From FBI stool pigeons to rumored alt-right agitators at Berkeley, those who fear progress have long undermined social movements from the inside.
On a Wednesday night in February, I watched in frustration as NBC News fretted about the “out of control” protest at the UC-Berkeley Campus, led by “anarchists” against Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopolus, who’d been invited to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans. Though the fire and the broken windows were alarming to some, I was more discouraged that the coverage essentially absolved the person who’d fanned the flames of hatred in the first place: Yiannopolus, known for his racist and sexist Twitter harassment of actress Leslie Jones, regressive articles about capping the amount of women allowed to study science, and new scholarship fund supporting that long-suffering class of Americans, white men.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Whether or not the allegations turn out to be true, their existence contributes to the movement’s slow fraying.[/quote]
In focusing its reports on the $100,000 in damage and “150 masked agitators,” the media dismissed the legacy of generally peaceful campus protests at Berkeley while downplaying indications that members of the alt-right had joined the protest as a chaotic presence in disguise.
Echoing a statement from the university that neither organizers nor students were participants in the violence, UC-Berkeley professor and former Democratic Secretary of Labor Robert Reich expressed doubts about who’d instigated the attacks to CNN on Thursday:
“I was there for part of last night, and I know what I saw and those people were not Berkeley students. Those people were outside agitators… There’s rumors that they actually were right-wingers. They were a part of a kind of group that was organized and ready to create the kind of tumult and danger you saw that forced the police to cancel the event… They all looked almost paramilitary. They were not from the campus. And I’ve heard—again, I don’t want to say factually, but I’ve heard there was some relationship here between these people and the right wing and the right-wing movement that is affiliated with Breitbart News.”
Though apparent alt-right commenters discussed exactly this kind of plan on the notorious troll-harbor 4chan—one thread was so blatant in its hate speech that it sparked speculation about whether or not it was a hoax perpetrated by the left—there’s no way to prove Reich’s theory.
Left: A screenshot of the controversial 4chan discussion, which took place on January 28, 2017. Right: Protesters on February 1, 2017 in Berkeley, California. Photo by Elijah Nouvelage via Getty Images.
Michael Mark Cohen, the associate teaching professor of American and African American studies at UC-Berkeley, helped organize the initial protest against Yiannopolus and disagrees with Reich. “I don’t have any solid evidence to say that there wasn’t some kind of infiltration,” he says. “So is it possible that the police did infiltrate or create groups of their own? Yes. Do I believe this is what drove this? No, I don’t.”
Yet Cohen, a historian of social movements, says the entire event is right in line with California’s longstanding history of leftist movements that were later revealed to be co-opted and suppressed by conservatives, from Cesar Chavez and the farm workers to the Black Panthers. Anarchist and anti-fascist groups affiliated with black bloc tactics such as marching together in a confrontational “bloc” and dressing in black with bandanas and face coverings for anonymity, have been a staple at Bay Area protests from Occupy to Black Lives Matter.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Social justice movements for liberation are the forces that drive history forward.[/quote]
Describing this legacy, Cohen says, “Social justice movements and organizations for human liberation and freedom are the forces that drive history forward, actively, physically re-bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” But the United States government and corporate entities "react to these social movements trying to push the calendar of history forward, setting out to destroy, undermine, murder and in whatever way break these social movements up.”
From the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 in Europe, when 1000,000 socialists, anarchists, Jews, and various ethnic groups banded together to fight against 10,0000 white supremacists, to more recent anti-fascist (or “antifa”) protests of neo-Nazi rallies where 7 were stabbed in Sacramento, the history of anti-fascist protests in California is quite violent. But it's important, says Cohen, to recognize that the state has enacted violence against peaceful protesters in the United States for over 200 years.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency’s private army leaves the scene of the Homestead labor riot after surrender. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The government has strategically employed solitary incidents of violence to justify a range of campaigns to suppress dissent among resistant movements, notably in 1870s during the early days of the labor movement. Before the Central Intelligence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was founded with the express interest of infiltrating job sites and unions, collecting information on activists so that the state could prosecute against them, and then breaking factory strikes.
This agency went on to become the FBI after WWI, and under J. Edgar Hoover’s command, the agency harassed, imprisoned, intimidated, deported, and executed anarchists, communists, socialists, and members of left-wing parties. Then in the 1950s and ’60s, the FBI’s attacks and infiltration efforts were centered on the civil rights movement and black nationalist parties in particular.
The formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966 was seen as a direct threat to the state because the Panthers challenged the notion that the government was the sole arbiter of necessary violence or the “spectacle of violence,” and the Black Panthers carried guns openly as a way to protect themselves from police brutality.
Protesters stand in front of a mural portraying Fred Hampton, a leader in the Blank Panther party, who was assassinated during a raid by the Chicago Police Department, the FBI, and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Image by Flickr user Daniela Kantorova (cc).
Cohen says, “The Panthers really ran directly against that longheld sense of whose violence is legitimate and whose violence is illegitimate. And in calling so much attention to themselves, brought down the full weight and fury of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who infiltrated the organization, and the heads of most of the local chapters of the Black Panthers and heads of security were all FBI plants or informants of one kind or another. The most famous case is the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, in 1968, where Fred Hampton’s head of security was an FBI stool pigeon, who enabled Fred Hampton’s execution at the hands of the Chicago police department.”
This type of infiltration is not specific to the United States, and there are countless examples of how dictatorships or right-wing leaders have planted spies, operatives, and stool pigeons to debilitate resistant movements. Recent examples include Russia’s attempt to suppress anti-Putin protests by jailing Pussy Riot members, and once they were released, gathering ex-convicts and threatening them with jail time if they did not disrupt protests, start fights, and intimidate activists. Chile’s Augusto Pinochet is also legendary for his cruel, violent rule, as well as sending his secret police to infiltrate the democratic movements in the 1970s, and to spy on, jail, and kill thousands of activists.
The precedent for government and other outside infiltration of resistant movements is chilling. So how can the resistance leverage its current momentum without allowing moments like UC-Berkeley’s Yiannopolus protests to get violent, or to be shadowed with concerns that they’ve been co-opted? Whether or not such allegations turn out to be verifiably true, their mere existence contributes to the slow fraying and eventual unraveling of the movement.
According to Cohen, “We can learn a lot from the resilience of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been declared dead a half dozen times but yet is actually very well organized, has chapters all over the place, and can and does, and will continue to appear within moments of crises as they arise. They can appear in the streets in large numbers, in many constituencies, urban constituencies across the country. Black Lives Matter learned from the destruction of the Panthers and from the destruction of several civil rights organizations is to be horizontal.”
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I believe there’s genuine anger towards the Trump regime.[/quote]
So, by getting involved in local organizing without a single, charismatic leader, resistant movements are less likely to be co-opted or infiltrated. In regards to the Berkeley protests, Cohen offers his views of what ultimately happened: “I believe there’s this genuine anger towards the Trump regime and a genuine belief that is not merely amongst anarchists, but is increasingly widespread, that what the United States is facing right now is fascism. Racially modeled, authoritarian, fascism that Donald Trump is bringing. And Milo was a very clear and blatant representative of that far-right political formation. So it offered us an opportunity to confront Bannon, Trump, and Breitbart indirectly and anti-fascist organizations were not going to miss this opportunity.”
Cohen adds, “For those of us who believe in justice, for those of us that believe in nonviolent direct action, those of us that believe in Black Lives Matter, and fighting fascism without succumbing to violence ourselves, we’re going to have to maintain vigilance, we’re going to have to maintain a kind of horizontal approach. And I do have a genuine feeling that the Trump administration will be so filled with an ongoing Armageddon of horror, there will be no shortage of reasons and needs to mobilize, and appear and protest.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]For those of us who believe in justice, in Black Lives Matter and fighting fascism without succumbing to violence ourselves, we’re going to have to maintain vigilance.[/quote]
The horizontal approach that Cohen describes will require the resistance to stay active and mobilize across the country without depending on charismatic leaders to lead vertically, or from the top down. No movement is infiltration-proof, especially not in an era plagued by surveillance and breaches in cyber-security. Everyone can be an instrument of change—but that will require skepticism and the strength to rise above the rhetoric of right-wing and even leftist trolls.