Early on May Day, the FBI announced it had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a bridge in Cleveland, Ohio – my hometown. Then days later, another “terrorist plot” was disrupted at the NATO protests in Chicago. (Arun Gupta has done some excellent on-the-ground reporting from both cities).
In the last few weeks, A lot of my emotional space has been taken up by these things. In both cases, an infiltrator or informant basically pushed people into doing (or talking about) something they in all likelihood would never have done, in the service of fear-mongering and justifying increased surveillance and targeting of protesters.
Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, has an excellent post on this topic summarizing the situation and reflecting on the overall shift it tactics by the state: “It’s nothing new to see widespread police misconduct and abuse in the days leading up to high-profile demonstrations… In the last several years, though, that decades-old model has been transforming. All the old tactics are still there. But now the message is being sent not just through arrests or police violence, but through the FBI working with local cops to infiltrate and disrupt protest groups, provoke and coordinate illegal activity, and then charge some activists with ‘terrorism.’”
Not only that, but these young kids (and they are young – 20 to 35) and the communities that support them are headed for years of fighting the charges. Regardless of the outcome, supporting the defendants through these processes will be a drain on everyone’s emotional and financial resources. Aside from the impacts on our movements, I can’t help but mourn the derailed lives of these individuals, which is now on an unexpected and difficult course. I didn’t know any of these individuals, but I am one step away from knowing them.
Why did this happen? Because it is (relatively) easy for them (FBI/etc) to target naive, impressionable, vulnerable parts of our movement, and use these young people to further the goals of fear and intimidation. It would be more difficult to target anyone who is well connected and established, or in a position of leadership. Regardless, the impact is similar – there are still headlines about “self described anarchists” and “terrorism” and the FBI gets to be the savior by foiling a plot (which they manufactured).*
What can be done to prevent it from happening again? This is where most of my thoughts have centered the last few weeks. On the one hand, activists have a track record of creating political pressure to prevent corporations, governments, or police departments from doing bad things – but that seems insurmountable against the FBI at this moment.
The other way would be to make a concerted effort at educating people within our movements that FBI entrapment is a real threat. This seems daunting because the people targeted are often new to our movements or on the fringe in some way.
Crimethinc’s 2009 post, “Toward A Collective Security Culture” is an excellent discussion of this very point, and along with some background and context, includes links to some great resources. Here’s a snippet:
Never undertake or discuss illegal activity with people you haven’t known and trusted for a long time. Don’t trust people just because other people trust them or because they are in influential positions. Don’t let others talk you into tactics you’re not comfortable with or ready for. Be aware that anything you say may come back to haunt you, even if you don’t mean it. Always listen to your instincts; if someone seems pushy or too eager to help you with something, take some time to think about the situation. Reflect on the motivations of those around you—do they make sense? Get to know your comrades’ families and friends.
I am hopeful, in the very least, that public opinion is changing swaying ever so slightly in our favor. In the NY Times piece linked above, names it publicly as entrapment, and quotes their National Lawyers Guild attorney. Entrapment is notoriously difficult to prove as a defense, but at least the concept has entered the discussion (outside of activist circles).
- Rick Perlstein/Rolling Stone: “How FBI Entrapment Is Inventing Terrorists and Letting Bad Guys Off The Hook”
- Arun Gupta/Alternet: “Has the FBI Launched a War of Entrapment Against the Occupy Movement?”
- Jake Olzen/Waging Nonviolence: “Entrapment of Cleveland 5 and NATO 3 Is Nothing New”
- David Shipler/New York Times: “Terrorist Plots, Hatched by the FBI”
- Will Potter: “FBI Supplied the Anarchist ‘Terrorists’ Arrested in May Day Plot”
- Will Potter: “3 NATO Protesters Charged with ‘Terrorism’ in Chicago – Identical to Other FBI Plots”
- Crimethinc: “Toward a Collective Security Culture”
- Mother Jones: “Terrorists for the FBI” (series)
- Support page for Cleveland 5: Cleveland 5 Justice
* Even just writing this paragraph makes me upset. That the FBI is derailing the lives of these young people as if they were pawns in some game. It’s despicable.
Update 5/29: Today Crimethinc. posted an excellent discussion of this whole thing: “Bounty Hunters and Child Predators: Inside the FBI Entrapment Strategy.” In many ways, it is the article I wanted to write. It gives context (with relevant links), and addresses so many important points, like why is the FBI not targeting higher profile activists? Their conclusion is:
If we are to protect the next generation of young people from these predators, our only hope is to mobilize a popular reaction against entrapment tactics. Only a blowback against the FBI themselves can halt this strategy. This will not be easy, but there is no better alternative.
Don’t stop speaking out, organizing, and fighting—that won’t stop them from repressing us or entrapping people. Retreating will only embolden them: we can only protect ourselves by increasing our power to fight back, not by withdrawing, not by hiding, not by behaving.
The best defense is a good offense. So long as capitalism is unstable—that is to say, until it collapses—there will be repression. Let’s meet it head on.