I was shocked but not altogether surprised by this news. I found out during my first year of undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin that the campus police department routinely placed plainclothes police officers in the meetings of radical student groups on campus -- you know, just to keep an eye on them. That was in the fall of 2001, we saw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, watched a cowboy president wage war on terror, and in the middle of it all tried to figure out what we could do to challenge the fascist state transformations taking place before our very eyes. At the time, however, it seemed silly that there were cops in our meetings -- we weren't the Panthers or the Brown Berets or even some of rowdier direction action anti-globalization activists (although we admired them all), we were just young people who didn't believe war was the best response to the 9-11 attacks. But it wasn't silly, the FBI does not tend to dismiss political work, be it large or small, any organization can provoke the scrutiny of the state; perhaps your organization poses a large threat, or maybe you're small now but one day you'll grow up and be too big to reign in. The FBI and the state usually opt to kill the movement before it grows.
But if the FBI says "Kill them before they grow," informants are the hired gunmen. Government agencies pick people that no one will notice. Oftentimes it's impossible to prove that their informants because they have insulated themselves in the community by appearing to be completely dedicated to the cause of social justice. They establish intimate relationships with people, becoming friends and lovers, often serving in leadership roles in our organizations. A cursory reading of the literature on social movements and organizations in the 1960s and 1970s reveals this fact. The leadership of the American Indian Movement was rife with informants; it is suspected that informants are also largely responsible for the downfall of the Black Panther Party and the same can be surmised about the anti-war movement as well. In addition to all of the other harmful and disruptive tactics that the FBI developed to destabilize movements, informants are the best tool in their arsenal. Why? Because in the end the short-term damage that informants do is secondary to the larger, more dangerous implications of their work.
This morning I listened to Malik Raheem, the founder of Common Ground in New Orleans, talk about how devastated he was by this betrayal and it just made me feel crushed. Several times during his interview with Amy Goodman he said that he felt as though his heart had been broken upon learning what Darby had done. Moreover, he felt guilty and responsible for all of the activists, particularly young women, who had left the organization because of Darby. Others have pointed out how Darby created conflict in all of the organizations that he worked with, yet people were hesitant to hold him accountable because of his history and reputation as an organizer and his "dedication" to "the work." This made me wonder how many times informants will create deliberately create conflict in organizations with the specific goal of dismantling or neutralizing organizations and discouraging other organizers. Some people leave these organizations and reject political organizing altogehter. They leave and never come back, but the informant stays around to wreak further havoc -- mission accomplished. Maybe if we as organizers made collective accountability a more central part of our organizing practices we could neutralize people who are working on behalf of the state to undermine our struggles. I'm not talking about witch hunts; I'm talking about organizing in such a way that we nip a potential Brandon Darby in the bud before he can go somewhere else and hurt more people. The truth is informants are hard to spot, but my guess is that where there is smoke there's fire and someone who creates chaos wherever they go is one of two things: 1) an informant or 2) an irresponsible, unaccountable time bomb who can be unintentionally just as effective at undermining social justice organizing as an informant.
Another more troubling turn in this tale is the way in which Darby has publicly acknowledged his role as an informant, yet insists that this was for the greater good of the movement and reflects his commitment to social justice work. Calling the actions of the two Texas activists, who are currently in federal detention, "dangerous" he states,
I strongly believe that people innocent of an act should stand up for themselves and that those who choose to engage in an act should accept responsibility and explain the reasoning for their choices.
It is very dangerous when a few individuals engage in or act on a belief system in which they feel they know the real truth and that all others are ignorant and therefore have no right to meet and express their political views.
Additionally, when people act out of anger and hatred, and then claim that their actions were part of a movement or somehow tied into the struggle for social justice only after being caught, it's damaging to the efforts of those who do give of themselves to better this world. Many people become activists as a result of discovering that others have distorted history and made heroes and assigned intentions to people who really didn't act to better the world. The practice of placing noble intentions after the fact on actions which did not have noble motivations has no place in a movement for social justice.
The fact that Darby had no sense of irony writing this open letter, quite frankly, confounds me. The statement "When people act out of anger and hatred, and then claim that their actions were part of a movement or somehow tied into the struggle for social justice only after being caught, it's damaging to the efforst of those who do give of themselves to better this world," is so absurd as to be laughable. But ain't a damn thing funny. Darby wants us to believe that he agreed to serve as an informant to prevent two people from committing a violent act that would hurt the movement. He wants us to believe his intentions were pure and noble. But he's making that claim after the fact, after he got caught. So in a sense he's right -- his actions are quite damaging to those of us "who do give of themselve to better this world." People like him make a mockery of that struggle. It's disingenuous of him to present himself as the lone voice of reason -- if he were so concerned why didn't he bring his concerns to other organizers, confront the people that he disagreed with -- how did working for the state become the best option? Or perhaps that was merely another high road he felt he had to walk alone -- I will burn this village, in order to save it. Click here to read the full version of his open letter on Austin Indymedia.
Luckily, in the aftermath of Darby's revelation, Austin activists have come together to denounce Darby and call him out for what he is -- a rat. The Austin Informant Working Group has released a statement that takes Darby to task for his actions and has refused to let him represent himself as a guy trying to do the right thing. Click here to read The Austin Informant Working Group's response to Darby.
I never met Brandon Darby, never organized with him, yet I know so many people who were connected to him and are reeling between grief and rage. The truth is that even if the two young men that Darby helped to entrap don't go to prison, the damage to our activist communities is done. Since Darby revealed that he has been serving as an informant, I have listened to several people talk about how his actions have shaken them, made them feel like fools for not recognizing the informant in their midst. This sort of self-doubt is particularly troubling because that is exactly what the state wants. This should be a lesson to all of us, because Brandon Darby is really only the tip of the iceberg. COINTELPRO has never stopped; the U.S. government has been engaged in an ongoing campaign to target and punish dissenters, activists, and community organizers since World War I. And who knows what skeletons will fall out of the closet after the Bush administration comes to an end or years later when the FBI begins declassifying documents from the first 10 years of the 21st century? What happened with Brandon Darby can and will happen again -- the question is are we going to choose a different strategy and prepare ourselves so that the work can continue or are we going to allow ourselves to be immobilized every time a mole turns up in our communities?
This is what informants do to us and our movements. They make us look at each other sideways, doubt our ability to discern people's character, make us reticent to trust one another as we struggle to create a better world. As far as the state is concerned, it doesn't matter how many people go to jail, stop doing the work after getting burned one too many times, or even how many people die. All of that is just gravy for the real work -- crushing people's faith in the possibility that we can collectively create something better, that collective struggle can yield results that change our lives. Informants are hired to make us stop believing in ourselves and our collective power. That's what they do.
To the FBI and Brandon Darby: I will not let you rob me of my faith in our capacity to change this world. I will assume that every meeting and organization that I walk into has already been infiltrated. I will make it my business to demonstrate in my political practice that the work I do is better than what he/she is being paid to do. I will fight to make him/her believe that his/her small axe matters and that his/her labor would be better spent creating a world that has no use for informants. I will kill him/her with kindness and my love for justice. I will challenge him/her to reclaim their power and get themselves on the right side of history. I will work creatively with others to develop a model of what social justice organizing rooted in a love ethic looks like. I hope that one day s/he will understand and want to struggle with me instead of against me. Because that's what organizers do.