At midnight on May 27, 2013, the whole term of my Federal sentence came to a quiet and official close. Born in much chaos and fury, it was laid to rest with an equal amount of anticlimax; a brief and unofficial phone call and the quiet stroke of the clock. Though the full scope of the experience in many ways still overwhelms me, I’ve decided to eulogize this passing with a brief and incomplete reflection over these four years and nine months – on one hand to distill a selection of critical political lessons, but on the other as a means of some level of catharsis.
The documentary film of my experience gave me many amazing opportunities to speak to crowds eager to try to understand the lessons of my story. This pushed me to develop and clarify what I had learned and eventually I became fairly competent at expounding upon these lessons. However, I never attempted the critical task of writing anything down. So for that reason, I have chosen here to finally reflect in writing on the historical nature of the informant/provocateur, four political lessons regarding the issue of security, and finally a brief reflection on the nature of revolution and being a revolutionary.
It is a common understanding that no one respects a snitch, not even the police, who are perfectly able to distinguish between respectability and utility. Since Brandon Darby’s open letter confirming and clumsily attempting to defend his decision to work as a Federal informant, much bitter and acidic vitriol has been relentlessly directed at the man. It is, of course, a perfectly logical thing to expect. However, this vitriol brings me neither sympathetic feelings nor elated validation. Far from being the compelling character he was initially believed to be, most now see him for what he is: a rather sad, desperate, and intellectually clumsy shill, a paper match who’s small flame burned furiously but for a moment and now the noxious odor left behind is being steadily blown away to nothing.
Destined to forever be at most an incidental character, what makes the character of Darby important to this story is not what makes him unique, but what makes him universal: his part in the rise of the modern informant/provocateur, set in motion by the sprawling repressive machinery of the FBI. What concerns us is not the odious and craven nature of the informant/provocateur as an individual, but the development of this character as a political tool to address broad historical problems.
I received my first insight into this process not from any left-leaning literature, but from another inmate named Blue, an insight repeatedly affirmed throughout my incarceration.
Blue and I were in the “bullpen,” or court holding at the Minneapolis Federal building. I was lamenting the injustice of my situation and the role Brandon played in it by stoking and instigating a culture and situation that, without him, wouldn’t have come to pass. Instead of offering any consolation to the unique and extreme nature of my case, he laughed.
My case, he assured me, was neither unique nor extreme. He then proceeded to tell me his story. After his release from State prison, Blue, now in his 30’s, was attempting to straighten out from gang life. Unfortunately, gang life wasn’t quite prepared to straighten out from him. Threats of violence began to work their way back to him, but he didn’t immediately take them seriously. An acquaintance of his, however, did, and offered Blue a pistol for sale.
Initially, Blue refused, but as time passed both the threats and his friend inveighed upon him to purchase the gun. Finally, he relented. Blue purchased the pistol, left his friend’s house, and crossed the street, whereby he was quickly apprehended by a mass of Federal agents.
His friend was, of course, an informant. Blue was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
This particular story reflected the general experiences of many other inmates, and though anyone who casually takes the word of inmates at face value is a fool, over time you come to learn to distinguish between inmate bullshittery and the actual motion and experience of modern mass incarceration. The ethically dubious use of informants had become both common and legally defensible. For a revolutionary, the question became, “How did this happen? What role does it play in the development of capitalism? What can we learn to fight it?”
The answer, I believe, lies in the legacy of the 80’s and the rise of the era of neoliberal capitalism and the reality that the methods of repression the Left today is beginning to feel were first pioneered and perfected against poor people of color.
All capital, but U.S. capital in particular, is racialized. This means that the flow and contours of capital are shaped by racial divisions, producing uneven development based on these racial lines. In the U.S., this has meant that White workers have often occupied industries that were insulated from the shocks and dislocations of capitalist attacks on other workers as a whole. This has produced in White workers the historical tendency to simply defend their higher standards of living regardless of the situation of non-white workers, as well as a broader political allegiance to nationalism.
Black workers, however, having a much clearer view of the social and historical situation, have tended to be willing to move towards broader and deeper critiques of American society, which at one point reached a fevered pitch at the height of the Black Power movement, where explicitly revolutionary Black organizations were drawing all radical social forces behind their leadership.
While the State pursued political repression as a means to destroy formations like the Black Panthers by rather clumsily working to either exacerbate the internal contradictions that led to ultimate collapse of those formations or outright murder and political arrest of individuals, capital as a whole began to tear up its problem of Black rebellion at the root by destroying their economic base. Capital now began the process of the historical destruction of the Black working class as a serious social force.
The development of both increasingly sophisticated automation as well as the globalization of production facilitated a full-scale assault by capital on traditionally Black industrial centers. Almost before the nation’s eyes, cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland were transformed into dystopias of unemployment and desperation. Public funds for social programs such as education were gutted. The historically unprecedented project of mass lumpenization was underway.
The combination of the collapse of revolutionary leadership, the disappearance of the industrial wage, and the evisceration of public programs left massive sections of the Black working class facing functional genocide. Into this desperate void began to flow destructive and addictive drugs like heroin, cocaine, and eventually crack. Finding both those desperate enough to sell as well as consume these drugs, the transformation from Black proletariat to massive surplus labor to lumpen was complete.
Alongside this mass lumpenization grew what was to become the largest and most comprehensive peace-time mass incarceration system the world had ever seen. Policing became increasingly militarized. Legislation became harsher on the convicted, especially those convicted of drug crimes, at the same time it was lowering standards and demands on law enforcement and prosecutors. This explosion of violence and repression fell under a now familiar banner – War on Drugs.
At the same time neoliberalism was securing its repressive apparatus at home, it was also looking abroad. Third World Liberation movements had largely reached their terminal limits, with a few heroic but doomed attempts in Latin America. The Global Left had almost totally collapsed, but Imperialism, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw before it a freshly open field.
Regardless of whatever Milton Freidman might say, these two phenomena – Left collapse and Imperial advance – could not, of course, solve the grievances of those who suffered under the shadow of violence and domination. It simply meant that leadership in the struggle against Imperialism shifted from Left to Right, from the revolutionary leadership of workers and peasants to the reactionary leadership of the petty bourgeoisie, namely religious clerics and bazaar merchants under siege by secular international capital. With no revolutionary program to carry forward, this right wing Anti-Imperialism turned to the only tactic available to it: an international campaign of reactionary terrorist violence.
Against a backdrop of increasingly popular feelings of being under siege, a rhetorical shift began to take place in American political life. The framework of “responsible” political debate began to shift away from the traditional rubric of “Democracy v. Communism” to “Security v. Terror.” Through this shift, the clumsy methods of COINTELPRO lost their explicit political content and began to quietly find new life and rigor, as well as legal and political legitimacy. It was in this shift that the modern informant/provocateur began to develop, exploding into explicit systematic use after the attacks of 9/11.
The smoke and mirrors of “security” attempts to hide the political content of modern repression behind a neutral facade. The reality is otherwise and the implications are clear; this mystified, implicitly political project is being inexorably expanded to include explicitly political targets, initially Anarchists and Animal Liberation activists, now frequently political hackers, and ultimately whatever other forces begin to become troublesome for neoliberalism in the future.
The most basic and urgent task borne out of this historical process is the fundamental need to rebuild a mature, organized revolutionary Left that is able and willing to begin the Herculean task of confronting neoliberal capital, that hideous Medusa with a Yankee head and hideous snakes sprouting therefrom and slithering through each nation on the planet. It must develop a genuinely Anti-Capitalist program that can draw the lumpen behind its leadership through a comprehensive proletarian critique and attack on the War on Drugs, from its roots of mass economic dislocation to the crooked and wicked branches of police repression and systematic racism.
It must develop and remain steadfastly committed to Internationalism in the face of the terror of reactionary Anti-Imperialism on one hand and the militarized behemoth of national chauvinism on the other.
Our generation must urgently, immediately take up the task of rebuilding a revolutionary left, if not for high-minded humanitarianism then at least for the sake of basic survival and self-preservation. I have personally been deeply invested on unraveling the answer to this massive question. Sadly, I have no complete answer. I do, however, have some small and basic suggestions, borne out of a combination of study and personal experience. They are very limited and likely controversial. Nevertheless, I state them because I believe they are simple and correct and also clarify my position within the context of this project of rebuilding.
- Reams upon reams have been written attacking patriarchy and sexism. Obviously comprehensively taking up the issue is beyond the scope of this essay. I will make one clear point, however. Patriarchy in the form of political machismo is a lightning rod for perhaps well-meaning but ultimately irresponsible and destructive adventurism, and as such is also a lighting rod for the informant/provocateur. Taking up the fight against machismo and patriarchy must be a fundamentally central task of revolutionary struggle. This means combating the tendency to measure political tactics based on their intensity, thus reflecting the participant’s level of seriousness and commitment, as opposed to measuring tactics based solely on their objective political and strategic merits. Any position that elevates “action” as the supreme expression of revolutionary will while at the same time degrading theoretical work as cowardly hand-wringing much be relentlessly attacked as the chauvinist adventurism that it is. The alternative revolutionary position defending and advancing the position of the dynamic tension between theory and practice must prevail over irresponsible adventure driven by ego and insecurity.
- The task of confronting patriarchy becomes a political question of revolutionary security against State provocation and repression. Much as been written about “security culture” from a technical perspective, but very little from a political perspective. The reality is that political, which is to say theoretical, development must be the foundation of any technical application of security culture. All the vouching processes in the world can’t protect you if you make yourself vulnerable through political miscalculation. The State, as well as our generation’s low level of political development, will constantly send in disruptive elements into our project. There is, however, no easy way to tell the difference between the two, one a committed and implacable enemy and the other an immature element to be developed and won over to a practical revolutionary strategy. Clear, coherent, and consistent political arguments are the only effective way to separate the wheat from the chaff, winning over the genuine while isolating the destructive and dangerous.
- The capacity to develop those clear political arguments brings up the frequently uncomfortable, but no less critical, question of revolutionary leadership. Young and inexperienced militants always come into movements looking for leadership. When responsible revolutionary leadership is either unavailable or simply rejects its role as leader, this void is only too happy to be filled by the informant/provocateur. The issue of leadership becomes critical. The duty of healthy revolutionary leadership is not to drill dead political formulas into the heads of young “followers,” but to patiently help new militants develop the critical thinking skills to ultimately approach political questions in an independent, thoughtful, principled way. Responsible revolutionary leadership doesn’t reject its role outright, as though this mechanically and automatically removes the historical question of leadership. Responsible revolutionary leadership works to be self-negating by the consistent and systematic generalization of the skills and content of leadership.
- These previous suggestions only make sense in the context of developing a serious revolutionary organization. Organization is the only thing that can make the revolutionary project – and the need for security that accompanies it – stable, consistent, and efficiently reproduceable. Organization, while not eliminating the threat of informants completely, works to dramatically reduce their threat and eliminates the dangers of provocateurs. The question becomes a political question in an organizational context. Informants become a pivot of struggle between the State and the revolutionary organization. A quote from Lenin regarding a high level Bolshevik discovered to be a police informant:
“Malinovsky was forced, in order to gain our confidence, to help us establish legal daily papers, which even under tsarism were able to wage a struggle against the Menshevik opportunism and to spread the fundamentals of Bolshevism in a suitably disguised form. While, with one hand, Malinovsky sent scores and scores of the finest Bolsheviks to penal servitude and death, he was obliged, with the other, to assist in the education of scores and scores of thousands of new Bolsheviks through the medium of the legal press.”
All this begs the question though, “Why deal with this? With the stress and repressions? I only have on life to live. Should I spend it burdened by political work and maybe even as a potentially hunted human being?”
This is the question that weighed on my mind as I lay on my prison bunk. For our generation, the question of revolution and being a revolutionary often feels abstract or even a little silly, like playacting. Little confronts us to dissuade us from this insecurity.
I was suddenly in a place where abstraction had suddenly materialized into concrete and steel. The question became urgently real, with very real consequences to whatever answer I chose. I spent no small amount of time meditating on the question.
The answer at which I arrived was that revolution itself was no metaphysical abstraction needing my belief to be real, like some deity above. Revolution is as real as gravity, an historical phenomenon placed squarely in front of us. It is an immanent component of all our daily lives, in the cost and type of food we eat, where we live, the debt we hold, the jobs we work, or what we are taught to believe. To be a revolutionary is to simply choose to take a hard look with clear eyes at the world, not as we wish it was but as it actually is, and then taking up the task of practically solving our problems. The common cliche is that reformists are the grounded realists and revolutionaries are idealists with their heads in the clouds is the exact opposite. Anyone who wants to simply tinker around the edges to solve today’s problems is truly a deluded Utopian.
The question that squarely faces our generation is plainly: “Revolution or Death.” To take up the task placed before us is to be fully, completely human and alive. To refuse it is simply to wait for death, not only as an individual but as a species entirely. I will close with one beautifully written quote by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci:
“Give up to life your every action, every ounce of faith. Throw all your best energies, sincerely and disinterestedly, into life. Immerse yourself, living creatures that you are, in the live, pulsing tide of human existence, until you feel at one with it, until it floods through you, and you feel your individual personality as an atom within a body, a vibrating particle within a whole, a violin-string which receives and echoes all the symphonies of history; of that history which, in this way, you’re helping to create.”