When Harry, George, Tom, and Joe showed up at a warehouse outside Philadelphia rented by protesters, organizers were immediately suspicious. The men claimed to be “union carpenters” from the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area who built stages — just the kind of help the protesters needed. They were preparing for the Republican National Convention in 2000, where the party would be nominating George W. Bush. Across the country, allied organizers were planning similar protests for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
One of the hallmarks of the social justice movement at the time was its puppets. Organizers were coming off successful protests in Seattle in November 1999 against the World Trade Organization, and in Washington, D.C., in April 2000, against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and had managed to reshape the politics of globalization. Soaring papier-mache puppets, rolled through the streets on individually constructed floats, projected a festive air, capturing sympathetic media coverage and countering the authorities’ narrative that the protesters were nihilists simply relishing in property destruction.
The four carpenters were good with a hammer, but much about them had protesters wary they were in fact infiltrators. In conversation, “they were not very political or well informed,” recalled Kris Hermes, an organizer, in “Crashing the Party,” his memoir of the affair. They were older and more muscular than most protesters, he wrote, and they insisted on drinking beer while working, despite the organizers’ ban on drinking in the warehouse. In discussions and meetings, they asserted the right of protesters to destroy property and to physically resist arrest. The movement’s intentional lack of hierarchy left organizers with little ability to act on their suspicions of infiltration, even as they were becoming more deft at sussing out such provocateurs.
On August 1, the first full day of the Republican convention, police surrounded the warehouse, known as the “Ministry of Puppetganda,” executed mass arrests, and confiscated the puppets, floats, signs, and other materials to be used in upcoming marches. The police lied, publicly saying that organizers had been planning violent demonstrations and hinting darkly at bomb-making materials being hidden in the warehouse. That roundup presaged other mass arrests of protest leaders throughout the week, followed by beatings inside the jail and even a $1 million bond.
When the warrant for the warehouse raid was unsealed, it finally confirmed that Harry, George, Tom, and Joe had been state troopers assigned to infiltrate the group and produce a pretext for a raid. All of the charges against the puppeteers were eventually dropped, and the saga would eventually cost the city millions in lawsuit settlements (with much of the legal work led by radical attorney Larry Krasner, who is now Philadelphia district attorney).
It is a historical fact, as this episode illustrates, that law enforcement frequently infiltrates progressive political movements using agent provocateurs who urge others to engage in violence. It is also a historical fact that, more rarely, such provocateurs commit acts of violence themselves.
The media pays little attention to such infiltrators, for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, corporate media has never taken much enthusiasm in questioning government action in the midst of riots or major demonstrations, unless that action goes wildly over the line or targets members of the media. The subject of provocateurs is also fraught from the perspective of protesters and movement organizers, as it can lead to paranoia that undermines solidarity and movement building. It is often conflated with the trope of “outside agitators” and used by authorities or other opponents of the protesters to delegitimize the anger on display, giving some protesters or their supporters an incentive to downplay the reality of the provocations.
The intensity of the conversation around protests that turn violent, and the life-or-death consequences of winding up on the wrong side of public opinion, leaves little room for a nuanced discussion. Were such a conversation possible, it would be easy to talk about the difference between the anger of a crowd and the actions it ultimately takes. An angry crowd that remains nonviolent and engages in zero property destruction is no less legitimately angry than one that does. Often the only difference is in whether and how the anger is triggered and escalated.
In protests across the country over the past week, the clear actor escalating the violence generally hasn’t been a protester or even a right-wing infiltrator, but the police themselves. In rally after rally, people have observed that looting and destruction only began after police charged and beat a crowd, or fired tear gas or rubber bullets into it. In other cases, it can take just one act by a protester to light the spark. Given the chaotic nature of the protests, it’s probable that everyone being blamed for property damage has played some role. But as the protests continue, and President Donald Trump calls for ever more violent methods of repression, the possible role of police provocateurs in protests is worth bearing in mind.
In 2008, Francesco Cossiga, one of the most important political figures in post-World War II Italy, provided a rare glimpse behind the curtain at how the world looks to people at the top of governments facing large-scale protests.
Cossiga had served as prime minister and then president of Italy. Before that, in the late ’70s, he led the Ministry of the Interior. During that period, he was notorious for the brutality with which he put down left-wing demonstrations led by students. This is how the New York Times reported the situation in 1977: “Extremists among the students have created chaos in a number of Italian cities with a wave of shooting and destruction.”
As Silvio Berlusconi’s administration faced similarly threatening protests, Cossiga urged them to rerun his playbook:
[They] should do what I did when I was interior minister. … Pull back police from streets and colleges, infiltrate the movement with provocateurs ready for anything [emphasis added], and for ten days let protesters devastate shops, burn down cars, and set cities aflame. Then, emboldened by popular support … police should have no mercy and send them all to the hospital. Not arrest them, because prosecutors would just free them right away, but beat them all and beat the professors that encourage them.
The Times appears to have mentioned the possibility that government provocateurs were behind some of the violence once — and then not as fact, but as an accusation of “leftwing parties and newspapers.”
Cossiga had been a professor of constitutional law and was a centrist Christian Democrat. When he became prime minister in 1979, Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Italy saw this as an “excellent development,” and Cossiga maintained a strong relationship with America. There is no direct line between Cossiga and today’s protests in the U.S. But his example indicates that it’s no fevered conspiracy theory to believe reasonable, reputable figures see provocateur tactics as legitimate — even if most of them are more circumspect in public.
The best documented use of provocateurs by the U.S. government occurred during the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter-Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, from 1956 to 1971. The reason the documentation is available is because a group of citizens broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania — coincidentally, just a short drive from the warehouse targeted by police in 2000 — and stole files that they then passed to the media. This, in turn, led to congressional investigations, which pried loose more information.
In one notorious example in May 1970, an informant working for both the Tuscaloosa police and the FBI burned down a building at the University of Alabama during protests over the recent Kent State University shootings. The police then declared that demonstrators were engaging in an unlawful assembly and arrested 150 of them.
In another well-known case, a man nicknamed “Tommy the Traveler” visited numerous New York State colleges, posing as a radical member of Students for a Democratic Society. He encouraged acolytes to kidnap a congressman and offered training in Molotov cocktails. Two students at Hobart College acted on his suggestions and firebombed the campus ROTC building. Eventually it came out that his full name was Tommy Tongyai, and he had worked both for local police and the FBI.
The list goes on and on from there. An FBI informant, who said he was also a member of the John Birch Society, helped assemble time bombs and placed them on an Army truck. (The John Birch Society now says it has no record of his membership.) An FBI informant in the radical political organization Weather Underground took part in the bombing of a Cincinnati public school. A prominent member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War — and FBI informant — pushed for “shooting and bombing,” and his advocacy apparently did indeed lead to a bombing and a bomb threat. An FBI informant in Seattle drove a young black man named Larry Ward to a real estate office that engaged in housing discrimination and encouraged him to place a bomb there; the police were waiting and killed Ward. Thirteen Black Panthers were accused of a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty after receiving 60 sticks of dynamite from an FBI informant. After 28 people broke into a federal building to destroy draft files in 1971, an FBI informant bragged, “I taught them everything they knew.” All 28 were acquitted when his role was revealed.
The FBI also allowed informants within right-wing organizations to participate in violence against progressive activists. Gary Thomas Rowe, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1960, provided the FBI with three weeks warning that the Klan was planning attacks on Freedom Riders arriving in Alabama from the north. The FBI stood by and allowed the attacks to occur. Local police gave the Klan 15 minutes to assault the activists. In those 15 minutes, the white supremacists — including Rowe — set the Freedom Rider bus on fire in an attempt to burn them alive.
Rowe may also have played a role in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls. He was in the car with three other Klansmen in 1965 when they chased down and murdered Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit who’d traveled to Selma. Rowe received immunity for testifying against his compatriots, and was given a job as a U.S. Marshall by Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general.
Local police informants without apparent connections to the FBI got into the act too. A deputy sheriff enrolled as a student at SUNY Buffalo and helped students build and test bombs. Another informant posed as a student at Northeastern Illinois State College, led sit-ins for Students for a Democratic Society, and encouraged compatriots to sabotage military vehicles.
Soon after COINTELPRO was uncovered in 1971, the FBI announced that it was halting all such activities. Mark Felt, the assistant FBI director now also known to be the infamous “Deep Throat” source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, later said that the bureau had made no effort to see that “constitutional values are being protected.”
When and whether the FBI ever stopped, however, is an open question. In 1975 an informant told the New York Times that he had engaged in COINTELPRO-like activities until he’d left the previous year. This included encouraging a Maoist group to blow up a bus at the 1972 GOP convention in Miami.
In any case, police forces in the U.S. continued the same tactics. In 1978, an undercover officer encouraged two hapless young activists to seize control of a television tower in Puerto Rico. When they arrived, they were gunned down by 10 policemen. Tellingly, when Puerto Rican government asked the FBI to investigate what happened, the FBI gave the government a clean bill of health. A top FBI official later called this a “coverup.”
After 9/11, the FBI got back in the business of encouraging violent acts in a big way — although they were generally much more careful to step in before the violence actually occurred. When journalist (and Intercept contributor) Trevor Aaronson examined U.S. prosecutions for international terrorism in the decade after the attacks, he found five examples of actual plots. By contrast, 150 people were indicted in sting operations that existed only thanks to the encouragement of the FBI and its informants. According to Aaronson, “the FBI is much better at creating terrorists than it is at catching terrorists.”
The same tactics have been used to generate purported domestic terrorism plots. In 2008 environmental activist Eric McDavid was sentenced to 20 years in prison for plotting to damage the Nimbus Dam in California. Eight years later, a judge ordered him released because the FBI had withheld evidence regarding a government informant. In 2012, the FBI and its informant essentially created a plot to blow up a bridge in Cleveland out of whole cloth, and dragged five Occupy activists into it.
Most recently, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division invented something called the “Black Identity Extremism” movement. As portrayed by an FBI report, the threat from the imaginary movement reads as strikingly similar to that allegedly posed by black organizations during the days of COINTELPRO. The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives said this “resurrects the historically negative legacy of African American civil rights leaders who were unconstitutionally targeted and attacked by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.”
That brings us to the present day. On the one hand, this history doesn’t mean that the FBI or local police are currently acting as provocateurs during the current unrest. But it does mean that such activity is clearly one avenue that is open to U.S. police forces looking to undermine protests and escalate violence.
Update: June 10, 2020
After publication, a representative of the John Birch Society told The Intercept that the society had no record of George Demmerle having been a member. Demmerle, an FBI informant, had told FBI and others that he was a society member. The piece has been updated to reflect this.