Informant: The Brandon Darby Documentary
Yesterday the ‘NATO 3’ — the three loudmouthed activists who were charged as terrorists after being encouraged by undercover police officers to pour gasoline into empty bottles during the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago — were sentenced to several [more] years of prison.
The NATO 3 case is very similar to a case during the 2008 Republican National Convention when a couple of young activists were arrested and sent to prison after creating some Molotov cocktails which they intended to use to damage empty police cars. In that case, the suspects were betrayed by an FBI informant who was a member of their activist group and acted as their mentor.
That informant, the infamous Brandon Darby, is the subject of an excellent documentary by Jamie Meltzer called Informant (2013). In his review of the film, DJ Pangburn calls it an “unnecessary film” and a “failure of a documentary” charging that it merely provides Darby with a platform from which to spout his narratives. As Panburn puts it, “it’s Brandon Darby’s world, and we all are just living in it.”
Kris Hermes, in his review, makes the same complaint, Meltzer allows Darby too much control of the film’s narrative: “it’s almost as if Darby decided one day to call up his friend Jamie Meltzer to let him know about a great movie idea.” Allowing him a voice in yet another documentary, Hermes asserts, merely fortifies Darby’s cult of personality
And they’re right, the film is largely a mouthpiece for Darby (although it also provides context and tells the story through entertaining re-enactments and interviews). But that’s also what makes the film so valuable — not to mention just plain interesting. We could all benefit from learning how to avoid the Brandon Darbys of the world, and understanding his motivations can be helpful toward that end. There are also important lessons all activists should learn from the entire Darby saga. The insights in both Pangburn and Hermes reviews are examples in themselves of how useful the documentary is.
The story of Informant begins with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when Darby sets out from Austin to rescue his friend in New Orleans. Darby becomes an early member of the Common Ground Collective (CGC), an anarchist relief organization. Despite the efforts of law enforcement, the CGC was successful at providing basic aid, emergency clinics, and all sorts of other help to distressed residents of the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of New Orleans.
After a trip to Venezuela, disillusioned with his plans of becoming a revolutionary (including dreams of overthrowing the U.S. government and elaborate prison breaks), Darby had apparently become bored with helping people and thought he would feel more important if he became a crusader against terrorism. He told the FBI that his friend and anti-Israel activist, Riad Hamad, was planning on using the charity he ran to fund Palestinian suicide bombers. This lead the FBI and IRS to raid Hamad’s home in search for evidence of tax fraud. A few days later, Hamad’s body was found floating in a lake, dead of an apparent suicide.
Darby had found a new purpose for his life. At the request of the FBI he then set himself up as a mentor to several young activists, including David McKay and Bradley Crowder, and worked to get them imprisoned. After the 2008 RNC incident, Darby made a career going around speaking to Tea Party conventions about how he had managed to stop a militant plot to blow up delegates and Republicans.
The best way to describe Darby’s underlying psychology is the phrase used by Pangburn in his review: “an opportunist with a hero complex.”
Other than being on guard against charismatic, borderline-sociopathic opportunists with hero complexes, I think there are two important lessons pointed out by Informant.
The first is the danger of machismo to young male activists. One reason Darby was able to exert so much influence over McKay and Crowder is that they looked up to him as an experienced and macho activists, and he chided them for not being manly enough. Would-be revolutionaries talking about the importance of manliness should be a major red flag to anarchists. As Thomas Hintze noted in his review of Informant for Waging Nonviolence, “The macho culture created by activists in different spheres made it impossible to hold Darby accountable for his actions. It may have even given him impunity.”
Second, during all of his verbal thrashing around to find rationalizations for his own actions, Darby actually hits on some good points. One is that there is only a thin line between being a revolutionary and being a gangster, between being a freedom fighter and being a terrorist. Anybody with romantic ideas of revolution would be wise to spend some effort working through those distinctions and tensions.
As an antidote to Darby’s reality distortion field, I also recommend reading Lisa Fithian’s (often first-hand) account of events: “FBI Informant Brandon Darby: Sexism, Egos, and Lies”