The aim of these operations by the "Federal Bureau of Entrapment" isn't to protect us from any real threat, but to justify a wider crackdown on the right to protest.
May 12, 2012
ON MAY Day, the headlines should have been about the tens of thousands of people from unions, immigrant rights groups and the Occupy movement, among others, who marched in cities around the country. Instead, the media focused on a so-called "terrorist" plot "discovered" by the government, involving five anarchists who allegedly planned to blow up a bridge in Cleveland.
Of course, the government didn't so much discover the conspiracy as set the whole thing up in the first place.
The supposed Cleveland plot is notable for the pattern it fits--of government entrapment, complete with FBI informants who suggest a crime and then provide the means to carry it out. It is one more in a long line of trumped-up cases being used by political leaders of both parties to justify a clampdown on civil liberties and legitimate protest, all in the name of the "war on terror."
Until now, the Feds' operations have been mainly directed against Muslims and Arabs, like the "Newburgh Four," who were accused by an informant of planning to attack New York synagogues, or Tarek Mehanna, who was convicted of "materially aiding" terrorism for allegedly translating al-Qaeda material into English, but only after he refused to work for the FBI.
The war on Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. is the domestic counterpart of U.S. wars abroad--something that has happened throughout the history of U.S. imperialism. But the Cleveland case shows how the "war on terror" is connected to the militarization of U.S. police forces and a crackdown on all dissent--something that was on display last fall as police attacked the Occupy movement in cities across the U.S.
All our movements need to recognize the growing threat of state repression and mobilize in defense of its victims--because as the old labor movement slogan says, an injury to one is an injury to all. All along, the assault on the rights of Arabs and Muslims showed that the "war on terror" is a racist war, which must be opposed by anyone who opposes discrimination and bigotry. But it's now clear that this assault has paved the way for a broader crackdown on dissent.
In response, activists need to take elementary precautions to defend our struggles, and to recognize that some tactics and strategies can open us up to repression, and have to be rejected because of that. Above all, we need to make our defense of the right to protest, free from harassment and abuse by the state, a part of all our struggles.
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UNLIKE THE majority of FBI sting operations in the past decade, this most recent case centers not on the Muslim community but on the Occupy movement.
According to the government, five men--Anthony Hayne, Brandon Baxter, Joshua Stafford, Douglas Wright and Connor Stevens--were plotting to use homemade explosive devices to destroy a bridge around 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland. The five have been charged with serious counts that, if they are convicted, could land them in prison for life.
The men, according to reports, had participated in Occupy Cleveland, although as Occupy Cleveland noted in a statement, "[T]hey were in no way representing or acting on behalf of Occupy Cleveland. Occupy Cleveland has affirmed the principles of nonviolence since its inception on October 6, 2011.
At least three of the men--Wright, Baxter and Hayne--were identified as "anarchists" by the FBI. An FBI affidavit states that the men were dissatisfied with the nonviolent approach of the Occupy movement.
But like other cases of "domestic terrorism," the supposed plot to blow up the bridge hinged on the actions of an undercover FBI informant named Shaquille Azir. According to the Smoking Gun website, Azir is "a convicted felon who was arrested on bad check and theft charges in the midst of his cooperation with federal investigators," and had been working with the FBI as a paid informant since July 2011.
It's highly doubtful that the "plot" would or could have happened without Azir. According to the FBI affidavit, it was Azir who arranged for the purchase of the explosives from an undercover FBI agent. Azir also fronted the alleged conspirators money to buy the explosives. Last, but not least, he was paid $5,750 by the FBI for his "services."
The FBI's investigation of the five accused men began after the Bureau directed Azir to attend an October 21 Occupy Wall Street rally in Cleveland, where, according to the affidavit, one of the five reportedly bragged to Azir about a plan to vandalize downtown office buildings. So the five only became targets of investigation when they were fingered by the Feds' paid informant.
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THE BASIC elements of this story will be familiar to anyone who has followed the actions of the federal government during the last 10 years of the "war on terror." Time and again, the FBI has identified vulnerable people--whether mentally disturbed, embittered or simply posturing--and sent in a provocateur or informant to suggest they commit a violent crime, talk them into doing it, and even help plan it and provide the materials to carry it out. Then the government swoops in at the last minute to round up the "bad guys" and declare a victory in the "war on terror."
Usually, the cases have involved supposed "homegrown terrorism" in Muslim communities--the Newburgh Four, for example, or the 2010 case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud. But environmental activists have also been targeted in a similar fashion: labeled as "terrorists" for engaging in property destruction or even just being associated with people who might engage in such activities.
The homeland security apparatus responsible for all this has only grown bigger under the Democratic Obama administration. As far-from-radical commentator Fareed Zakariah wrote in a recent CNN column, since September 11:
Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for the intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet--the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. The largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs is now the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.
The rise of this national security state has entailed a vast expansion in the government's powers that now touch every aspect of American life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism. Some 30,000 people, for example, are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications within the United States.
And the Obama administration is currently attempting to force Internet companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, to provide the U.S. government with "backdoor" access to all forms of Internet communication. Something like this would be roundly protested when carried out by a government such as China or Iran--or even by the Bush administration. But there has been almost no criticism of Obama's latest attempt at massively expanding state power.
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ANYONE WHO thinks such wholesale violations of civil liberties are limited to "ticking bomb" scenarios--when the Feds learn that people's lives and safety are in imminent danger--needs to take a closer look at the latest operations against Occupy activists.
For example, on April 30, the day before May Day protests in New York City, police paid "visits" to the homes of several activists. Gideon Oliver, president of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said "there was definitely an upswing in law enforcement activity that seemed to fit the pattern of targeting what police might view as political residences."
In one instance, six police officers broke down the door of Occupy activist Zachary Dempster's Brooklyn apartment at 6:15 a.m.--saying they had an arrest warrant for Dempster's roommate on a 6-year-old open-container violation. According to Dempster, police "asked what I was doing [on May Day], and if I knew of any activities, any events."
The message is clear: We're watching you.
The right to protest has become a central question in Chicago, where activists have been planning for protests during the summit of the NATO military alliance later this month.
Notably, the FBI affidavit in the Cleveland case referenced vague predictions from one suspect about the summit supposedly sparking "riots" in Cleveland and other cities. Whether someone actually said this--and if they did, whether we should pay any attention to such preposterous "predictions"--is immaterial. The accusation alone is a ready-made justification for increased surveillance and harassment of activists in the coming days.
In fact, Chicago officials have already prepared themselves for the demonstrations by passing an outrageous ordinance criminalizing the most basic elements of protest. The Chicago police will be equipped during the NATO summit with military-grade weapons like the "Long Range Acoustical Device," a "sound cannon" developed by the military for "crowd control." A no-fly zone over portions of the city will be enforced with a "shoot to kill" order.
None of this is about any real threat of violence from protesters. It is about intimidating those who want to raise their voices against NATO and the U.S. war machine that leads it.
But we also have to understand that in these circumstances, some tactics will leave our movements open to repression--and they have to be openly discussed and challenged for that reason.
While the signs of FBI entrapment are all over the Cleveland case, it's also believable that a handful of people who consider themselves anarchists would be so caught up in radical posturing that they could become easy prey for a repressive state apparatus whose real purpose is to demonize all left-wing activists.
Beyond the easily duped few is a wider group whose behavior in demonstrations, while nothing like those who would blow up a highway bridge, does put other protesters at risk and gives the forces of the state an excuse for cracking down.
During the Occupy struggles of last fall and especially this winter and spring, a minority of activists has been drawn to actions that fetishize confrontations with police as something that will lead to greater radicalization. But the opposite is true--such actions repel wider support for the struggle, while giving the forces of the state an excuse to crack heads.
Nothing these activists could do is remotely equivalent to the violence and repression of the U.S. government. But we need a movement that is politically mature enough to understand that certain tactics and actions play into the hands of the state--and that any such actions, whether they come from provocateurs or not, must be challenged because they put the struggle at risk.
The strength of our side lies in our numbers. The basic right to protest is under attack in the U.S. today, and everyone who cares about justice and democracy needs to take a stand against the widening net of the surveillance state. In an interview last year with SocialistWorker.org, Alicia McWilliams, the aunt of David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four, explained why everyone needs to speak up for the victims of state repression:
It could be them next. Their family could be next. The government doesn't care who it is. People need to come out in solidarity, like in Martin Luther King Jr.'s time. This affects us, our future and our criminal justice system. It affects us all as citizens and human beings. This is a human issue. When you target one community, one religion, you target us all, because you could target any one of us.