by Keith McHenry
The government wastes millions, probably tens of millions, of dollars annually spying on and disrupting the anarchist movement. It wouldn’t waste all that money trying to stop us if it wasn’t worried that we might inspire resistance.
Even though most anarchists are dedicated to nonviolent direct action and many participate in useful projects such as infoshops, bicycle co-ops, and the sharing and growing of food, the police, state agencies, federal agencies, and military intelligence units in the United States routinely infiltrate anarchist groups, and government provocateurs have repeatedly attempted to entrap activists. For the most part, they’ve failed at that.
But unfortunately some activists have not only been arrested, but have been tried, convicted, and sentenced to years in prison.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies can and do frame or entrap anarchists to devastating effect, so it is important to do all you can to reduce the possibility of being set up on phony “terrorism” or other charges. Not only could you be removed from the community for many years, your family and friends would suffer through your ordeals in court and through the pain of knowing you are in prison. Defense activities also siphon off huge amounts of energy, time, and resources from the good work of building a better world.
Still it is not always possible to avoid being the target of the authorities, so take precautions to limit the damage if the state seeks to silence you. Taking actions that you can be proud of may be the most important single thing you can do. Think of the consequences of your acts. How will you feel if someone is injured or killed because of something you did? Could your actions be used to discredit the movement? Could they add to the divisions, fear, and paranoia in the community?
Don’t think that you can get away with risky, pointless actions. You’re not clairvoyant. The government targets even the most peaceful groups (including Quaker groups) through its use of informers and provocateurs, and surveillance is unrelenting and omnipresent. So what can you do beyond carefully considering your actions and doing only things you feel good about?
You can take some simple steps to reduce the possibility of being arrested and prosecuted on phony charges. When people talk or joke about taking up arms, trashing communities, or bombing or burning down some place, speak loudly about how you would never participate in any action that could injure someone.
The fact that we know that we are not considering acts of terrorism can cause us to make light of statements about arson, bombings, and rock throwing, but the FBI and Homeland Security have sent infiltrators to political meetings to talk about using violence or property destruction, or initiated conversations while being wired to record conversations. Months later, out-of-context statements can appear as evidence that anarchists were plotting acts of terrorism. When the cases get to court, prosecutors and the media can point out that the accused activists didn’t object to the comments made by the informants, “proving” their guilt.
You can minimize the success of the state in harming you and your efforts by making it clear that you are not going to participate in acts of violence or destructive sabotage. (They’re not the same: violence involves damage to people or animals; sabotage involves—sometimes, not always—damage to property.) If you are planning to damage property, consider making your intentions clear in advance by offering a public explanation of your actions. Examples could include pulling up genetically modified crops or dismantling the separation wall in Palestine, actions designed to stop an egregious harm. At the same time you can refrain from giving the exact time or location of your plans so that the authorities will have at least some difficulty blocking your actions. While you may still be accused of taking part in a “terrorist” plot, you will have much more popular support, and you’ll make the authorities’ “terrorism” accusations less credible.
You can make your positions clear in your literature, statements to the media, at meetings, social gatherings, and during informal conversations. If people are joking about using violence or talking about the virtues of acts that could injure or kill people, it is wise to make several statements making it clear that you will not engage in any kind of violent activity. Point out that you are dedicated to nonviolent direct action and that anyone considering any other strategies or methods should talk elsewhere.
It once was possible to use the defense of entrapment, but that is no longer the case. Vice News contributor Natasha Lennard’s article, “The Line Between FBI Stings and Entrapment Has Not Blurred, It’s Gone,” makes this quite clear.
In her introduction to the Human Rights Watch report, “Illusions of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,” Andrea Prasow said that “Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US . . . But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.” While this report focuses on the entrapment and framing of people in the Muslim community, anarchists in the United States have also been targeted, as described in the report.
Natasha Lennard writes:
Since 9/11, Muslims in the US have been the focus of major counterterror stings. But other groups have been caught in the net where sting meets entrapment. A small group of self-identified anarchists in Cleveland were all convicted and sentenced to around 10 years in prison for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge in Ohio. But an FBI infiltrator provided the target and the fake C-4 explosives. Rick Perlstein wrote of the case in Rolling Stone, ‘the alleged terrorist masterminds end up seeming, when the full story comes out, unable to terrorize their way out of a paper bag without law enforcement tutelage.
The case of entrapment in Cleveland provides concrete examples of what activists should watch out for. The FBI sent an informant, Shaquille Azir or “Kalvin Jackson,” to the kitchen at Occupy Cleveland on October 21, 2011, seeking to build a relationship with some of the cooks.
FBI Special Agent Ryan M. Taylor filed Federal Complaint 1:12-mj-3073 regarding the matter. The government presented it at the defendants’ May 1, 2012 arraignment; it details how the entrapment worked. It’s a stark warning to anyone who might be a target of the FBI. In sections 8 and 9, the FBI admits to using a Confidential Human Source (CHS) and Undercover Employee (UCE) to encourage acts of terrorism:
8. The (CHS) Confidential Human Source hereinafter has been working as a source for the FBI since July 20, 2011. The CHS has a criminal record including one conviction for possession of cocaine in 1990, one conviction for robbery in 1991, and four convictions for passing bad checks between 1991 and 2011. The CHS is currently on probation in Cuyahoga and Lorain Counties for passing bad checks. Since July 20, 2011, the CHS has been paid approximately $5,750 for services and $550 for expenses, the CHS has not been paid since beginning her/his probation.
9. The (UCE) Undercover Employee has been employed by the FBI for over 15 years and has been working in an undercover capacity for 10 years. The UCE has received ongoing training in conducting undercover investigations and has participated in dozens of investigations in an undercover capacity.
Section 12 suggests the FBI was seeking anarchists to frame at Occupy Cleveland.
12. Based on an initial report of potential criminal activity and threats involving anarchists who would be attending an event held by a protest group, the Cleveland FBI directed the CHS to attend that event. On October 21, 2011, at approximately 6:30 pm, and while the CHS was attending the event, the CHS identified four suspicious males with walkie-talkie radios around their necks. Three of the four men had masks or something covering their faces; one male did not. The men were wearing black or dark colored shirts, had black backpacks, carried the anarchist flags and acted differently than the other people in attendance.
Section 29 shows that informant Shaquille Azir was recording meetings for the FBI and claimed that one of those targeted, Michael Wright, had talked of making smoke bombs from a recipe taken from the William Powell book titled The Anarchist Cookbook (NOT this Anarchist Cookbook).
(In a separate case, according to a terrorism complaint filed in Brooklyn in April 2015, FBI informants provided Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas with copies of the Powell book on November 2, 2014, circling the types of bombs the government thought would help build their case.)
29. On March 22, 2012, the CHS was provided a body recorder [and] consensually recorded a meeting between the CHS and WRIGHT. In sum and substance, WRIGHT described using an upcoming festival as an opportunity to create a civil distraction in order to commit a larger act of violence. WRIGHT also discussed making smoke bombs and other explosive destructive devices using the ‘Anarchist Cookbook,’ a book that describes the construction and use of weapons and explosives. The following are some of the relevant excerpts from that conversation:
Sections 97 and 98 show that phone calls and conversations were recorded a couple of days before the FBI-engineered May Day fake bombing:
97. On April 29, 2012, the UCE recorded a telephone call with WRIGHT. In sum and substance WRIGHT said that he would call the UCE around 1:30 pm to give the UCE the exact meeting location, however it was in the Warrensville Heights, Ohio area.
98. On April 29, 2012, the CHS was provided with a body recorder and consensually recorded a meeting with the UCE and WRIGHT, BAXTER, and HAYNE.
In Section 110 of the federal complaint, the FBI admits that the alleged criminal activity that they were investigating amounted to no more than “smoke grenades and destruction of signage on buildings in downtown Cleveland”:
110. WRIGHT recruited BAXTER, C.S. and the CHS to participate in some form of direct action, initially involving smoke grenades and destruction of signage on buildings in downtown Cleveland;” Erick Trickey of Cleveland Magazine noted that defendant Connor Stevens expressed support for nonviolent direct action.
On a Saturday in April, about three weeks before his arrest, Stevens served dinner in Market Square with Food Not Bombs. He got talking with fellow volunteer Aidan Kelly about Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which an American joins the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War to fight a fascist uprising, and is assigned to dynamite a bridge. “I remember distinctly talking about his ideas about pacifism,” Kelly says. He and Stevens agreed that movements such as Food Not Bombs offered a better alternative for creating social change than violence.
Trickey writes of the first meeting of Stevens and co-defendant Brandon Baxter, a meeting like those you may have had if you travel in anarchist circles.
At Food Not Bombs last year, Stevens met another young anarchist, Brandon Baxter, as intense and passionate as Stevens was cerebral.
The 19-year-old Lakewood High graduate’s influences weren’t long-dead, bearded writers, but websites ranging from the far right (the conspiracy-minded InfoWars) to the far left (the Anonymous “hacktivist” movement). He embraced Food Not Bombs with gusto, screaming “Free food!” across Market Square when dinner was ready.
Yet the FBI claims that Wright downloaded Powell’s version of the Anarchist Cookbook with the purpose of making a bomb, which would have been a good trick given that to all appearances Powell’s book has never been sold in e-book format.
111. WRIGHT repeatedly asserted he downloaded the ‘Anarchist Cookbook’ in an attempt to learn how to make explosives including constructing plastic explosives from bleach and other household items; . . .
The complaint finally shows that the FBI was moving their own plot along by providing the defendants with phony C4.
112. When presented with the opportunity to purchase C4, WRIGHT and BAXTER met with an individual offering it for sale;
Michael Winter of USA Today reported that “Three self-described anarchists were sentenced to prison Tuesday for trying to blow up a highway bridge between Cleveland and Akron using dummy explosives provided by an undercover FBI agent.”
Ed Meyer of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote that “U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd, Jr. rejected the government’s insistence that the defendants get 30 years in prison and instead gave Douglas L. Wright 11½ years, Brandon L. Baxter nine years and nine months and Connor C. Stevens eight years and one month.”
Both of Stevens’ parents, James and Gail Stevens, lashed out at the government’s actions.
“My son is guilty, and so are you!” James Stevens told federal prosecutor Duncan Brown at one point. Gail Stevens called her son “my hero,” said she loved him with all her heart, and that he never would have acted as he did if not for the provocateur.
The entrapment of the young Occupy anarchists in Cleveland was the most dramatic attempt to discredit the Occupy movement. And it worked—with the help of some protesters who played into the hands of the police.
Efforts to re-energize the movement failed as the media reported on a wave of Occupy-related violence. Reuters reported:
Occupy Wall Street protesters smashed windows in Seattle, fled police on scooters through the streets of New York, and clashed with officers in Oakland on Tuesday in a May Day effort to revive the movement against economic injustice with demonstrations around the United States. . . .
New York police reported 10 instances of harmless white powder—apparently meant to raise an anthrax scare—being mailed to financial institutions and others . . .
In Seattle, some 50 black-clad protesters marched through downtown, carrying black flags on sticks they used to shatter the windows of several stores including a Nike Town outlet and an HSBC bank before police moved them out of the area. Others smashed windows at a Seattle federal building, and swarms of demonstrators gathered in an open-air plaza.
May 2012 was not the first time authorities used an alleged May Day bomb plot to discredit anarchists. Chicago police, seeking to stop the movement for an eight-hour workday, attacked a peaceful rally in May 1886. A bomb was set off and police shot into the rally in what has become known as the Haymarket massacre. The bomber was never identified and the government provided no evidence linking them to the bombing, yet anarchists August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Albert Parsons were accused of the bombing, convicted, and executed.
Historians James Joll and Timothy Messer-Kruse claim the evidence points to Rudolph Schnaubelt, brother-in-law of Michael Schwab, as the likely bomber. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States also indicates it was Schnaubelt, suggesting “he was a provocateur, posing as an anarchist, who threw the bomb so police would have a pretext to arrest leaders of Chicago’s anarchist movement.”
Spies would later testify, “I was very indignant. I knew from experience of the past that this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight-hour movement.”
That was in the 19th century. The government has been framing, imprisoning, and occasionally murdering anarchists ever since.
But you’re not powerless. You can take some simple steps to protect yourself from being arrested, charged, and convicted of planning or participating in acts of terrorism. The FBI and Homeland Security have sent infiltrators to our meetings to talk about using violence. The authorities will often attempt to give the impression in affidavits or typed memos that someone other than their informant or undercover officer made statements advocating violence, and imply that everyone participating in the discussion supported its use.
One of the most successful strategies used by the FBI is to have those infiltrating joke about the use of violence. When the words they used become the text in memos or court filings, they’re out of context, they no longer seem humorous, and can be presented as a serious conversation supporting the use of violence. Since those participating in such conversation consider the statements nothing more than an awkward attempt to be humorous or fit in with the group, no one thinks to make it clear that they don’t intend to participate in a violent action. Months later, out-of-context statements can appear as evidence that anarchists were plotting acts of terrorism. Even if you state clearly that it is not appropriate to talk or joke about violence, you can still be arrested and tried, but you will greatly reduce that possibility if you do speak up.
Activists have been charged as terrorists after getting a ride home with people that turned out to be infiltrators. After dropping off their passengers, provocateurs and those they’re setting up have burned down buildings or torched vehicles. The fact that you were seen getting into the informant’s vehicle before the act of alleged terrorism happened can provide the evidence needed to accuse you of taking part. The FBI and their informants are not always honest, and may choose not to mention that you were not at the scene of the crime, even though they can honestly say you got into a vehicle with the arsonist. Sometimes federal prosecutors have been able to get convictions simply because the set-up activists were intimidated into not expressing their dedication to nonviolence, fearing that they would be accused of being “weak” and not serious about social change, the well-being of animals, or the environment. Both provocateurs and holier-than-thou true believers use such fears to manipulate people into saying or doing things they would never otherwise say or do. Don’t let anyone manipulate you into silence. Don’t let anyone manipulate you into saying or doing things that could land you in prison.
The first step is to make it clear that you are not going to participate in acts of violence or destructive sabotage. You can make this clear in your literature, statements to the media, at meetings, social gatherings and during informal conversations. If people are joking about using violence or talking about the virtues of acts that could injure or kill people, it is wise to make several statements making it clear that you will not engage in any kind of violent activity. Point out that you are dedicated to nonviolence and that anyone considering any other strategies or methods should meet elsewhere. To help protect your friends you might also point out that it is very unlikely that such plans could be concealed from the government. As you can see in the Cleveland case, otherwise innocent conversations can be recorded and provide support for prosecution.
Another step you can take is to include statements about nonviolence in your literature about any direct action you might be planning or supporting. On occasion, the media and prosecutors will claim that our literature didn’t make any mention that our protests would be nonviolent, and use that as “proof” we are terrorists. If your group is planning an action, you can protect yourself by including explicit language about nonviolence in your publications. This can be difficult when working in coalition with groups that might not share our principles of nonviolence, but you could publish your own literature on the action. Don’t be intimidated into remaining silent on the issue of violence. It isn’t necessary to exclude reference to nonviolent direct action just because people are arguing in support of a “diversity of tactics.” You may initiate a pledge of nonviolence for the campaign you are supporting and organize nonviolence training sessions. Nonviolent resistance is every bit as valid as other methods and is often more effective.
Nonviolent direct action, noncooperation, and nonviolent resistance can be very empowering. It takes courage to organize and participate in campaigns of nonviolent struggle. Nonviolent struggle can build trust between participants and the public. Campaigns of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience can be so effective that governments and corporations will try anything to push our movement into adopting violent tactics. That is one reason groups like Food Not Bombs have been the focus of infiltration and why the authorities rely on agents provocateur to reduce the impact of nonviolence, while sowing fear and alienation.
Don’t let people intimidate you into silence. People can make comments about nonviolent activists being “wimps” or “pussies,” that nonviolence never works, or that you are not really committed to change if you aren’t willing to use sabotage or violence. You might even hear that nonviolence is racist because people of color “have to take up arms,” and that white, first-world people have the luxury to use nonviolence. Infiltrators or government agents may be talking to some of your friends at cafes, clubs, or other public locations, promoting the idea that armed resistance or arson is the only solution. Honest discussion of all tactics and methods, including types of violence, is fine, but make it clear that you and your group are dedicated to nonviolence.
At the same time, it is not wise to make claims of infiltration or accuse someone of being an informant. It is best to not worry about infiltration and to stay focused on the work of your organization. Just take the simple precautions of asking that any discussions of violent tactics take place somewhere other than at public meetings, make it clear you are dedicated to nonviolence; and make that plain in your publications and through organizing nonviolence trainings. If you do this, attempts to convict you on terrorism charges will likely fail, and the fear and mistrust that so often destroy movements will be defused. The government can use the fear of infiltration as a way of destroying trust in your community. Don’t accuse people—just be careful about what you say and do.
You can make sure you and your friends will not fall prey to the government’s efforts to disrupt your work. First, stay focused on the fundamentals of your project or campaign. Don’t feel guilty about refusing to take violent action. Since the world is facing so many dire crises, it might seem rational to consider arson or other acts deemed violent by the corporate state, but these tactics often backfire. They can cause the public to withdraw any support they may have had for your cause. The use of violence also breeds distrust among activists, because of the secrecy involved. But as we have learned from Ed Snowden and other whistle blowers, it is nearly impossible to have secrets in the United States. According to the Washington Post, over eighty billion dollars is spent each year on government and corporate spying.
A campaign of violence would add to the disempowerment in our community and scare the public into greater support of the authorities. If you feel you must investigate tactics that include violent action, ask yourself whether such tactics will do more harm than good for you personally and for the cause you support. Are you really ready to live fearing capture? How will you feel if your friends spend their lives in prison while you’re all portrayed as dangerous and crazy? Will your actions really inspire the public to rise up and save the earth? How will you feel if you kill someone or if one of your friends is killed? Can you really see yourself coordinating a campaign of bombings, arson, shootings? How will you feel spending the rest of your life in prison, seeing the stress this puts on your family and friends?
While it is possible you could spend decades in prison for taking nonviolent direct action, you are likely to feel more empowered and have wider support on the outside than if you were imprisoned for violent acts. Unlike people who are doing life in prison for bombings or shootings, if you are sentenced to a long prison term for organizing or participating in a campaign of nonviolent direct action and noncooperation, you have a much greater chance of inspiring popular support, possibly achieving your political or environmental goals, and of leaving prison before your sentence is up.
In addition, mass nonviolent direct action based on a thoughtful strategy is more likely to be effective. Agents provocateur encourage drastic actions, knowing we are knowledgeable about environmental and economic threats. If pressured, you can remind your friends that many of the anarchists in prison were framed for “terrorist” acts and that as anarchists we are dedicated to nonviolent direct action.
Along with making it clear you are not going to be silent when people suggest using violence, you may want to organize nonviolence preparations, trainings or workshops with your friends or organizations. Suggest that your community study the history of nonviolent direct action in books by people such as Emma Goldman, Erica Chenoweth, Gene Sharp, Martin Luther King Jr., and others who experienced first hand the power of noncooperation and nonviolence.
Again, be concerned about jokes concerning violence. If people joke about armed revolution, bombings, rock throwing or other acts of violence, make it clear that you are dedicated to nonviolent direct action and ask them to stop. You might remind your friends that conversations and jokes about using violence have resulted in activists being framed and sentenced to long prison terms. Terms sometime decades long. The activists that are joking about violence or making statements about the need to use violence are not necessarily infiltrators or police agents, so don’t make any accusations. They may have been influenced by someone they met or may have read some of the many books romanticizing violence. It is best not to worry and to stay focused on the work of your group. The government can use the fear of infiltration as a way of destroying trust in your community. Again, simply remind your friends that you are dedicated to nonviolent direct action and that we don’t joke or talk about taking violent action.
While armed resistance has worked to overthrow governments and change the power structure of some countries, in virtually every case the system that resulted continued to use violence to retain its authority. That is the exact opposite of what anarchists are seeking: a society free of coercion, exploitation and domination. Nonviolent social change offers the clearest route there.