Story of Black Bloc’s Benedict Arnold Highlights FBI Surveillance of Activists
Film Review: Informant
Shortly before Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s all-pervasive Big Brother snooping, at least three print magazine published cover stories presaging his disclosures: Earth Island Journal’s “Prying Eyes” looked at how corporations and law enforcement agencies were spying on environmentalists; The Progressive uncovered “Spying on Occupy Activists;” and my front-page report in CounterPunch, “Hollywood’s Year of Living Clandestinely” examined CIA’s influence in the movie/TV industry. Now Jamie Meltzer’s powerful new documentary Informant exposes FBI infiltration of a radical activist group – with a twist.
If Elia Kazan was what Victor Navasky called in his book Naming Names “the quintessential informer” because of that director’s role as a rat during the Hollywood Blacklist, then Brandon Darby is the singular stool pigeon of today’s anarchistic left. Meltzer’s film traces Darby’s metamorphosis from grassroots community organizer to radical activist to FBI undercover úber-snitch to Tea Party favorite who hobnobbed with rabid right-winger Andrew Breitbart.
Unlike Manning, Assange, and Snowden, Informant’s title character didn’t blow the whistle onthe powers-that-be, rather, he told on purported militants who resisted the 1 percent. Not surprisingly, as Darby did the government’s bidding instead of exposing its lapses, he is not behind bars at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London or exiled in Moscow, but a free man living in Austin, TX. However, the film portrays Darby as a marked man who sleeps with a gun by his side in a home rigged with alarms, contending with death threats from those he betrayed.
(WARNING: Plot spoilers follow) To explore l’affaire Darby, Meltzer combines archival news footage, close ups of redacted documents, staged reenactments and interviews with numerous radicals, journalists, law enforcement officials and with the quisling himself.
Looking somewhat like John Malkovich in one of his madman roles, Darby tells, at length, his side of the story. The saga of this onetime teen runaway is absorbing. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina struck, the Texan went to flood-ravaged New Orleans to help with rescue operations and braved unsafe, possibly toxic waters to help evacuate former Black Panther Robert King Wilkerson of “Angola Three” fame.
Darby stayed on in New Orleans, vowing to defend African Americans from what he calls “racist militias” of trigger-happy whites. He became increasingly militant. He says he was “ready for guerrilla warfare” to save Blacks and take up arms against the oppressive government he held responsible for the city’s desperate plight. Darby joined the grassroots Common Ground Collective of anarchists that provides relief to New Orleans’ hard-hit and impoverished Lower 9th Ward. Ex-Panther Malik Rahim, who was born and raised in Algiers, Louisiana and ran for Congress on the Green Party ticket in 2008, calls Common Ground “a symbol of what radical activism could do,” and notes that Darby was “considered a god, a hero.”
But others were less enamored of the macho outspoken advocate of armed struggle. Community organizer Scott Crow criticizes Darby for his “reckless rhetoric” and for not wanting “to be accountable to anyone.” Anarchist proponents of horizontal direct democracy say Darby would only show up at the end of long consensus-building meetings to push his agenda. They criticize him for having a “top down approach.” Common Grounder Prof. Caroline Heldman, chair of the Politics Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles calls Darby an “egomaniac.” During this period Darby also encountered New Orleans police Capt. John Bryson, with whom he would later develop a working relationship.
In 2006, Darby embarked on a trip to Venezuela to witness “twenty-first century socialism” firsthand and seek funding for Katrina survivors from the leftist, oil-rich Pres. Hugo Chavez. The Texan says he wanted to get aid from Chavez in order to “embarrass the US government.” The Venezuelans purportedly steered Darby to a meeting with state oil officials who asked the Yankee to travel to Colombia and become involved with FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which is waging armed resistance against the US-backed regime there. Despite his tough talk, when actually confronted by guerrilla warfare, Darby backed off and returned to New Orleans, where Heldman says he has a “mental breakdown.”
Soon, Darby returned to Austin where he reportedly began to change his thinking. Around this time, he reached out to Bryson, who became his “bridge to the FBI.” The NOPD captain put him “in touch with a handler” from the bureau and Darby began to spy on the movement. The turncoat justifies his snooping claiming: “I became an undercover informant because people were hurting people.”
Darby’s spying focused on purported Black Bloc street fighters during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN. Information he supplied led to a SWAT team raid and the arrest of two anarchists from Midland, TX – David McKay and Bradley Crowder. The two – whom Mother Jones called “greenhorn activists” in a 2011 article – were supposedly planning to use Molotov cocktails during anti-RNC demos. Of the homemade napalm mixture McKay and Crowder concocted, Darby – who wore an FBI wire while meeting with the duo – declares: “I knew if he did it he’d hurt people,” as opposed to merely damaging property.
Scott Crow pooh-poohs “corporate property destruction” as “not violence,” while longtime organizer and Occupy Wall Street supporter Lisa Fithian, whom Mother Jones magazine calls “Mother Occupy,” blithely asks: “Who cares if windows are broken?” (A strong argument can be made that during the Vietnam War, the combined armed resistance carried out by New Left extremists – including Black Panther and Black Liberation Army shootouts with police and Weather Underground bombings – against the US government used less firepower than a single US aerial bombing mission in Indochina.) In any case, McKay claims to have “decided not to use the Molotov cocktails,” but both he and Crowder served prison sentences. Darby agreed to testify at McKay’s trial.
Many activists feel that the busts and convictions due to Darby’s finking were “entrapment.” Activist James Clark asks: “Are the FBI creating crimes they are solving?”
The documentary goes on to show how, like the professional anti-communists during the HUAC/McCarthy era witch-hunts, Darby seems to cash in on his notoriety as a FBI confidential informant. He becomes a fixture as a speaker on the Tea Party circuit, recounting how he recanted his radicalism, learned to stop worrying and love the FBI. He appears at events hosted by groups such as Citizens United, pals around with erratic reactionary commentator Andrew Breitbart and goes on to write for the now-deceased blogger provocateur’s website.
Informant, however, does not explore if Darby is profiteering as a newly minted conservative pundit and celebrity. Nor does the film disclose whether the FBI paid the Black Bloc’s Benedict Arnold for finking the way former Communist Party members did when they exploited the Reds-under-the-beds Cold War hysteria.
Informant has some other curious omissions,including barely mentioning the widely discredited Bush regime – which was in power during the Hurricane Katrina and Iraq War debacles and was the focus of much of the activism in question. Nor is there any mention of the John McCain/Sarah Palin GOP ticket – which was nominated at the RNC convention where the Molotov cocktail attack was expected to take place.
Music Box Films
Although actors are occasionally shown being directed during some staged scenes, most of these vignettes are not clearly disclosed as being reenactments, which is problematic in what is supposed to be a nonfiction film. This use of a dubious technique is further complicated by the incidents being told from Darby’s point of view, in a manner that seems favorable to the film’s key interview subject. One wonders what possible deal Meltzer might have made with the image-conscious Darby (who sued The New York Times over a 2011 article, resulting in The Times changing its story) and/or the FBI to score their cooperation. An earlier documentary, Better This World, which covers similar ground as Informant, wasn’t able to get Darby sit down and talk about what led him to change sides.
Overall Meltzer – who previously helmed the informative film, Welcome to Nollywood, about Nigeria’s film/video industry – has directed a well-made documentary that presents different points of view. From Black Bloc to FBI talking heads, Meltzer has succeeded in getting opposing sources, as well as Darby, to talk to his camera. This is significant, especially given that the directors of other recent documentaries, such as Blackfish and GMO OMG, were unable to get representatives of marine amusement parks and Big Ag to go on the record in their films.
Some critics feel that Darby’s extensive interviews in the film are self-rationalizing and indeed, Informant can arguably be compared to the infamous ad Elia Kazan put in The New York Times, justifying his decision to name suspected Reds in his 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But the film alsoincludes lots of on camera rebuttals and damnations of the man many consider a traitor. Even Wilkerson, who Darby helped save from Katrina’s inundation, repudiates his onetime savior.
At a time when Hollywood agitprop continues to exalt US intelligence agencies and operations – Showtime’s CIA series Homeland keeps bagging Emmy awards and nominations; NBC’s new Blacklist series glorifies the FBI, the agency that tapped Dr. King’s phone calls and was behind much of COINTELPRO’s subterfuge; and movies like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty lionize the CIA – at least the thought-provoking Informant shows different sides of the story. It raises the red flag about a post-PATRIOT Act America that is experiencing a high renaissance of domestic surveillance that would have probably surprised even George Orwell.
As for Darby, there’s at least one thing he says that everyone can agree is clearly true. Halfway through the film there’s a video clip of a Tea Party event where the man who sold out his friends confesses: “I wasn’t such a leftist after all.”
Music Box Films has theatrically released Informant nationwide and it is also available on VOD.