What do men dressed as women giving eviction notices in the name of a faerie queen and the FBI have in common?
Historical and Revolutionary Analysis, from Rhyd Wildermuth
In the late 1700’s, strange eviction notices began appearing on the doors of wealthy landlords in County Limerick, Ireland. The letters demanded, on pain of torment and death, that the landlords vacate their land and turn it all over to the landless farmers who worked their land. Under whose authority were these eviction notices signed?
An ancient Irish Goddess of the Fianna, Sadhbh Amhaltach.
Calling themselves the faerie children of Sadhbh (or “Ghostly Sally”), the men and women who posted these notices were later called Whiteboys (from their white smocks) or Levelers (from their demands to ‘level’ the land back to the poor), and it was not long until the British Parliament passed a series of “Whiteboy Acts” meant to destroy their movement.
These laws failed miserably. Rather than crush the rebellion of the landless, the movement transformed and spread across the Irish Sea. Soon, Welsh levelers were tearing down tariff-gates and fences in the name of a ghostly crone, and English men and women crept into factories to smash mechanical looms in the name of a ghostly king (who lived under a mound in Sherwood Forest, of all places!) named “King Ludd.”
The most famous of all these movements for Americans, however, is probably the Molly Maguires, Irish and Irish-American immigrants who sabotaged industry and organized miners against the rich on both shores. Invoking the name of an Irish folk hero who fought landlords in centuries past, they posted notices to the rich and managerial classes, just as had the faerie-children of Sadhbh Amhaltach a century before:
The Unclosed Eye
A little more than 100 years after the first eviction notices were posted by the children of Sadhbh Amhaltach, the tradition of mythic revolt seemed to come to an end on account of a private police force. The force, the “Pinkerton Detective Agency,” was formed after Allan Pinkerton (a Scottish immigrant-turned-police officer) met with the heads of several railroad companies and a Chicago attorney (and fellow Mason), creating a quasi-military force whose purpose was to protect business and industry from unions, anarchists, and criminals.
Pinkerton soon had some special friends in the US Government on account of his work both stopping railway robberies and helping railroads terrorize workers into submission. One particular friend? Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad, whom Pinkerton (and his agency) later personally protected during the Civil War.
It was the Pinkerton Detective Agency which directly took on the Molly Maguires in the United States. In the 1870’s, the agency was hired by coal mining companies to break the power of striking workers. Those workers went on strike to stop pay cuts, child labor (children as young as 7 worked in the mines), and particularly the refusal of mine-owners to pay for second-exits from mines.
Pinkerton and his employees organized assassinations of union leaders, targeting specifically the Molly Maguires, until show-trials were organized to convict dozens of them. Even the judge of one of these trials was appalled at the way the rich managed to use Pinkerton to turn the law into their own handmaiden:
“The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”
Though the Molly Maguires were no longer an official threat, the Pinkerton Detective Agency had new targets. In Chicago, a massive Anarchist movement had begun, formed by Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants–along with freed slaves and their descendents–operating in tandem with unionized rail and factory workers. (Irish-immigrant workers were again Pinkerton’s favorite target, repeatedly attacking them on behalf of factory owners.)
In 1886, a general strike began in the United States to demand an 8-hour workday. Chicago had became the epicenter of the anti-capitalist actions, and also the epicenter of the resistance (with Pinkerton agents, now numbering in the thousands, acting as private police for the factories). A day after the general strike, striking workers were shot by police, and a mass rally (on 4 May, 1886) held to resist further police assault became what we now know as the Haymarket Massacre and celebrate as May Day.
Some anarchists and workers believed Pinkerton had a hand in those events, especially because of their infiltration of the Molly Maguires. But the result of the Haymarket Massacre was not to end the anarchist and labor movements, but to embolden (and even internationalize) them, increasing the panic of the rich and the government.
By the 1890’s, Pinkerton had grown so large that the federal government began to be afraid of them. At its height, it had 32,000 agents (2000 of which were full-time, the other reserves), making them larger than the active military in the US. But the last major event of the Pinkerton’s was the Homestead Massacre (1892), where 300 agents were hired by the rich to stop a worker strike. Despite murdering several workers, the Pinkerton agents eventually surrendered after workers and the families of the workers rose up to stop them. Pinkerton did not end the strike, state militia did, eventually ruling the town under martial law until the steel mills could operate again.
Pinkerton’s size and failure led to the United States Congress passing a law forbidding government agencies from hiring them any longer, the “Anti-Pinkerton Act:”
That hereafter no employee of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar agency, shall be employed in any Government service or by any officer of the District of Columbia.
A New Agency Arises
A “service” Pinkerton long provided for the US government and business leaders was their registry of ‘criminals’ (including anarchists and labor organizers). Once they could no longer be hired, the US created their own registry (much of it with Pinkerton’s help).
It may seem odd, but another thing the US government could not do on their own was investigate anarchist, anti-capitalists, and criminals. Not until the formation in 1908 of a new agency (with no need for approval from congress) did the government get that ability.
That agency, of course, was the FBI.
The FBI soon overtook the Pinkerton Detective Agency in power and ability (as well as gaining many of their former employees), but continued much of the same work that Pinkerton had done. Investigating (usually infiltrating) unions and anarchist meetings quickly commenced, and when J. Edgar Hoover became the head of the agency, the FBI became what we know of it now–a secret police force targeting political dissidents, minorities, and anyone else who threatens the same class of people Pinkerton was formed to protect.
Since its formation, the FBI has given particular attention to leftist, anti-capitalist, anarchist, and civil rights movements. After the passing of the Espionage and Sedition acts during the first World War, the FBI investigated and imprisoned anarchists (especially Wobblies–IWW members) and any others who spoke openly against American military involvement in Europe. Before the start of the second World War, the FBI compiled lists of people to be detained (in concentration camps), especially Japanese immigrants whom they immediately started rounding up after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Perhaps the FBI’s most infamous assault on anti-capitalism and political dissent was COINTELPRO. Started in 1956, its original target was the Communist Party, but it quickly expanded to target civil rights leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr), the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, leftist academics, hispanic liberation movements like The Young Lords, and anti-Vietnam war protest groups.
The FBI’s strategy with COINTELPRO involved many of the same tactics that Pinkerton used to fight the Molly Maguires and other worker-organizations and anarchist groups. Infiltration was primary, as was careful use of disinformation (creating false documents purporting to be from leftist groups) and in the case of Black Panther Party members (as well as possibly others), assassination.
All this we know from information gathered by the US Senate in 1975 (the “Church Committee,”) but we could be forgiven for suspecting even more targets and tactics existed. Since the revelations, it has become even harder to gain information about the activities of the FBI, but we do know they have been very active in infiltrating anti-capitalist groups during the anti-globalistion protests, doing door-knocks on the homes of activists before protests to intimidate them (including many of my friends). With the advent of the ‘war on terror,’ the FBI has been able to redefine environmentalist and anti-capitalist groups as ‘domestic terrorists,’ giving them even more power to act with impunity against those whom the government and the rich fear.
Fortunately, groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks have made it so we do not need to wait for another Senate Committee to get information of the FBI’s activities, but if over one hundred years of FBI harassment and killing of political dissidents (plus another 50 years of their predecessor, the Pinkerton Detective Agency) is any indication, it’s not good.
F(or) B(eautiful) I(nsurrection)
This brings us to the present. Many liberals and even some conservatives have been shocked to learn that Trump recently fired the head of the FBI, James Comey. For many, this seems like an appalling turn of events, one bringing us closer to fascism.
In a way, they are right, though it has been interesting to see liberals who previously were certain the FBI was partially responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat suddenly rush to paint him as a heroic victim of Trump’s voracious hunger for power. (Comey, we must remember, triggered a crisis during the presidential election campaigns by an oddly-timed announcement regarding emails on a private server Clinton had possessed).
We have absolutely reason to fear this turn of events, but not because the FBI has ever been a ‘good’ organisation. From the very beginning, it has served only the interests of the very rich and the government they purchase with their money. It is not ‘neutral’ at heart: its very roots still drink the blood of murdered leftists and immigrants. That Trump will soon replace the former director with one of his own choosing is terrifying, certainly, but no more terrifying than the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the immense power it wields.
What might we do to resist such power?
I suspect the solution may be at the beginning of this essay, in the very movements which Pinkerton and later the FBI arose to fight.
The Whiteboys and Molly Maguires, the Rebeccas and the Luddites, each arose as movements to attack the rich. Each was subversive and each claimed a mythic (or deific) leader whom gave them power. For the Whiteboys it was an ancient Irish goddess, the Molly Maguires a mythic heroine. The Rebeccas claimed an old crone gave them the women’s clothes they wore to confuse the hired soldiers of the rich, and a night watchman fleeing from an attack by Luddites claimed later to have seen their ghostly king striding tall amongst them, wielding a pike. The later movements which arose also rallied around mythic figures, many of them comrades recently murdered by Pinkerton agents or later the FBI.
That mythic center not only gave each group coherence, it also allowed them to continue when specific leaders were targeted and killed. Further, agents of the state cannot kill a goddess or a dead heroine, anymore than they can ever fully crush a resistance.
Perhaps more important, though, is to keep in the forefront of our minds why Pinkerton and later the FBI arose, and who they worked for: the rich. It has always been the wealthy who need protection from the poor. They need us to work in their factories and shops, to obey laws about stealing from them, to fear poverty more than we fear our enslavement to their demands.
“Investigative” agencies like Pinkerton and the FBI exist because the rich do not know how to stop us. They need to pay people to learn about our actions, infiltrate our meetings, sabotage our plans, and assassinate us when we get to powerful. As terrifying as the tactics and power of such forces are, the rich have more reason to be terrified than we ever do.
Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram
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