In the FBI’s defense, some recent anarchist activity has been a little scary. In May this year, the FBI targeted several self-proclaimed anarchists, including a group in Chicago plotting to blow up Obama’s reelection headquarters. The cops, working closely with the bureau, found Molotov cocktails, and preliminary reports show the anarchists intended to hurt people as well as property. Weeks earlier in Ohio, the FBI arrested several anarchists associated with Occupy. These anarchists were plotting to blow up a bridge, but like Portland’s own “Christmas Tree Bomber,” Mohamed Mohamud, there weren’t any real bombs, only look-a-likes provided by an undercover agent. But the anarchists did—so to speak—pull the fake trigger, so the case against them doesn’t look good.
However the bureau has also spied on some pretty harmless folks as well.
In one New York Times story, the anarchists turned out to be nothing more than your run-of-the-mill activists. And spying on activists isn’t a new thing for the bureau.
In the 60s, as part of its infamous COINTELPRO, the FBI spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, and kids in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) among others. But following this prolonged red scare, for the most part, the left fell off the FBI’s radar.
During the early 90s, FBI terrorism reports show the bureau was investigating Islamic extremists, Puerto Rican nationals, and homegrown, hillbilly, rightwing, nut jobs like Timothy McVeigh. But the left wasn’t on the radar because, well, they weren’t destroying stuff. Then in 1998, came the Oregon-based Earth Liberation Front (ELF). That year’s FBI terrorism report shows the fiery wreckage of a Vail Colorado resort the tree-loving group torched to protest the resort’s expansion into national forest land.
The FBI labeled the Vail inferno “terrorism,” and ELF members “terrorists.” The media labeled the group “eco-terrorists.” And although “eco-arson” might be more appropriate—the group targeted property, not people—the label stuck. And so with John Lockean logic the FBI effectively classified politically motivated destruction of property as terrorism. And it worked. In the courts, following a series of high profile arrests and trials, several ELF members were convicted of terrorism, thanks to an obscure law put in place following the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing.
Now the FBI wants to stick the label “terrorist” on the nation’s anarchists. The first instance in recent memory was probably in 1999, when the FBI called the destruction of a Gap store in Seattle “terrorism.” This was prior to the World Trade Organization protests that saw a new group of anarchists calling themselves the Black Bloc destroy lots of Seattle storefront windows—(some of these folks, according to the documentary If a Tree Falls, were members of ELF). Anarchists were now on the bureau’s radar. (In what would probably flatter many anarchists, one FBI report even credits the bureau’s creation to anarchist bombings in 1919). But let’s assess this red and black threat level by looking at these “anarchists.”
According to an FBI PowerPoint posted by reporter Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red, the bureau admits these “anarchists” are exactly what they appear to be namely: young, middle to upper middleclass, and educated. So, let’s be frank and admit these kids aren’t scary. The anarchist “threat” is, for the most part, just at a bunch of well-intentioned middleclass kids dressed in black and armed with a few Mikhail Bakunin quotes and a lot of frustration. But, that frustration could be growing, and that could be dangerous.
The FBI now says anarchists are changing. According to that bureau PowerPoint, they’re no longer the “highly organized” individuals “dedicated” to “specific” causes that turned to “criminal activity out of frustration” that they once were. No, says the bureau, anarchists are now “unorganized” and not dedicated to particular causes. And, claims the bureau, anarchists are now “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities.” We can probably take this last assessment with a shaker of salt. It’s far more likely these anarchists are still driven to criminal acts out of frustration with the slow pace of change and, we should add, law enforcement’s predictably heavy-handed response to political dissent. If the left’s history is any measure, when cops get rough with activists, shit gets destroyed.
The Chicago cops’ beating of activists at the 1968 Democratic convention turned SDS members into bomb-happy Weathermen. Eugene cops’ methods turned a bunch of tree-huggers into ELF. And, it’s worth noting, Portland got its own anarchist problem following Portland cops’ crackdown on Occupy. Still whether today’s anarchists will remain arsons and vandals or become actually dangerous might not be so cut and dry.
The recent Midwest arrests are frightening. If these anarchists really did want to hurt people, this could signal a dangerous Timothy McVeigh-type sea change for the left.
But if the anarchists remain threats to property only—and let’s hope they do—then we probably don’t have to worry about them. However, we can assume if their politically motivated property damage is big enough and bad enough the feds and others will slap the “terrorist” label on them.
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