Revolution #158, March 8, 2009

Fighting Against Criminalization of Protest:

The Political Persecution of the RNC 8

Part 2: Informants and Undercover Agents: The Government’s Strategy To Disrupt, Set Up and Attack Opposition To The Republican National Convention

A very important case is unfolding in Minnesota—eight people are being singled out by the government for their role in the political protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC).

At the September ’08 RNC in St. Paul, war criminal John McCain and right-wing religious fundamentalist Sarah Palin were being selected as the Republican ticket for the presidential race. The national media spent endless hours on things like Palin’s unmarried pregnant daughter. Meanwhile, the streets of St. Paul were turned into a militarized zone with massive police mobilization. Over the course of four days, thousands defied the armed clampdown to make known their opposition to U.S. wars-torture-spying and the imperialist globalization that has brought suffering to a huge section of humanity and caused catastrophic environmental damage. Over 800 people were arrested and scores were brutalized by the police.

Even before the protests started, law enforcement authorities carried out preemptive raids and arrests of activists and independent journalists throughout Minneapolis/St. Paul (the Twin Cities). Among those arrested were eight who are now being targeted for persecution, facing over 12 years in prison. They are known as the RNC 8.

For the first time, a state version of the fascistic USA Patriot Act is being applied to political demonstrations. The RNC 8 are charged with felony conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism and felony conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property in furtherance of terrorism, along with two other felonies. They were sitting in jail for the duration of the Republican convention—but they are being held legally responsible for anything that any protestor did during that time.

The prosecution of the RNC 8 would set a very bad precedent that criminalizes political protest. But too few people even know about this case. Everyone who understands the importance of dissent and the ability to resist the crimes being committed by the government and ruling institutions needs to speak out. A big demand to drop the charges on the RNC 8 needs to be raised from a broad cross section of society. This railroad must be stopped cold in its tracks.

Read Part 1: The Case of the RNC 8


A striking feature of the government’s repressive strategy which has come to light in relationship to the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Minnesota in fall of 2008 was the use of informants and undercover agents against the radical and progressive forces who were organizing and participating in the protests outside the RNC. For a number of years there has been an intensification of this more openly repressive expression of bourgeois dictatorship.

As it has in the past, especially when it felt threatened and challenged, the government sent people into movements of resistance around the RNC to disrupt, discredit and to spread ideas in the context of it, which the authorities then turn around and seized on to attack the movement.

For any movement which is serious about trying to challenge the hideous objectives of the most powerful imperialist empire that has ever existed, there is a difficult contradiction to handle well. On the one hand, how not to easily get set up or entrapped and do this without falling over into creating an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. The former is aimed at destroying the movement from the outside and the latter would essentially destroy it, but from the inside. The role of the informants and undercover agents in Minneapolis and in the months leading up to the RNC is important to examine.

Who Were the Targets of the Government?

First, the use of informants/undercover agents has a lot of bearing on the magnitude of the injustice of the raids, arrests and prosecutions of demonstrators, including the case of the RNC 8 who are charged with felony riot and property damage in furtherance of terrorism and face 12+ years in jail as well, and undoubtedly will continue to be an important element of legal defense strategies. (See Part 1: The Case of the RNC 8) Second, there are important general lessons to learn for all who are struggling to bring into being a better world. Learning those lessons now is one way of raising standards so as to not get derailed by the government’s strategies arrayed against progressive, radical and revolutionary movements.

Who were the so-called terrorists that the government was busy enlisting informants to ferret out? Apparently the kind that hung out in vegan potlucks. An article from the alternative paper, the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, reported that a University of Minnesota student was approached by the FBI on behalf of the Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF), in May 2008, months before the convention. The student had been busted for a tagging incident on campus and the campus security police summoned him to a meeting with the FBI agent. She tried to recruit him. “She told me I had the perfect ‘look’ and that I had the perfect personality—they kept saying I was friendly and personable—for what they were looking for,” the student told City Pages. He said they wanted an informant “to show up at vegan potlucks throughout the Twin Cities and rub shoulders with RNC protestors, schmoozing his way into their inner circles, then reporting back to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.” According to the article, and this is very important, the student would be “compensated for his efforts, but only if his involvement yielded an arrest.” And equally as important, this student went public immediately and exposed the JTTF effort to recruit him.

The Emergence of an FBI Informant-Provocateur

In December 2008, Brandon Darby emerged as a key FBI informant-provocateur in relationship to the RNC protest scene. There is much that remains to be learned about Darby. Some of his closest former associates have started a working group and a web site to piece together the picture of his role and “personna” by gathering information and analysis from people who knew him over a number of years. These activists are trying to determine at what point Darby began informing for the government and what his behavior looked like so others can learn from their experience. Those who knew him feel deeply betrayed by his actions. While almost everyone was shocked, some were less so than others, as there had been controversy and disagreement for some time among those who worked closely with him about his role. This was well before it became known he was an informant.

There is a lot of uncertainty about when or why Darby became an informant or if he was in fact an undercover agent (an actual employee, not a volunteer as he claims), especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is not known what other investigations he might have been a part of besides in relation to the RNC protests. It is important that the movement and those who knew him scientifically figure this out as he has been a known social activist for 10 years in the Austin and New Orleans areas.

While being careful to not jump to an unwarranted conclusion, it is worth considering what Darby himself says about his “ideological” change of heart, (particularly in the context of the “we are one” patriotism promoted by Obama that there is not a “red America and a blue America” but the United States of America). What is noteworthy here is that Darby justifies his actions not on the basis of Bush-style reactionary Republican politics, but on more traditional values of American bourgeois democracy: that as long as people are allowed to participate in politics within the (highly confining limits of) the political system, it’s appropriate for the government to spy on and attempt to imprison those who do not confine their political opposition to those constraints.

In an interesting piece titled, “The Informant, Revolutionary to Rat: The uneasy journey of Brandon Darby,” by Diana Welch, Austin Chronicle, January 23, 2009, the author interviews Darby and reports that while Darby says “he is ‘the furthest thing from a Republican,’ it was protecting the rights of Republicans, ...that finally persuaded him to work with the feds. ‘One morning, I woke up and realized that I disagree with the group I was associating with as much as I disagree with the Republican Party,’ he recalls. Later the article goes on to quote Darby saying he opposed the RNC Welcoming Committee because when “they organize around the country, not to protest but to specifically prevent another group of American citizens to exercise their right to assemble, the U.S. government is going to get involved,” he says. “And they should get involved, and I support it wholeheartedly.”

After interviewing Darby and others who have worked with him including some who suspected him long ago of being an agent, in Common Ground and in Austin, the author Welch writes, “None of this fully explains why Darby chose to go undercover as an FBI informant and surreptitiously spy on his friends when he could have instead simply left the movement and tried to get involved in public policy in some other productive way. ‘I’ve watched countless activists begin to work in the Legislature and begin to do things that participate in the system; we have a system that is wide open for our involvement,’ he [Darby] said. ‘You can get involved and have a say so; if you disagree with the way our city is run, you can get involved. If you have an ideological bent that’s on social justice, you can become a law enforcement officer, you can get involved with the FBI, or a lawyer.’”

One reason Darby’s working as an informant was such a big deal was because Darby was a major figure in Common Ground (a group formed in the wake of Katrina to enlist volunteers in clean-up and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans) and he used those credentials to do the government’s dirty work of spying on people who were trying to oppose the government’s crimes. Again, it is not known yet if Darby was an informant at any point when he worked with Common Ground in New Orleans. Darby has only publicly admitted he was paid by the government for his role as an informant since 2007.

Darby’s identity as a key informant became known during a case involving two men from Austin, Texas who were arrested during the course of the RNC protests. These two defendants do not have anything to do with the case of the RNC 8. When Darby’s role as an informant emerged, a co-founder of Common Ground and a long time friend of Darby initially publicly defended him against what seemed like possible snitch jacketing of Darby (i.e., falsely labeling Darby an agent). Discovery materials released during the case pointed strongly to Darby as the informant. Apparently, after being confronted by his former friends, Darby issued a public statement, arrogantly and unapologetically defending his role as an informant for the FBI as being in the best interests of the movement in order to protect it from “violent” elements.

The story of Darby the FBI informant sheds light on the government’s handiwork not only in the case of two Texas defendants arrested in conjunction with the RNC in Minnesota, but also on the underpinnings for the lurid and scary tales that authorities used to shape their rationales and pretexts and then fed to the public to justify their repression and the arrests.

According to a December 8, 2008 New York Times article: “Darby provided descriptions of meetings with the defendants [ed: two from Texas later arrested at the RNC] and dozens of other people in Austin, Minneapolis and St. Paul. He wore recording devices at times, including a transmitter embedded in his belt during the convention. He also went to Minnesota ... four months before the Republican gathering and gave detailed narratives to law enforcement authorities of several meetings they had with activists from New York, San Francisco, Montana and other places.”

Darby, age 32, had a lot of “street cred” lore surrounding him for his supposed role in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and for his work with Common Ground. In the spring of 2008, he worked with an affinity group in Austin, Texas which included two friends in their early 20s (McKay and Crowder) who wanted to protest at the RNC. Both were charged in Minnesota with the making of firebombs. They were not charged with ever using one. While Crowder pled guilty, McKay decided to fight his entrapment by Darby. McKay’s lawyer, Jeff DeGree, told the courtroom (according to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on January 26, 2009):

“This is a case of a government informant who took it upon himself to make things happen,” he told jurors in his opening statement. He said that Darby showed McKay and Crowder jujitsu moves and lambasted protesters for looking like “a bunch of tofu-eaters,” saying, “You better start eating meat to bulk up and prepare for this,” DeGree said. And it was Darby who planted the seeds of violence after their [homemade] shields were seized, the attorney said. “Brandon Darby went crazy when that happened, [saying,] ‘We’re not going to take this lying down. You’ve got to do something about it,’” DeGree said.

McKay took the witness stand on his own behalf to argue he was entrapped by Darby into doing something he never would have done otherwise. FBI agent Sellers testified that Darby wore a transmitter on the night of September 2, 2008, when McKay allegedly told of plans to use the firebombs. Sellers said five federal agents were listening to the conversation, but they made no recording! And Sellers was the only one who took notes. How convenient that no less than five FBI agents forgot a tape recorder!

On February 2, 2009, in a highly unusual development the judge declared a hung jury because the jury could not reach a verdict of guilt or acquittal in McKay’s trial! The judge released McKay on bond pending a new trial. He had been sitting in jail since September 2008.

Additional Informants

While Darby is one of the main informants for the FBI to surface in conjunction with the extensive repression surrounding the RNC, he is not the only one to have been publicly identified. There are at least three others who have covered in a December 1, 2008 Minneapolis Star Tribune article.

The father of one of the defendants pointed out that the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper has not had one good, substantial piece on the case of the RNC 8, yet they did manage to review 1,000 pages of notes from undercover operatives for the local sheriff’s department. Similarly, the New York Times did a story on Darby’s emergence as an informant after years as an activist in New Orleans and Austin but not on the scope of the repression and the legal cases unfolding in Minneapolis in relation to the RNC. These undercover agent stories prey on most people’s ignorance about the historical role of informants in political cases and movements as agents for the fabrication of evidence, for lying about what activists were planning and/or entrapment—all for the purpose of proving legal charges against those the authorities target. They also provide justification for the heavy hammer of repression that was brought down against all the protestors. These stories of informants can convey that somehow the ensuing legal cases are based on first-hand eyewitness accounts, so the general public should not be too alarmed that young people and protestors are being railroaded to prison. And at the same time it can breed distrust among activists, creating a paranoid atmosphere so it can be a “win-win” for the authorities to cover these cases through the eyes of the informants. This is one of the things that support for the protestors and exposure of the government’s repressive strategies can counter.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article on December 1, 2008, “‘Anarchist’ looked like someone’s mom. A deputy sheriff and two others infiltrated the RNC Welcoming Committee before GOP convention.” (Except where noted, all of the descriptions and quotes which follow are drawn from the Star Tribune article.)

The local sheriff’s department (which was working in close connection with the JTTF and other federal law enforcement agencies) in August 2007 sent Marilyn Hedstrom, a woman in her 50s into a storefront used by activists in Minneapolis and introduced herself as Norma Jean. According to her reports, she told activists she had issues with President Bush and the Iraq war.

Hedstrom, a narcotics officer, was partnered with a guard in the county jail in her 20s, who posed as Amanda, Hedstrom’s niece. “Amanda,” now a deputy, halted her undercover work after a few months. The sheriff, Fletcher, told the Star Tribune reporter that Amanda “didn’t have the level of acceptance that Marilyn had.” Hedstrom told activists that Amanda dropped out after finding a new boyfriend. Activists point out that Amanda had a fake Facebook page.

According to the article, most of the anarchists were decades younger than Hedstrom, but Fletcher said that posed no problem. “We’re not always looking for a person that seems to fit perfectly,” he said. “Someone that is not an obvious fit ... is least likely to be suspected.” Also, he said, pairing Hedstrom with “Amanda” increased their safety.

Hedstrom went “dumpster diving” at the group’s instructions to find food for the anarchists to eat. She cooked meals for some meetings, ran errands, coordinated committee discussions and represented the organization at some gatherings of the protest movement. She became friends of some of the activists. And she, ironically, even helped on security for the anarchists, who worried that the cops were infiltrating them.

The Star Tribune goes on to describe a third informant (paid and rewarded later with a job as a jail guard with an avenue to become a deputy). Chris Dugger “gave off different vibes and was often under a cloud of suspicion. In his late 20s, he was ‘kind of muscular,’ had tattoos and looked like a biker.” An activist account says that Dugger “portrayed himself as participating in a radical project for the first time and avoided helping except for the most basic tasks.” According to the undercover agents’ reports, at a meeting where Hedstrom was the facilitator, someone expressed concern that Dugger was a cop and he “became emotional and told them how bad he felt, he wiped his eyes and blew his nose.” He denied he was an informer. The memo said two activists told him they “don’t think he is a cop. They said a cop would have just walked away and never returned and wouldn’t cry.” In another chilling part, the article says that by August 2008, Dugger was urging an anarchist to suspect another anarchist of being an informer.

There is a fourth informant who worked for the FBI like Darby. His identity has been confirmed by news coverage of the January 2009 arrest of Andrew Darst for an incident where he allegedly broke into a house by ripping the door off the hinges and confronting his wife and striking two men present at the gathering. In an embarrassing development for the state, Darst is now charged with two felony counts of first- and second-degree burglary as well as fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Darst is a key prosecution witness in the case of the RNC 8. His arrest for a violent rampage will likely become an issue as it reveals his instability and propensity for violence.

When he was an FBI informant, Darst was known as Andy “Panda,” about 30 years old. According to those familiar with the movement scene in Minneapolis, “Panda” began attending RNC Welcoming Committee meetings, introduced to the group as an avid urban explorer, and was (and still may be) active in the regional urban exploring scene. According to an account posted on Indymedia in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), Darst was “first seen within the anarchist circle at the Crimethinc convergence three years ago, and has attended the convergence annually ever since. Like the other infiltrators, he was active in committee meetings and attended functions with other, non-anarchist organizations. Importantly, however, ‘Panda’ was also involved in anti-RNC activity independent of and unrelated to the RNC Welcoming Committee.” According to this same account, in addition to recording meetings he attended, his apartment in Minneapolis was wired for audio and video recording.

* * *

The on-going exposure of these agents and scientific (rigorous, and unsparingly objective) analysis about how they were able to insinuate their way into movements are important both for the legal cases and in combating repression in general because they will continue to be sent in to derail, disrupt and set up organizations and people who the government considers a threat, including those who are fighting for a better world.

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