How (Not) to Respond to Police Infiltration of the Occupy Movement
One of the most pressing problems confronting the 'Occupy' or General Assembly movement today is the "ceiling problem" -- the fact that many Occupy groups now seem practically incapable of further growth, due to a variety of organizational defects that block us from broadening the movement's base of participation, often by discouraging entry into the movement by newcomers.
The ceiling problem is a potentially fatal weakness for our movement, so we need to do whatever we can to chip away at the ceiling and work against the movement's growing insularity and isolation from the wider 99%.
Some of the deficiencies that hold us back are extremely difficult to address. But one of the movement's defects should be relatively easy to challenge: the persistence of a culture that fears movement newcomers, based on an understandable but naive perception that they are likely to be cops attempting to infiltrate and undermine the movement.
Police infiltration of social movements is a serious problem, and we need to be aware of the very real dangers it poses. There are four main dangers associated with infiltration.
#1: Evidence gathered by infiltrators can be used in subsequent prosecutions of activists.
#2: Activists can be emotionally harmed by learning that their (supposed) friend/lover/co-worker/roommate/co-parent was actually an undercover cop, abusing their trust.
#3: Infiltrators can undertake efforts to disrupt or divide organizations (for example, provoking splits or making unsubstantiated public accusations to cause conflict or undermine morale), or they can encourage imprudent tactical choices that elicit or legitimize police violence or mass arrests, etc.
#4: Finally, the existence of police infiltration can indirectly fuel the tendency of some activist groups to embrace "security culture" of a sort that encourages secretiveness or distrust of newcomers, effectively closing off activist organizations to growth opportunities and entrenching their marginalization.
In some groups, like semi-underground "ecotage" groups, the first of these dangers is the greatest, because they may find themselves doing things or talking about things that -- however socially valuable they may be -- could later be legally incriminating, if a trusted collaborator ('lover', 'co-parent,' 'friend,' 'co-worker,' etc.) turns out to have been a cop (or informant). For a group like that, which is effectively 'clandestine' or 'semi-clandestine,' danger #1, the prospect of having an infiltrator gather 'evidence,' is much more serious than danger #4, the persistence of a suspicious attitude toward new people that limits movement growth.
But for other groups, like the vast majority of Occupy groups, which largely refrain from activities for which serious criminal prosecution is likely, and whose meetings are usually open and public (in many cases streamed live on the internet), the situation is reversed. In an Occupy group, danger #4 is much more of a serious problem than danger #1. This means that the main threat police infiltrators (or informants) pose to the Occupy movement is that their operation will foster the closing off of the movement to the participation of new people, effectively placing a ceiling on the movement's capacity to grow and recruit new activists.
Given the near impossibility of accurately detecting infiltrators (who are usually not newcomers who appear out of nowhere, as the common myth supposes, but on the contrary, friends, co-workers, roommates or lovers of ourselves or other activists, and hence basically undistinguishable from non-cop, actual activists), there is really nothing we can do to guard against danger #2, the risk that activists will suffer emotional damage from exposure of their trusted friends or lovers as undercover cops.
This leaves danger #3, the possibility that infiltrators will try to sow internal discord and divisions, or provoke people into ill-considered law-breaking or 'violence' that might be used as a public excuse for repression (acting as a 'provocateur'). This is one of the most common forms taken by police infiltration (cf. 'COINTELPRO'). As everyone with even a passing familiarity with the Occupy movement knows, the prevalence of behaviours that foster internal divisions and conflict, or that disrupt meetings or decision-making processes, is a huge concern for our organizations. In most cities, such behaviours are very widespread indeed. But here's the thing: non-cops are just as capable of this as cops. There are so many people who, whether because of political inexperience, excessive zeal, or mental health issues, engage in this sort of thing, especially in seeming to sow discord or encourage splits, that it is highly unlikely (effectively impossible) that they are all cops. But they are just as dangerous (in this way), even if they're not cops.
The conclusion to draw from this is that we have to approach the problems associated with danger #3 (disruption, splitting, sowing conflict) the same way for non-cops as for cops. If someone is engaging in these behaviours, it has to be addressed. But it has to be addressed regardless of whether the person is doing it because they are trying actively to destroy the movement, as cops, or for some other reason. Becoming obsessed with "security culture," and thereby exposing the movement to danger #4, blocking growth through suspiciousness toward newcomers, doesn't really help the movement. On the contrary, it harms the movement by reinforcing its ceiling problem.
We need to find ways of coping with undisciplined actions, bad tactical proposals, and divisive or destructive behaviour that address these problems directly. What we don't need to do is imagine that the problems can be addressed solely or mainly by sorting people into "trusted" and "non-trusted" individuals.
This is one of the bitter lessons that we should have learned recently about police infiltration tactics. Undercover police do not *typically* just show up out of nowhere, asking for a lot of 'inside information.' On the contrary, they form long-term close friendships with activists; they get activists to fall in love with them; they have sex with activists; they have children with activists; they set up fake businesses just to become co-workers with activists; they become roommates with activists; they spend months and months building trust and close personal connections with activists. A suspicious and mistrustful attitude toward newcomers is, therefore, understandable, but ultimately futile. The idea that a close personal friend of several activists, who lives with or has sex with activists, or maybe gets one of them pregnant, is somehow "trustworthy," but some stranger who walks in off the street is somehow "not trustworthy," may sound plausible. But in fact our willingness to assume this is a sign of our naivete and our underestimation of the capacities and skill of the political police. In itself, that's not a big deal. Naivete is common enough. The problem arises when we react to these naive assumptions in ways that expose our organizations and our movement to danger #4, fuelling our vulnerability to the 'ceiling problem," and blocking our capacity to recruit and retain potential new activists for the movement.
How, then, should we approach this problem? The most important thing is to keep constantly in mind that, in this particular ('Occupy'/General Assembly) movement, our ability to keep information about our activities out of the hands of the political police is not especially important (even though it would obviously be our preference). There may be special circumstances where we need the capacity to act without making our plans public, such as when planning to squat a building. However, these are 'exceptions that prove the rule,' and are not the normal case for Occupy groups in most cities and towns, most of the time. Far more important to our movement is maintaining the openness of our organizations to participation by everyone who seems to be willing to work constructively with us, within the confines of our processes. For a movement that holds all its meetings in public and streams many of them in real time on the internet, it should be obvious that closing the movement off to newcomers is far more dangerous than allowing an infiltrator to join our organization (especially given our complete incapacity to prevent that from happening).
The biggest threat to the Occupy movement right now is not police infiltration (even though we know it is widespread), but the entrenchment of a hard ceiling on growth opportunities: the stagnation, and gradual decline of our activist base (due to slow attrition of members and a weak capacity to recruit). If we respond to our fear of infiltration by shooting ourselves in the foot, unintentionally barring entry to the movement to all but 'trusted' friends and known activists, we will be acting as our own worst enemies.