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The C.I.A. made a cartoon manual for firebombing police (!?) ...
Rage Against the Machine flipped it into a radical jawn
Rage Against the Machine — are they the greatest American band of all time? Yes. Here at BLACKBIRD SPYPLANE HQ we keep their 3 perfect studio albums in heavy rotation … and they sound more bleakly, burningly relevant every day.
RATM formed in Los Angeles in ‘91 — the same year 4 cops brutally beat Rodney King. Their debut album came out the next year — after those cops’ acquittals and the L.A. uprising. Led by a Chicano rapper and black guitarist, the band was hugely important in exposing mainstream America to militant left politics — not to mention hugely important in calibrating my own adolescent moral compass. It’s still wild to think that a massively popular major-label band a) self-identified as communists, b) name-checked Frantz Fanon and Fred Hampton in their songs, c) agitated for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, and d) built an all-time smash around the repeated words “some of those who work forces are the same that burn crosses.”
Last week, while we were rounding up antiracist protest tees for our past two newsletters — and thinking about the contradiction-filled intersection of merch and activism generally — my mind turned to a vintage Rage Against the Machine longsleeve I found on eBay a couple years ago: In a grim coincidence, the guy I bought it from originally picked it up at a 1993 RATM concert at First Avenue in Minneapolis, just north of the deli where police killed George Floyd last month.
This shirt has a cherished place in the SPYPLANE archives — it’s a top 5 personal gem, in part because it’s the only one of its kind I’ve ever seen, in part because of how much I love the band, and in part because it connects directly to a story about the CIA trying to get ppl to hurl homemade explosives at cops… in the name of capitalism, no less ??
Here’s a close-up of the graphic. In 3 illustrated steps, the shirt teaches you how to fill a vessel with accelerant, tape in a submerged rag, then set it on fire and fling it at a police station. The image of the molotov cocktail in the shirt’s bottom-right corner became RATM’s early logo, anchoring iconic tees that you can find actual vintage versions of here, here, and here (A reprint is available from RATM officially here along with a similar reprint here):
I always assumed the logo had some grassroots revolutionary provenance—maybe related to the Peruvian Shining Path, which RATM supported.
But last year, after some digging, I discovered the true source: A 1983 pamphlet that the CIA airdropped over Nicaragua in a covert effort to weaken that country’s democratically elected leftist government. (As part of the same effort, America also funded and trained the civilian-massacring right-wing guerilla squads known as the Contras.)
A page from the Freedom Fighter’s Manual encouraging pro-pope (!) vandalism
The pamphlet was called “The Freedom Fighter’s Manual,” written with the aim of “paralyzing the military-industrial complex of the traitorous Marxist state.” Its 15 illustrated pages offer a window into what kinds of actions & strategies the CIA saw as useful in stoking a popular uprising, such as: property destruction, political graffiti, economic disobedience — i.e. leveraging sick-outs against employers — and outright violence like “coctel molotof” police-bombings. (Not a huge surprise that “blue lives” didn’t matter to the U.S. as long as the cops in question served a government at odds with western business interests.)
A decade later, Rage Against the Machine came along and put the CIA’s anti-communist graphic to their own purposes, slapping a version of the page above onto two different shirts: our black longsleeve and a white short-sleeve “anger is a gift” version that’s still available through RATM for $24, here.
In an interview at the time, guitarist Tom Morello explained the design in explicitly radical terms that resonate loud and clear here in super-fucked-up June 2020: “If people aren’t checking the Anarchist Cookbook out of the library any more, they can always look at the back of a Rage Against the machine t-shirt the next time civil disorder breaks out in the neighborhood.”
RATM’s molotov-cocktail shirts retain their power today, but the band has a bunch of other merch that’s aged (depressingly?) well. A well-weathered vintage Che Guevara tee like this or this still goes very hard.
This “Guerilla Radio” tee, meanwhile, is appealingly stark. This Evil Empire longsleeve is in great shape, but the seller’s asking way too much for it; this 1999 Battle of Los Angeles-era tour tee is excellent, ditto this (clearly bootleg?) version with a band photo on the back.
Speaking of bootlegs: this is a 100% inauthentic Beavis and Butt-Head x Rage Against the Machine tee. It’s grim, incoherent and incredible: Butt-Head fires off an assault rifle, Beavis takes the place of Thích Quảng Đức, the monk who lit himself on fire to protest the oppression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government on June 11, 1963 — 57 years ago this coming Thursday. Reprints are available at Grailed here and Etsy here.
Another fantastic RATM bootleg: My first-ever concert was the 1997 Wu-Tang / Rage Against the Machine double-bill at the Meadowlands. The show was great, though I unfortunately failed to pick up one of the amazing unlicensed tees for sale in the parking lot, pictured above, originals of which occasionally pop up for crazy high-three-figures prices on resale sites. (New cheap reprints are easy to find.)
At the show I did get one of the shirts the band made circa Evil Empire with designs by artist Barbara Kruger — which brings us, unexpectedly, to the hypiest corner of the modern t-shirt-industrial complex …
- It was Kruger whose artwork Supreme infamously ripped off for its “box logo” (which eventually became the subject of a lawsuit that Kruger, uninvolved, memorably described to SPYPLANE charter-subscriber Foster Kamer as “a ridiculous clusterfuck of uncool jokers.”)
- A couple years ago, Supreme — which is half-owned by the enormously shady private-equity firm the Carlyle Group — took the molotov cocktail logo that RATM jacked from the CIA … and not only jacked it from them, but put a damn “© Supreme” on it !
Taken all together, it’s a knotty jawn-genealogy that shows how radical gestures can be co-opted by reactionary power, reclaimed by radicals, co-opted by reactionaries, over and over, on and on …
BTW in addition to copping vintage revolutionary jawns, u can keep on doing the damn thing & giving to contemporary revolutionary groups:
-People’s Breakfast Oakland is a Black Socialist organization in our community doing great work in the tradition of the Black Panthers’ famous “Free Breakfast for the Children.” PBO’s Instagram, with a donation link-tree, is here.
-As bail funds see a fantastic influx of $$$, consider giving money to mutual-aid groups, too, which do vital work in local communities. Several are linked here.
-Also, Defund12.org is a crowd-sourced tool for finding yr local govt officials and telling them to reallocate police $$$ “towards education, social services, and dismantling racial inequality.”