasctasia. This summer I plan to make progress toward the play’s eventual production, editing archival documents, workshopping drafts, and finding potential partners. In an early scene, the audience is addressed,
“Listen, for those of us associated with the University, if you see something, say something.
No thoughtful person can question that the American system is under broad attack. The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of our society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media…
We’re well aware of what’s going on in departments like African American Studies and Sociology. I think we’d all like to see a little more Papa John and a little less Paulo Freire.”
Here, Special Agent Christian White paraphrases the 1971 Powell Memo, accurately called a blueprint for the corporate takeover of the United States. The agent addresses potential FBI recruits in Cointelshow 2.0. Borrowing heavily from archival sources, this remix examines lesser known, but timely histories of repression. It bounces through time, from the Red Scare, to the late 1960s, to the present, illustrating how the legacies and evolution of repression, white supremacy, and unbridled capitalism misshape so much of our society today.
A pitch black satire and parody, the remix makes clear that the classic Civil Rights Movement did not overturn the Jim Crow order entirely, but rather provoked it to adapt. The promise of the Civil Rights Movement remains unmet, due to investments in policing, uncritical media, white vigilantism, and federal funding shifts. As this adaptation argues, we still live in the white backlash to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.
The remix is intended as a primer – both in the sense of introducing historic and present repression, but also as a detonating device which might cause explosive action. It will leave audiences with more questions than answers:
Why did Iowa’s largest police department continually harass the Des Moines Black Panthers even as they led education initiatives like a free breakfast program which served 75-300 children daily?
When the Black Panther’s Des Moines headquarters was bombed in 1969, damaging nearly 50 surrounding houses, why did police immediately arrest and pepper spray the victims of the bombing?
How and why did a Des Moines police officer turned FBI provocateur assist in bringing down the American Indian Movement in the 1970s?
In the early 2000s, why were local police and government officials happy to collaborate with TigerSwan, a private security firm with a long history of human rights abuses?
How can we explain the prominent influence of groups like ALEC and the Heritage Foundation today as they effectively undermine our democracy?
Why do we find ourselves in the midst of another Red Scare, with conservative politicians happy to be led by extremists?
Putting the buffoonery and vileness of our carceral and national security state on full display, this adaptation explores concepts already criminalized by the state of Iowa. Be sure to catch these histories before they’re entirely censored by the modern neofascist order.
Photos: Black Panther Magazine, May 19, 1969 [house]; Black Panther Magazine, April 27, 1969 [“pigs”]