Democracy Now 
Thursday, January 8, 2009
An Austin-based activist named Brandon Darby has revealed he worked as an FBI informant in the eighteen months leading up to the Republican National Convention. Darby has admitted to wearing recording devices at planning meetings and wearing a transmitter embedded in his belt during the convention. He is expected to testify on behalf of the government later this month in the trial of two Texas activists who were arrested at the RNC on charges of making and possessing Molotov cocktails. [includes rush transcript]
Lisa Fithian, Austin Informant Working Group. She is a longtime organizer and activist based in Austin.
Carly Dickson, Member of the Austin People’s Legal Collective.
Joe England, Family friend of Brandon Darby
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a story out of Austin, Texas that’s shocked social justice activists nationwide. A prominent Austin-based activist named Brandon Darby has revealed he worked as an FBI informant in the eighteen months leading up to the Republican convention. Darby has admitted to wearing recording devices at planning meetings and wearing a transmitter embedded in his belt during the convention. He is expected to testify on behalf of the government later this month in the trial of two Texas activists who were arrested at the RNC on charges of making and possessing Molotov cocktails.
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In a statement, a group of Austin-based activists called the Austin Informant Working Group condemned Darby. The group says, “[T]he emerging truth about Darby’s malicious involvement in our communities is heart-breaking and utterly ground-shattering to those of us who were closest to him.” The statement goes on to raise suspicions Darby may have gone beyond spying on the accused activists but in fact encouraged and provoked them into breaking the law.
But in an open letter to the activist community, Darby maintained he only acted to prevent violent actions by a small group that he says would have undermined the cause of social justice. Darby writes, “I strongly stand behind my choices in this matter… [W]hen people act out of anger and hatred, and then claim that their actions were part of a movement or somehow tied into the struggle for social justice only after being caught, it’s damaging to the efforts of those who do give of themselves to better this world. The majority of the activists who went to St. Paul did so with pure intentions and simply wanted to express their disagreements with the Republican Party. It’s unfortunate that some used the group as cover for intentions that the rest of the group did not agree with or knew nothing about… I made the choice to have my identity revealed and was well aware of the consequences for doing so. I know that the temptation to silence or ignore the voice of someone who you strongly disagree with can be overwhelming in matters such as this one… I have confidence that there will be a few people interested in discussion and in better understanding views different from their own, especially from one of their own. My sincere hope is that the entire matter results in better understanding for everyone,” he wrote.
Well, Brandon Darby has been involved in several activist groups. He is best known as a founder of the New Orleans-based group Common Ground Relief, which he helped start after Hurricane Katrina. In this clip from a Common Ground-produced documentary, he describes a community rebuilding project in New Orleans.
- BRANDON DARBY: The community center, it’s really going to be an adolescent center. It’s going to focus on young men and women. And so, that’s what this place is going to be.So we’re kind of going around, and we’re doing daycares. We are gutting homes. But the things we’re fixing up are daycares, community centers, churches. Everything in that place is going to come out. All of the furniture, all of the fixtures, all of—everything that was submerged needs to be removed.They’ve gutted out the community center, and now it’s ready for minor electrical repair and then insulation and sheetrock. Then it will be, you know, pretty much ready to go.
AMY GOODMAN: We asked Brandon Darby to appear on the program, but he’s declined our request, citing the upcoming trial at which he’ll testify.
Today we’ll hear from several people who have known and worked with Brandon Darby. We’re joined in Austin, Texas by three guests. Lisa Fithian is with the Austin Informant Working Group. A longtime organizer and activist, she participated in organizing around the RNC protests in St. Paul, as well as with the Common Ground Relief collective in New Orleans. We’re also joined by Carly Dickson, a member of the Austin People’s Legal Collective. Also in Austin, we’re joined by Joe England. He is a longtime family friend of Brandon Darby’s who is also involved in progressive causes in Austin. He has come out in support of Brandon Darby since he has revealed his involvement in government spying, and when we called Brandon Darby, he said we should speak to Joe England.
We’re going to begin with Lisa Fithian. Your response to this news that has been breaking over the last few months?
LISA FITHIAN: Well, I think this community has really been reeling as a result of this news. We feel sickened. We feel traumatized. We feel as if somebody that we thought actually had good intentions and cared for this community has been a lie.
And, I mean, our greatest concern is, you know, the statement that Brandon made rings so hollow, because this wasn’t a situation of him intervening at the last moment to stop violence and prevent people from being hurt. We’ve seen through these documents, and we know from his experience that he has provoked people in the past to—or encouraged people to do similar things, and he’s been very disruptive. And I think that we’ve also seen that he’s been doing this for at least February 2007, if not longer. So a lot of his statement rings hollow and is just a continuation of the lie that this man’s been living for—we don’t know how many years.
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Fithian, I just want to understand, are you saying you think he’s a provocateur, not just an informant?
LISA FITHIAN: I have no question that he’s a provocateur. I mean, I’ve worked with Brandon for a long time, and everywhere that Brandon has worked, there has been discord, tension, aggression. We know that—you know, the interesting thing is that now that we know for sure, more and more stories are starting to emerge about what Brandon has asked people to do in the past. So the more I find about these young men, as well, it’s clear to me that—
AMY GOODMAN: Like what?
LISA FITHIAN: Well, that, I mean, they are two young men from Midland, Texas who are angry at our government, who wanted to learn about organizing, and they wanted to make a difference in this world. They are not that experienced, and they were very impressionable. And when you have somebody like Brandon, who has some national notoriety, he’s—they were star-struck. And again, based on the documents—and I know Carly will talk more about this—these documents make it very clear that he was leading these young men down a road that unfortunately got them into a situation that they are now facing very serious consequences, years in prison, as a result of the work of Brandon Darby.
AMY GOODMAN: And what evidence do you have that Brandon Darby encouraged them? For example, well, they’re being charged with possessing or attempting to use Molotov cocktails.
LISA FITHIAN: Well, the evidence is in the FBI documents. And again, I would like Carly to speak to those a little bit more clearly. But when you look at the profile of the young men, when you look at Brandon’s history and record, and when you look to the documents which reveal, again, his meeting with them at the coffee shop he hangs out with, him training them in martial arts to engage the police, you know, it’s—you see this evolving, or an escalation.
And I think that this case is actually very important to the government, and that’s part of why this happened. And, you know, at some point we need to look at the escalation of the FBI at the RNC, and Homeland Security, all the agencies. And we believe they’ve tried to create situations that would lead to cases like Brad and David’s in order to try and paint this whole movement as a terrorist movement. And it’s just inaccurate. We are a movement that is engaging in First Amendment rights. We’re engaging in nonviolent protest. And it’s a tragedy that Brandon has made the choices that he has made. And a lot of people—
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa, you’re talking about twenty-three-year-old Bradley Crowder and twenty-two-year-old David McKay, each charged with one count of possession of firearms that were not registered to them, facing trial right now.
LISA FITHIAN: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Carly Dickson, member of the Austin People’s Legal Collective. You all have now documents, the testimony of Brandon Darby, the recordings that he made. You have the transcripts of those when he was at meetings. Can you talk further about what you know?
CARLY DICKSON: Sure, that’s correct, Amy. And it is disingenuous for him to say that this was about stopping violence at the last minute. He started informing on his friends and the people he works with—these documents from 2007, he mentions dates in 2006. Some of these are outright lies. Some of these are very mundane facts. And he started reporting to the FBI before he had ever met David or Bradley and then did very much take them under his wings.
We have—the part of these documents that we still need is—we have the text messages they sent him. We have sides of conversations they had with him. We don’t have the information of what he was telling them in each case. And that’s going to be really important, because there is a very, very good case for entrapment here. We’ve got an action that him and David were going to pull off. It’s very clearly in here that they were talking about doing things together. And so, you have to ask the question: if David’s in jail and Bradley’s in jail, why isn’t Brandon Darby in jail for this crime? And the question that we’ve come up with is because he instigated this happening and was the mastermind over these two young men.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe England, you’re a family friend of Brandon Darby. He’s chosen you to be his spokesperson. Your response?
JOE ENGLAND: Yes. I have to go back to my history with Brandon. I have known him since he was a teenager, and I’ve been party to his entire intellectual development as an activist and have had many, many discussions about violent versus nonviolent direct action, you know, what the role of a citizen is, what rights a citizen has to oppose the government, all these things.
Well, what these women are saying is not consistent with his character. He is a man of tremendous principles, and I think he would die before he would become a provocateur or entrap people and be involved in an entrapment case. Lisa said that everywhere that Brandon has worked there has been discord. Well, Brandon is the kind of activist that really goes where things are happening, where there’s tension, where there’s—where the action is. I think it would be impossible for those situations not to be filled with stress and discord because of the pressures on the people that are involved. I don’t think that’s an indictment of his character.
It’s true that historically there are many cases of law enforcement, especially the FBI, being involved in entrapment and provocation, but this is not the case here. I think that—I mean, I know from his character that Brandon did not do these things, that Brandon did not encourage these people to break the law and that they did this of their own volition, if they did.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Joe England, how do you know this?
JOE ENGLAND: Because I know his character very well. I mean, when you’ve known someone for many, many years and been close to them, I think you can say with some surety whether, you know, they would have committed a very serious and duplicitous crime, which it would be if he had actually done this.
If you—one of the things that keeps coming up as a talking point is the idea that since Brandon was involved in this investigation before he had met McKay and Crowder, that this somehow proves that he is a provocateur or a professional informant of some sort. This arose—and this is according—I mean, Brandon has not discussed the internals of this case with me for obvious reasons. I think regardless of what we think about Brandon, these two young men deserve an impartial trial, and it doesn’t serve them well for us to be blabbering our opinions about the trial and witnesses therein. I wouldn’t have even been here, except that—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me put that—go ahead. Go ahead, Joe.
JOE ENGLAND: Well, I was just going to say that—
AMY GOODMAN: You wouldn’t have been here, because why?
JOE ENGLAND: Because I think it could only be—this kind of thing can only be detrimental to the trial. And I think it would be—our cause would be much better served if we waited until the trial is over and the facts could be aired, because I think a lot of this debate is taking place over—around a black box, a lot of things that we can’t discuss, because we don’t know or it can’t be discussed.
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Fithian, your response to that?
LISA FITHIAN: Well, a couple responses. I mean, Joe, Brandon was obviously living a double life, so you might have known one Brandon, but we knew another Brandon. And I have a lot of personal experience. The discord and aggression and violence and abuse are real. I experienced it personally. And a lot of other people have, too, and more stories will come out.
I agree, it’s a shame that this is out, but Brandon is the one that released this publicly, not us. He was the one that released it. And when you tell—when you release something like that, and you say this, and you say some of these things that are lies, you know, we’re not saying that—we’re putting these things out not to say he’s a provocateur about when he started. It’s because he’s lying blatantly in the press.
And yes, it will take years for this stuff to come out. The Freedom of Information Act. We don’t know how long he’s been doing it. But we know that he has showed up at every important organization in this area. He has showed up in the immigrant rights organizations, in the refugee organizations, in the prison organizations, in the antiwar organizations. And there’s a pattern that we see over these years. And so, that’s my response, that, unfortunately, as a result of this man, you know, these two young men are facing serious consequences, and he is walking away was scot-free and coming off as a hero. And that’s just not the truth. It is not the truth.
JOE ENGLAND: Frankly, I mean, this sounds trite, but Brandon is a hero. I think the reason he’s been involved in so many things is because he cares very much and works very, very hard as an activist to fight for social justice.
LISA FITHIAN: But to build his reputation and to make himself a prominent leader and the glory—and the truth is—I want to correct something—he was not a founder of Common Ground. He went down there, but his work at Common Ground was about building his name. The hard work of cleaning those houses and really [inaudible] was done by other people.
JOE ENGLAND: Brandon did a lot of hard work. Brandon has done a great deal of hard work.
LISA FITHIAN: Yeah, he’s done some work, and he can be credited for some of the stuff.
JOE ENGLAND: Brandon has not claimed to be a founder of Common Ground.
LISA FITHIAN: Good.
JOE ENGLAND: I mean, this was something that was said—who said that, anyway? That’s not part of this debate.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to end with Malik Rahim, who is the founder of Common Ground Relief collective.
LISA FITHIAN: Great.
JOE ENGLAND: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Your feelings today, as we speak to you in New Orleans—you worked very closely with Brandon Darby—as you heard from his own testimony, his own letter to the community, that he has been an FBI informant?
MALIK RAHIM: I’m going to tell you, Amy, it broke my heart. It broke my heart. It literally broke my heart, because from the time that we founded—and I hate to—because Lisa is also a person that I love and respect, but Brandon was here from the very beginning. He was one of the founders of Common Ground. He was here. When we started Common Ground, Brandon was right here. He was out trying to find kin.
I don’t know what happened. It was a lot of animosity. It was a lot of things that we had to deal with, like Lisa said, and always Brandon was at the forefront in it. You know, I feel—I mean, in retrospect, as I look back at it now, you know, I feel guilty about a lot of things. One, I sent him over to Venezuela, and I’ve seen the mess that that turned out to be. And I put him in a position of authority that was manipulated by others that refused to come to me with it, because they knew how close I was with Brandon. And maybe that was manipulated by him.
And I knew from the very beginning that Homeland Security had infiltrated us. I knew that when I realized that to be critical of FEMA response as it related to Katrina, on the aftermath of Katrina, we took upon the wrath of Homeland Security. I was looking at it coming from many different ways. But God knows I didn’t think it would be from Brandon. And that part of it has literally—it has literally broken my heart, again, you know, that this has happened.
I know that there’s been many people that left from Common Ground in frustration, and many of it was due in part because of Brandon. Many young ladies, many individuals that he literally ran off, you know? It just tackles me. I couldn’t read the whole letter. You know, I haven’t been able to read it, because of the fact that every time I do, it breaks me down into tears.
AMY GOODMAN: Malik Rahim and Lisa Fithian, I want to thank you both for being with us. I also want to thank Joe England, a family friend of Brandon Darby, and Carly Dickson, member of the Austin People’s Legal Collective, speaking to us from Austin.