The old trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist is back in the news, with a round-up in Ohio on May 1 and the three would-be NATO protesters arrested on Wednesday who are now charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism. While the impression that appears in the media is one of remnants of the Occupy movement verging toward violence, the driving forces behind these plots are the very agencies claiming to have foiled them.
The five activists arrested in Cleveland, Ohio, are facing multiple charges for conspiring and attempting to destroy the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge on May Day to protest corporate rule. According to the FBI press statement released shortly after the May 1 arrests, FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony said “the individuals charged in this plot were intent on using violence to express their ideological views.” But that is only one side of the story.
The mainstream media and blog reports, both nationally and in Cleveland, have emphasized that the young activists were part of Occupy Cleveland and self-identified anarchists (here, here, and here). The men — Douglas L. Wright, 26, of Indianapolis; Brandon L. Baxter, 20, of nearby Lakewood; Connor C. Stevens, 20, of suburban Berea; and Joshua S. Stafford, 23, and Anthony Hayne, 35, both of Cleveland — were arrested and remain in jail after they attempted to detonate a false bomb that they had set, in conjunction with the FBI.
It’s an old script: Violence-prone anarchists devise a nefarious plan and, just before they can carry it out, law enforcement swoops in to save the day, catching them red-handed. But there’s another script being acted out here too, one much more sinister, complex, and morally and legally dubious: Agents of the state infiltrate an activist group and, through techniques of psychological manipulation, lead its most vulnerable members into a violent plan — for which explosives, detonators, contacts and case mysteriously become available — until SWAT teams and prosecutors suddenly arrive and haul the accomplices off to jail for the rest of their lives. In both cases, at the end of the story, officials congratulate each other for their bravery and bravado and the public breathes a sigh of relief as more of their civil liberties are stripped away.
I recently spoke with Richard Schulte, a veteran activist who has known the Five from groups like Food Not Bombs and is helping to organize their legal and jail support. Schulte explained that under the influence of undercover federal agents and informants, the activists — particularly the youngest, Baxter and Stevens — found themselves increasingly vulnerable and reliant on their informant. Baxter’s lawyer, a public defender named John Pyle, recently identified the informant working with the group as Shaquille Azir, a 39-year old ex-con.
“[Azir] became something of a role model, stepping in as a father figure, offering guidance on emotional and social stuff,” said Schulte. “Connor and Brandon thought he was a rad dude but getting more and more pushy.”
Collectively, according to accounts from friends and associates, statements from lawyers, and the FBI affidavit, members of the Cleveland Five have backgrounds that include mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and social marginalization.
Brandon and Connor had been part of the full-time occupation over the winter in Cleveland’s Public Square. After having grown frustrated with what they perceived as the Occupiers’ timidity — Schulte called it “passive gradualism” — the Five were encouraged by Azir to break off from Occupy Cleveland and form their own, much smaller group, “The People’s Liberation Army.” At first it was mostly just a graffiti crew — tagging the phrase “rise up” around the city and putting up stickers, said Schulte.
Azir would give them a case of beer in the morning, according to Schulte, have them work outside on houses all day, and then give them a case of beer at night. He gave them marijuana and would wear them down by keeping them up late into the night with drinking and conversation — all the while urging them to break away from other groups, keep their arrangement secret and not to trust other activists.
Looking back, Schulte said Azir and the FBI used “security culture against activists” and “developed patterns of trust to seem legit.” The Cleveland Five, he explains, “were coached by the federal government.”
In a letter Stevens wrote from jail, Schulte told me, he described the feeling of helplessness he experienced right before the bust: “We saw this coming,” Stevens wrote.
“Brought to the edge of the swimming pool”
Andy Stepanian knows a thing or two about state repression of activists. As one of the animal-rights activists known as the SHAC 7, Stepanian has served three and a half years in federal prison after having been prosecuted under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act for costing animal testing laboratories more than $380 million in lost profits simply by operating a website. While the SHAC 7 case did not involve FBI entrapment or property destruction, the specific targeting of activists because of their anti-capitalist activism was reflective of a new era of post-9/11 state surveillance and repression.
When I talked to him on the phone about the Cleveland Five, Stepanian surmised, “These folks would not have gone out and done this if not brought to the edge of the swimming pool by federal agents and urged to jump in.”
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The FBI affidavit — analyzed here by RT — confirms, again, what many have warned about regarding the growing surveillance and security agencies in the United States: To keep themselves employed and justify their budgets, people in agencies like the FBI are orchestrating plots to catch “terrorists” who, otherwise, seem to be quite unable to do anything on their own. Last fall, Mother Jones reported on FBI efforts against Muslim extremists and concluded that many of those were instances of entrapment as well.
In activist circles, there are a series of notorious cases of entrapment by federal authorities. In 2006, for instance, environmental activist Eric McDavid, encouraged by an informant known as “Anna,” was convicted on conspiracy charges. Another more notorious case is that of Brandon Darby — a well-known anarchist and activist-turned-informant — and his entrapment of David McKay and Bradley Cowder. The award winning film, Better This World, tells the story of how McKay and Cowder were convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
“In most cases,” said Stepanian, “this is not one coordinated crackdown with a puppet-master. It’s a bottom-up [phenomenon] where special investigators are creating things for themselves to do. They go to potential targets to justify their position and create work for themselves.”
Perhaps even more troubling than the manipulation of vulnerable individuals — whether they be political activists or members of mosques — is the way in which law enforcement meanwhile manipulates public discourse about terrorism, Islam or, in this case, a growing social movement.
According to Schulte, the operation in Cleveland appears to have been part of a pre-planned narrative meant to paint Occupiers as a group with terrorist thugs in their midst, discouraging others from joining the movement. The FBI had a media statement prepared for immediate release on May Day after the arrests, and it hosted an unusually high-profile press conference the following day. There have been more than 300 pleas involving FBI informants in six years and such kind of overt media blitz from the feds is rare. Rolling Stone reporter Rick Perlstein observes, comparing two different anti-terrorism operations at the end of April, “that the State is singling out ideological enemies.” He reports that authorities are much less likely, for instance, to use tactics of entrapment against violent white supremacist groups.
Investigative journalist Will Potter is an expert on state-sponsored targeting of radical activist groups who has testified before Congress on FBI entrapment and is the author of a book (and an accompanying blog) titled Green is the New Red. Potter calls the Cleveland Five conspiracy “part of the ongoing focus on demonizing anarchists.” Just a cursory look at the headlines in Chicago and Cleveland confirms a growing association of anarchism with violence and terrorism while alienating radical movements from potential supporters.
Occupy Cleveland responds
Each of the Cleveland Five entered pleas of not guilty in federal court last week. As the trial of these young men plays out, their fates rest in which story is more compelling — their own victimhood, or the cunning of the federal agents. Although they were not taking action in the name of Occupy Cleveland, the future of Occupy and related movements in the United States is at stake in which story the public chooses to believe.
Occupy Cleveland, one of the movement’s longest-lasting encampments, had the remnants of its occupation removed by police in the middle of the night on May 3. There was little public outcry, when the city revoked its permit after the May 1 arrests.
Occupy Cleveland spokesperson Katie Steinmuller stressed that it was only a matter of time before the camp was evicted, and that it wasn’t entirely a result of the bomb scare. “There was a casino planned to be opened in view of the tents,” said Steinmuller referring to Occupy Cleveland’s camp when I spoke with her by phone about the eviction. “This [conspiracy] was just a good excuse to get us out.”
In a media statement following the arrests of the Cleveland Five, Occupy Cleveland affirmed its commitment to “active non-violence.” Individual occupiers have chosen to join the support team for the Five, but Occupy Cleveland as a whole is steering clear of commenting on it further.
“The FBI was successful in … what they set out to do,” said Schulte about the initial negative reaction the Occupy movement and other activists experienced in Cleveland. “People were exploited and trapped.”
“When you take away a space of legitimate protest,” adds Stepanian, “less legitimate forms of protest become more prevalent.” Events like the arrests of the Cleveland Five can create schisms within movements, which the state exploits to create a climate of fear within and about activist groups. The NATO 3 arrests and bond hearing, for instance, just before this weekend’s mass No NATO demonstration, will serve to deter people from participating and obscure the reality of the protest’s message.