In early 2009 the anarchist movement in Austin was shocked to learn that Brandon Darby was an FBI informant who had helped entrap David McKay and Bradley Crowder, two young activists from Midland, Texas, into constructing 8 Molotov cocktails. In mid-2012 it was the Marxist movement’s turn to be traumatized. Richard Aoki, the highly respected Asian studies professor and 1960s militant student movement leader, had been an FBI informant since his teen years. Last night, as I sat through a press screening for Informant, a documentary on and featuring Brandon Darby, I learned that the subject—like Aoki—was connected to the Black Panther Party in some fashion. Aoki was a charter member who had supplied them guns, while Darby’s entry into the radical movement was inspired by his friendship with Robert King, one of the Angola Three prisoners. Arrested for robbery, King spent 32 years in Angola prison in Louisiana (29 of them in solitary), where he headed a BPP chapter.
After Hurricane Katrina, Darby travelled to New Orleans with Austin anarchist leader Scott Crow to rescue Robert King from the floods. Not long after reaching him, the two men hooked up with Malik Rahim, another ex-Panther, to build Common Ground Relief, a group serving the mostly African-American flood victims in the Upper Ninth Ward.
As Darby states early on in this gripping documentary, he was fixated on the “tough” reputation of the Black Panther Party and ready to escalate the struggle beyond food and medical relief. Like the Panthers, he said that violence was the only remedy for capitalist oppression. Or at least that was his public image.
Eventually Darby took a trip down to Venezuela in the hope that he could persuade Hugo Chávez to provide funding for Common Ground Relief. In one of the film’s reenactments that features Darby with actors, he is seen with officials from the oil industry that supposedly instructed him to go to Colombia and fight alongside the FARC. The reenactment made me laugh out so loud that other critics at the screening might have wondered whether I was having a psychotic episode. I suppose that unfamiliarity with the politics of the region would lead them to this conclusion but anybody knowledgeable about the Chavistas would understand how ludicrous the scene was. Despite rightwing accusations that the Venezuelan government was behind the FARC, Hugo Chávez as well as Fidel Castro, were anxious to see the insurgency come to an end. The Guardian reported on October 13, 2012:
-The ailing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, together with Venezuela’s recently re-elected leader Hugo Chávez, played a critical role in bringing the Colombian government and the deadly FARC guerrilla group together for peace talks that could end one of Latin America’s longest-running civil wars…
This hoked-up account by Darby, a born fabulist, anticipates his service to the FBI and current work on behalf of the Tea Party movement. He, like David Horowitz, saw the light when the Black Panther Party turned out to be a bunch of thugs in his eyes. (There was thuggery, of course, but there was also Common Ground type service to the Black community. Unfortunately, the Panthers never figured out a way for the Black working class to develop its own political clout.)
Darby eventually grows disillusioned with the ex-Panthers who are around Robert King. They invite him to a top-secret meeting in a minivan, where he hopes to go through some initiation into an armed cell. It turns out that the purpose of the meeting was to recruit him into an Amway type sales network. Thank goodness, they did not make the mistake of involving him in anything illegal or else they would have ended up in a prison cell next to David McKay and Bradley Crowder.
Back in Austin, Riad Hamad, a local activist, approaches Darby for help in laundering money to be sent to Palestinians. For Darby, since this amounted to supporting suicide bombers, there was no other option except to work with the FBI as an informant to stop a terrorist conspiracy. People who knew Hamad describe the accusation as groundless.
David McKay and Bradley Crowder, the typical action-oriented young people attracted to the Occupy movement later on, were 10 years younger than Darby and easily goaded into doing something that showed that they “had balls,” like making Molotov cocktails. While they admit to making the weapons, they claim that they never would have used them against people—only property.
Although I have huge respect for Scott Crow and Lisa Fithian, two Austin anarchists who worked closely with Darby, I had problems with their observations toward the end of the film that a little property damage is no big deal. Since Fithian has openly condemned the black bloc tactic, I don’t want to make too big a deal about this but the issue is not property damage but damage to the democratic functioning of our movement. When a small subsection of the movement arrogates to itself the right to make decisions about breaking windows, overturning dumpsters, setting fires, etc., the movement is weakened. Our enemy is certainly united, as Obama’s consultation with local police departments over how best to smash the Occupy movement would indicate. We must be united as well.
I urge everybody to see the film, although I do have somewhat of a criticism over director Jamie Meltzer’s decision to turn the film into an exploration of Brandon Derby’s psyche. While nowhere near as off-putting as The Act of Killing, the documentary based on the gloating testimony of Indonesian death squad leaders, 81 minutes of Darby justifying himself does become a bit wearisome. I could have lived with 20 minutes of Darby being replaced by scholars of the left discussing the profile of agent provocateurs so as to steel the movement against future interventions by scum like Darby. Of course, it must be said that anybody who watches Informant should be wary of macho types in the movement urging violence.
In preparing this review, I ran across Lisa Fithian’s article, which is absolutely mandatory:
This passage is fundamental:
Brandon was a master of manipulation, and worked both women and men. He would draw them into his sometimes-twisted perspective by cultivating them through coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, revolutionary rhetoric, emotional neediness, or his physical presence — either seductive or intimidating.
Young women are often attracted to Brandon. At Common Ground, his unrestrained sexual engagement with volunteers was a problem. His “love for sex” became part of the organizational culture. His leadership role set a tone that led to systemic problems of sexual harassment and abuse at Common Ground.
When a group of the women in leadership challenged his behavior and asked that he stop sleeping with volunteers, he said “I like to fuck women, so what.” Our concerns were disregarded. The abuse became so rampant that Common Ground had to issue a public statement in May of 2006 acknowledging problems of sexual harassment in the organization.
I think it is particularly important in consideration of Darby’s worship of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s. Despite their heroism and despite their service to the Black community around the breakfast program, the party had a big problem with sexism.
From a review of A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown (Anchor, 1993) and This Side of Glory (Lawrence Hill Books, 2001) by David Hilliard and Lewis Cole.
As early as 1969, Brown realized that women “would have to fight for the right to fight for freedom.” By 1975, she concluded that “the value of my life had been obliterated as much by being female as by being Black and poor.”
But, like many Black women, Brown believed then that feminism was strictly for well-off whites, and was put off by the predominant radical-feminist ideology of the era — that is, the idea that gender concerns are more important than race issues and that men are the enemy, not capitalism.
Brown admits that she did not always speak out against female subordination in the Panthers. Instead, she concentrated on shoring up her own tenuous leadership position, conferred on her unilaterally by Newton. To stay on top while Newton was in prison, she relied on the “normal” macho enforcement techniques.
She reports that she was finally goaded into action when Regina Davis, who managed the Panthers’ highly praised school, ended up in the hospital. “The Brothers” had beaten Davis up and broken her jaw because she reprimanded a male colleague for not carrying out an assignment.
Brown writes that when she told Newton of her anger over the attack, he refused to break solidarity with the men, challenging her to a debate in the Central Committee.
Believing the other women would collapse in a direct confrontation over sexism, Brown says, she literally ran away from the fight, leaving the problem of women’s role in the BPP unaddressed and unresolved.
What happened to Regina Davis illustrates perfectly how women’s second-class status devastated the party.
Louis Proyect blogs at The Unrepentant Marxist.