For a few days in September 2008, as the Republican Party kicked off its national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Twin Cities were a microcosm of a deeply divided nation. The atmosphere around town was tense, with local and federal police facing off against activists who had descended upon the city. Convinced that anarchists were plotting violent acts, they sought to bust the protesters' hangouts, sometimes bursting into apartments and houses brandishing assault rifles. Inside the cavernous Xcel Energy convention center, meanwhile, an out-of-nowhere vice presidential nominee named Sarah Palin assured tens of thousands of ecstatic Republicans that her running mate, John McCain, was "a leader who's not looking for a fight, but sure isn't afraid of one either."
The same thing might have been said of David McKay and Bradley Crowder, a pair of greenhorn activists from George W. Bush's Texas hometown who had driven up for the protests. Wide-eyed guys in their early 20s, they'd come of age hanging out in sleepy downtown Midland, commiserating about the Iraq War and the administration's assault on civil liberties.
St. Paul was their first large-scale protest, and when they arrived they were taken aback: Rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, tumbling tear-gas canisters—to McKay and Crowder, it seemed like an all-out war on democracy. They wanted to fight back, even going so far as to mix up a batch of Molotov cocktails. Just before dawn on the day of Palin's big coming out, a SWAT team working with federal agents raided their crash pad, seized the Molotovs, and arrested McKay, alleging that he intended to torch a parking lot full of police cars.
Since only a few people knew about the firebombs, fellow activists speculated that someone close to McKay and Crowder must have tipped off the feds. Back in Texas, flyers soon began appearing at coffeehouses urging leftists to beware of Brandon Darby, an "FBI informant rat loose in Austin."
The allegation came as a shocker; Darby was a known and trusted member of the left-wing protest crowd. "If Brandon was conning me, and many others, it would be the biggest lie of my life since I found out the truth about Santa Claus," wrote Scott Crow, one of many activists who rushed to defend him at first. Two months later, Darby came clean. "The simple truth," he wrote on Indymedia.org, "is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
Darby's entanglement with the feds is part of a quiet resurgence of FBI interest in left-wingers. From the Red Scare days of the 1950s into the '70s, the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, a.k.a. COINTELPRO, monitored and sabotaged communist and civil rights organizations. Nowadays, in what critics have dubbed the Green Scare, the bureau is targeting the global-justice movement and radical environmentalists. In 2005, John Lewis, then the FBI official in charge of domestic terrorism, ranked groups like the Earth Liberation Front ahead of jihadists as America's top domestic terror threat.
FBI stings involving informants have been key to convicting 14 ELF members since 2006 for a string of high-profile arsons, and to sentencing a man to 20 years in prison for conspiring to destroy several targets, including cell phone towers. During the St. Paul protests, at least two additional informants infiltrated and helped indict a group of activists known as the RNC Eight for conspiring to riot and damage property.
Brandon Darby. Courtesy Loteria FilmsBut it's Darby's snitching that has provided the most intriguing tale. It's the focus of a radio magazine piece, two documentary films, and a book in the making. By far the most damning portrayal is Better This World, an award-winning doc that garnered rave reviews on the festival circuit and is slated to air on PBS on September 6. The product of two years of work by San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, it dredges up a wealth of FBI documents and court transcripts related to Darby's interactions with his fellow activists to suggest that Darby acted as an agitator as much as an informant. (Watch the trailer and read our interview with the filmmakers here.)
The film makes a compelling case that Darby, with the FBI's blessing, used his charisma and street credibility to goad Crowder and McKay into pursuing the sort of actions that would later land them in prison. Darby flatly denies it, and he recently sued the New York Times over a story with similar implications. (The Times corrected the disputed detail.) "I feel very morally justified to do the things that I've done," he told me. "I don't know if I could have handled it much differently."
Darby "gets in people's minds and can pull you in," one activist warned me. "He's a master. And you are going to feel all kinds of sympathy for him."
Brandon Michael Darby is a muscular, golden-skinned 34-year-old with Hollywood looks and puppy-dog eyes. Once notorious for sleeping around the activist scene, he now often sleeps with a gun by his bed in response to death threats. His former associates call him unhinged, a megalomaniac, a manipulator. "He gets in people's minds and can pull you in," Lisa Fithian, a veteran labor, environmental, and anti-war organizer, warned me before I set out to interview him. "He's a master. And you are going to feel all kinds of sympathy for him."
The son of a refinery welder, Darby grew up in Pasadena, a dingy Texas oil town. His parents divorced when he was 12, and soon after he ran away to Houston, where he lived in and out of group homes. By 2002, Darby had found his way to Austin's slacker scene, where one day he helped his friend, medical-marijuana activist Tracey Hayes, scale Zilker Park's 165-foot moonlight tower (of Dazed and Confused fame) and unfurl a giant banner painted with pot leaves that read "Medicine." They later "hooked up," Hayes says, and eventually moved in together. She introduced him to her activist friends, and he started reading Howard Zinn and histories of the Black Panthers.
Some local activists wouldn't work with Darby (he liked to taunt the cops during protests, getting them all riled up). But that changed after Hurricane Katrina, when he learned that Robert King Wilkerson, one of the Angola Three—former Black Panthers who endured decades of solitary confinement at Louisiana's Angola Prison—was trapped in New Orleans. Darby and Crow drove 10 hours from Austin towing a jon boat. When they couldn't get it into the city, Darby somehow harangued some Coast Guard personnel into rescuing Wilkerson. The story became part of the foundation myth for an in-your-face New Orleans relief organization called the Common Ground Collective.
It would eventually grow into a national group with a million-dollar budget. But at first Common Ground was just a bunch of pissed-off anarchists working out of the house of Malik Rahim, another former Panther. Rahim asked Darby to set up an outpost in the devastated Ninth Ward, where not even the Red Cross was allowed at first. Darby brought in a group of volunteers who fed people and cleared debris from houses while being harassed by police, right along with the locals who had refused to evacuate. "If I'd had an appropriate weapon, I would have attacked my government for what they were doing to people," he declared in a clip featured in Better This World. He said he'd since bought an AK-47 and was willing to use it: "There are residents here who have said that you will not take my home from me over my dead body, and we have made a commitment to be in solidarity with those residents."