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Social Movements and State Repression
An interview with Scott Crow
In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General released its report about FBI surveillance of activists and advocacy organizations between 2001 and 2006. Entitled "A Review of the FBI's Investigations of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups," the inquiry was prompted by Congressional criticisms and media reports about the Bush administration's far-reaching expansion of existing domestic counter-intelligence operations and the creation of whole new branches of the federal police under Homeland Security in the wake of September 11, 2001.
The DOJ review came at a critical time. Almost two years into the Obama administration, federal and local agencies continue to spy on, profile, and repress dissidents and targeted populations. A rising populist right-wing movement with authoritarian tendencies is gaining power. Thus, expansion of police/state power and a cancellation of further inquiries into domestic human rights violations and political repression is likely.
Scott Crow is an anarchist, community organizer, and writer based in Austin, Texas. He is one of the founders of Common Ground Relief, a social justice organization formed in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to aid and rebuild New Orleans. A long-time organizer and co-founder of several organizations around prison abolition, prisoner solidarity, and environmental and animal rights issues, Crow's understanding of police/state repression stems from his personal experiences as a target of law enforcement and private security firms while organizing campaigns with groups like Greenpeace, Anti Racist Action, and UPROAR (United Resisting Oppression and Racism). He has written and spoken widely about domestic repression in radical communities. His forthcoming book is Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective (PM Press).
BONDGRAHAM: Through the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), you recently obtained 500 pages of FBI files from 2003-2008. You are also referred to in the recently-released DOJ documents that condemn the FBI for shoddy intelligence gathering. What prompted you to dig into the State's files about your life and politics?
CROW: Since 2001, I have been a supporter of three former Black Panther political prisoners held in Louisiana and collectively known as the Angola 3. Two of them have been in solitary confinement for over 35 years, the longest of any prisoners in modern U.S. history. In 2006, just before an upcoming appeal hearing for one of them, Herman Wallace, his lawyer Nick Trenticosta was shown FBI documents by a district attorney in Baton Rouge that claimed I was an "animal rights/eco-extremist" and potential "domestic terrorist." Within days, I was immediately removed from Herman's visitor list and on two occasions FBI agents came to my home.
This news was not a great surprise. I had first been visited at my workplace in 1999 for animal rights-related activities in Dallas by an FBI agent from their newly formed domestic terrorism unit. In 2000, undercover New York State police agents, working with the FBI, infiltrated, entrapped, and arrested a group of us to prevent civil disobedience at the Republican National Convention. In the years following this, I was part of several anti-corporate campaigns. Private security agents hired by the companies conducted surveillance, infiltrated our meetings, and, in some cases, physically intimidated us.
Common Ground Relief house in post-Katrina
After Hurricane Katrina, I co-founded the Common Ground Collective with former Black Panther Malik Rahim. We became one of the largest anarchist-run organizations, with hundreds of volunteers providing relief in the Gulf. As a social justice organization, we used direct action and civil disobedience when necessary to aid, support, and defend affected communities, bypassing the often ineffectual official channels. For our political views and our methods, Homeland Security and the New Orleans police surveilled, harassed, and intimidated volunteers during the course of our work.
In 2008, 70 pages of FBI documents were leaked to the Austin anarchist community, documents used to prosecute two people, Brad Crowder and David McKay. They had been charged with making Molotov cocktails at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Minnesota that year. These documents revealed that since 2002, a close associate, Brandon Darby, was a paid FBI informant and possible provocateur. He had been in and out of the Austin activist community and had played a major part in the Common Ground Collective. Darby named quite a few individuals, describing all kinds of activities unrelated to the RNC or the case against Crowder and McKay. In dealing with the fallout, we formed an ad hoc group to gain FOIA's on a number of individuals and organizations in Austin dating back to 2000. Our goal was to see how extensive the Feds' spying on political dissent might be and to share that information with other communities filing similar requests to see what patterns emerged.
To this date, only some of the documents requested have been released, but through this process I received 500 out of a purported 1,200 pages of documents related to my political activities from 2003-2008. Meanwhile, the DOJ has released their report, which calls into question the FBI's intelligence gathering and targeting of advocacy groups during the Bush administration. Both sets of documents confirmed my suspicions about the depths the Feds have gone to in spying on and targeting domestic political dissent, as well as the unfounded accusations and characterizations of political organizers around the country.
How extensive is the surveillance?
From what I can tell from the FBI documents that have been released in political cases in the last two years (Austin, Iowa, Kansas, and Pittsburgh)—as well as state and federal court documents related to the various "Green Scare" trials—the surveillance has been broad, but not very thorough or accurate. At the broadest level, it appears they are gathering mountains of superficial data noting, for example, people who have been arrested at protests or spokespeople for organizations. To me it seems like having a phone directory with thousands of names, but not having any idea who they are or knowing why the names are in it.
On the next level, there seems to be a much smaller grouping where they actually research people and organizations more thoroughly to explore what they term the "nexus of terrorism." These searches are linked largely to certain immigrant groups, as well as social-political activists—largely anarchist, animal rights, and environmentalist. These are the cases where, in addition to deep spying, infiltration and informants appear. It is worth noting that there have also been a few cases of local law enforcement agencies infiltrating non-violent public peace groups.
—photo from the Rag Blog
Cases where they are digging into specific groups or people, from what we have seen in numerous political cases, seem to be much rarer. That is not to say they aren't happening, but we have seen only a handful of examples over the last few years. The use of paid informants is a linchpin. These informants are basically anyone who agrees to gather and turn over information about someone or about groups of interest to the intelligence agencies or private security firms. Informants are untrained and un-vetted people who are put into positions to gather and report information. Often there is no background check on the informants or they are people who have a vested interest in the outcome of the cases due to reduced jail sentences, money, pending charges being dropped, or ideological axes to grind with the targeted group.
This begs the question: how reliable can the information gathered be? If an informant knows the FBI is targeting a specific person and wants to get a conviction, then what is to stop them from distorting information that reinforces what their handlers want? According to many legal briefs filed in courts across the nation in thousands of cases, there are questions about the reliability of informants' testimonies. They have used dubious paid informants in Green Scare and in the 2008 RNC political cases. For example, in one of the RNC cases, the informant, Andrew Darst, who helped set up a naïve activist in building Molotov cocktails, had a long rap sheet for a number of violent offenses. While he was an informant, he was even arrested for a felony assault for physically abusing his ex-girlfriend. The first activist case he was involved with ended with the activist receiving 20 years. Darst was also going to testify in trial against some organizers of the RNC protests. After his charges made the news, he was promptly removed and never seen again. But the damage was done, the FBI had gotten a conviction.
Informants have also crossed the lines between just gathering information and inciting property destruction. In the cases of Crowder, McKay, and Eric McDavid, the informants/provocateurs Brandon Darby and "Anna," respectively, not only gathered information on activists they were targeting, they actively planned with them and helped acquire supplies that were later used as evidence against the defendants.
In the history of political spying and repression by the State, from COINTELPRO to today, over 80 percent of the targeted groups and individuals have been politically left leaning. The only thing that has changed is that these agencies have gotten exponentially more funding to gather information since 2001 when the USA PATRIOT Act and a host of other bills swept through Congress. Their mandates are to produce results in order to keep the funding for their agencies. Cash strapped agencies are vying against each other for the money and to receive it they have to make arrests. That, coupled with the technological advancements that make it easier to collect data electronically, has led to unsurpassed information gathering.
The DOJ's recent review of FBI spying concludes that: "The evidence did not indicate that the FBI targeted any of the groups for investigations on the basis of their First Amendment activities," and that "in most cases, documents in FBI files referencing the advocacy groups did not focus on the content of their First Amendment expressions." The report claims that "FBI documents we reviewed relating to the selected advocacy groups generally did not contain inappropriate characterization of the groups." How does this compare to what you have learned about FBI surveillance and characterization of groups or individuals you have worked with?
It was disheartening to see the conclusion because, in at least some cases, it was clear that the feds had violated First Amendment rights. For example, in the Greenpeace case, I am one of the activists referred to in the documents under the pseudonym "Harris." ExxonMobil played a heavy but invisible hand in the local district attorney's directions with the cases. Thirty-six people were arrested for trespassing, normally a misdemeanor. But, through ExxonMobil's influence, they trumped up the charges to felony rioting, although no rioting occurred. This action consisted largely of people in either full tiger costumes or business suits playfully running around on ExxonMobil's property. In the final settlement, the only way the defendants could have the charges reduced was for Greenpeace to agree to stop campaigning and stop protesting ExxonMobil for five years.
RNC protesters arrested in 2008—photo from indymedia.org
It had a chilling effect in numerous ways. First, it ground the three-year Greenpeace campaign to a halt. Second, all 36 activists were unable to participate in any protests while facing felony charges, which dragged on for years. Third, and what was suspected at the time, all the activists were put on the domestic terrorism watch lists after their indictments. They put a few of us under this so-called "nexus of terrorism," a concept repeatedly referred to in FOIA documents. We didn't know when people were placed on this list. We could do nothing to be taken off of it. Being placed on the watch list affected other parts of people's lives, from local law enforcement harassment to being denied entry into foreign countries. As far as I know, none of the people named in the documents were interviewed for the DOJ report. I know I wasn't even though the DOJ talked in detail about parts of my life.
In the final analysis, the DOJ treated the FBI with kid gloves. The Justice Department made a few mild recommendations, but nothing that is enforceable. It became another meaningless report in changing the FBI's policies or curbing growing domestic spying on targeted communities.
In my case, they looked for funding and aid I may have been providing to animal rights and eco-extremists (to use their terms). They sought to show I was breaking Interstate laws by moving money or materials across state lines. According to the documents I have received, it seems they couldn't link my case to any "nexus of terrorism." Thus, the FBI was not able to indict me on anything related to their accusations, so they closed the investigation. The caveat is that the documents end in 2008 and don't include any of the other FBI documents related to the RNC cases.
What's been the effect of FBI covert operations on groups you've been involved with?
The report overlooked or didn't look deep enough into the chilling affect that the FBI's overt and covert activities have within social justice communities pushed to the margins. These have resulted in widespread disinformation in various communities, distrust of new people who don't express certain preconceived ideas, as well as fear of excessive legal charges from protests and actions. There are many situations where terrorism or conspiracy charges are used to raise small protest violations to felony status. For example, if someone paints graffiti on a building, in most places it would be a vandalism charge (a misdemeanor). But if it has political connotations, especially if it's related to the animal rights or environmental movements, then people can face up to 25 years for the same acts. There is the 2009 case of four animal rights activists in Santa Cruz, California who face conspiracy terrorism charges for protesting and writing in chalk on the sidewalk.
The Bush administration was very aggressive with respect to spying on and entrapping social justice activists. What do you see with respect to the Obama administration?
Bush/Cheney were the worst leaders the First World has ever seen and there was a high bar to pass. Among the many depredations, civil rights were thrown under the bus, run over repeatedly, then thrown away. Unfortunately, from that pitiful low, under Obama it is only incrementally better. Despite his initial promises to create transparency in the government and restore civil liberties, they have turned out to be just that—words. Obama pushed the renewal of FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], which continues to allow warrant-less foreign and domestic intelligence gathering from phone companies and Internet service providers. And the corporations have turned it into a revenue stream, setting up whole systems to make it easier for government agencies to gather information while companies profit from it. All of this is done with full immunity, according to the latest FISA amendments.
In my case, they were able to set up "pen registers" and "trap and traces" on my phone and Internet without warrants or my knowledge. All they have to do is present to the companies a "reasonable suspicion" of some alleged wrongdoing and the companies roll over. These methods allow them to obtain records of who you call or the IP addresses or URLs of websites that you visit.
Under Obama's administration, funding for the domestic police state has increased. Furthermore, his Administration has made it easier to spy on political dissidents. What Bush did illegally or immorally has become commonplace policy and law.
What are the lessons that activists need to take from the attacks against social movements and the ongoing police/state surveillance of political dissent?
Without sounding overly dramatic about all of this, most everything that activists fear about surveillance and government repression has happened to me over the last 11 years. I've been listed on domestic terrorist watch lists, which are issued to all levels of law enforcement. I have been in groups that were infiltrated and informed on by operatives, some of whom crossed the line into provocateurs, trying to get me to participate in inflammatory activities. I have had my house, business, and groups I was in under massive surveillance (physical, electronic, photo), both overtly and covertly by private security and government agencies. I have been questioned and threatened with grand juries, visited at my home and work, followed and chased on foot and in vehicles by private security and the state over the years. I have been hit with police batons, tear gassed, threatened, and nearly shot at. In all of this, I have never formally been charged with a serious crime, much less terrorism, yet they have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on people like me under the guise of homeland security.
In the last few years, the State has criminalized movements, turning civil activists into terrorists. When groups like Greenpeace, the Ruckus Society (whom I worked for over the years), and the Catholic Worker movement are appearing on domestic terrorism watch lists along with groups like Al-Qaeda, it becomes worse than a sad joke. I have to ask, does law enforcement believe it? Or does it justify budgets?
It is up to us to turn to the tide, to live in the open with clear social and political convictions. All of their spying and infiltration can't stop us if we don't let it. There are more of us. We are more creative, resourceful, and have resolve based on our convictions, rather than money or power. I still live my life to the fullest I can. I trust people and I don't live in fear or hiding. I would be lying if I said the road hasn't been difficult, but the advantages, the camaraderie, the creative people, and the good work thousands have done outweigh the almost insignificant impediments of fearing power.
I am not being cavalier in saying I believe that, for those of us with relative privilege, it is our duty to stand up for ourselves, as well as in support of other communities who are under attack in the guise of the war on terror. We must stand in solidarity with at-risk communities from the assault on civil liberties and basic human rights. Immigrants, communities of color, and radical environmental and animal rights advocates deserve it. It affects all of us at some levels. Their surveillance and spying becomes irrelevant as long as we focus on doing what we do best—resisting oppression and creating better worlds inclusive for all.
Darwin BondGraham is a sociologist and author.
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