My Father’s FBI Files by Sadie Barnette

Ephemeral Evidence

By Sampada Aranke

There’s much talk about what data reveals in our contemporary informational landscape: the who, what, where, and how of governmental surveillance projects. But what of the networks of purposely concealed interpersonal arrangements that produce such data? Photocopied and filed documents produce the hard evidence in Sadie Barnette’s My Father’s FBI Files (2016), a series that repurposes records from her father Rodney’s time as a leader of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). But what these documents reveal is not only an overwhelming amount of information about Rodney’s day to day life, but almost more importantly, they call our attention to the relational and intimate qualities of state surveillance.

Barnette’s work asks us to think about the overwhelming interpersonal contact necessitated by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), a comprehensive intelligence gathering operation that took place between 1956 and 1971 under the leadership of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.1 In September 1968, just less than two years after the organization’s founding, Hoover had designated the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) as “the most dangerous threat to the internal security of the country.”2 The FBI classified the BPP’s activities under the categorical designation “Black Extremist.”3 This program had successfully waged a complex network of operations aimed to discredit, dismantle, and destroy Black radical activists and organizations.4 COINTELPRO effectively destroyed radical social movements by engaging a series of tactics, including infiltration, sabotage, arrest, false imprisonment, and, in some cases, murder.5 The impacts of this program are lasting, from radicals who are still imprisoned based on COINTELPRO operations, to the many communities who were psychologically traumatized due to infiltration and police terror. In addition to these immediate and very material impacts, COINTELPRO advanced and expanded state intelligence programs, and indeed legitimated the surveillance, policing, and criminalization of political activists, thus justifying the suspension of legal protections and expansion of governmental power. Part and parcel of this program was the production of a jaw-dropping amount of documentation of these operations, often organized around individual political activists in an attempt to discredit and criminalize their political work, as was the case with Rodney Ellis Barnette, notable BPP organizer and founder of the Compton California chapter of the Party.

After filing for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to unseal Rodney’s FBI file, Sadie and Rodney Barnette received an overwhelming amount of paperwork. Over 500 pages of FBI documents on Rodney Ellis Barnette reveal that he was followed by FBI special agents (SAs) for years, his everyday movements and activities under constant surveillance.6 The FBI’s monitoring of his everyday activities was comprehensive to say the least. It included a steady team of special agents who conducted routine surveillance, harassed people close to Barnette, and attempted to frame him with charges of illegal activities by soliciting informants to infiltrate the BPP.7 While this governmental conspiracy thankfully never resulted in legal charges, the files expose a set of bureaucratic imperatives that aim to produce and organize the document as evidence. However, these documents evince the state’s entangled and elaborate policing endeavors, all of which required a set of social relations, subjective observations, and affective binds that trouble these materials and their afterlives.

For My Father’s FBI File (2016), Sadie re-presents 180 pages of her father’s file. Rather than display these documents in their fully redacted format as she received them, Barnette has added flourishes like bright pink and purple hues or thick coats of black spray paint or glitter star stickers—sometimes she uses all off the above—to highlight moments of redaction or to reclaim phrases intended to be pejorative in reference to Rodney’s activities. In response to the racialized project of the surveillance of Black people, the series My Father’s FBI Files mobilizes a radical Black aesthetic practice of touch and adornment as activations of Black intimacy, family, and sociality.8 It is just as crucial to note that Sadie’s project also points us to the underbelly of the evidentiary impulse within these bureaucratic documents. These papers—their consistent redactions, selective details, noted research, and banal descriptions—also point us to the limits of what they can conceal. Sadie amplifies the government’s censorship within these documents by applying spray directly in relation to each document’s inked redacted areas, thus calling our attention to our inability to access the information in its entirety. As Sadie’s own compositional obfuscation highlights, some documents are almost entirely redacted while others are only composed of a handful of sentences. While some documents tell us that Rodney was seen boarding a plane with Angela Davis, others are so heavily redacted that all we are left with are a series of grammatical articles and prepositions. In our search for answers we’re left with more questions.

These questions are potentially unwieldy, because if answered fully, the networks of social relations that helped to compose these documents begins to include networks of strangers, friends, and infiltrators that Rodney himself might have known. For every document, Sadie suggests, we have SAs engaging in dozens of interpersonal interactions. We are asked to consider a series of hows: how SAs received their information, how they coerced everyday people into being informants, how they gained access to areas without blowing their covers, how many people they spoke to, places they visited, how many days and nights they were on duty, how many phone calls they made, how many targets they followed. This is the data that has no documentary accompaniment. This data is overwhelmingly complex and traffics in the affective: intimidation, threats, charm, politeness, emotional gaslighting, blackmailing. These are the registers that are not translated onto the page.

The document, in other words, is produced and circulated by a set of ephemeral evidence— materials that cannot be captured on paper, photocopied and faxed into file cabinets around the country. This evidence exists in the realm of the relational and affective and both compose and exceed the document. Sadie’s work, in its stunning display of the interpersonal as political, opens up the document as a partial frame through which we might access the ephemeral and affective contours of surveillance and policing.

  1. FBI official website.
  2. Ward Churchill and James Vanderwall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, (Boston: Southend Press, 2008); Gabriel San Roman, “1969: The Year the Black Panther Party Was to Be Annihilated,” Truthout, January 28, 2014, accessed February 27, 2017.
  3. The FBI’s website preserves the original organizational logic with categories listed as: “White Hate Groups, New Left, Puerto Rican Groups, Black Extremist, Hoodwink, Cuba, Socialist Workers Party, Espionage Programs.” “Black Extremist” to describe groups like the BPP is particularly relevant when we think of the FBI’s recent memo regarding “Black Identity Extremists.” For more see:
  4. For more, see: Jim Vander Wall and Ward Churchill, Agents of Repression, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2002); Andres Alegria, Prentis Hemphill, Anita Johnson and Claude Marks, 2012, “COINTELPRO 101,” DVD, San Francisco: Freedom Archives; Howard Alk and Mike Gray, 1971, “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” DVD, Chicago: Facets Video.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Maria L La Ganga, “Black Panthers 50 years on: art show reclaims movement by telling ‘real story.’ The Guardian, October 8, 2016.
  7. Rodney and Sadie Barnette, “A Panther’s Story Becomes Art: A conversation between artist Sadie Barnette and her father and former Black Panther Rodney Barnette,” Oakland Museum of California blog, November 4, 2016.
  8. Sampada Aranke, “Material Matters: Black Radical Aesthetics and the Limits of Visibility,” e-flux journal #79, February 2017; Sampada Aranke, “Whose 1968?: Bringing History Home in Sadie Barnette’s Dear 1968,” exhibition essay, UC Davis Art Museum, April 14- June 30, 2017.