Above: Father Georgy Gapon at the St. Petersburg “Bloody Sunday” of 1905
“Two or three intellectuals started it all, you know…[they] went around stirring up the Negroes…then the communists stepped in. They control the networks, you know…”
– President Lyndon Johnson to Doris Kearns Goodwin regarding the 1960s anti-war movement
On the ninth day of the nationwide George Floyd rebellion, the New York City Police Department told us a story. Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeted out video of a bin of bricks on a sidewalk and claimed that “Organized looters,” were “strategically placing caches of bricks & rocks at locations throughout NYC…This is what police have to deal with!” At a June 3 press conference, Shea reiterated that claim as Mayor De Blasio looked on approvingly. Despite the impressive presentation, it only took major media outlets a few hours to debunk the tale. VICE used the video evidence itself to trace the brick pile to the neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn—an area which had seen no protests or group violence at all that week.
The road to this piece of copaganda was paved by internet rumors which had swirled for days around the rebellion. First there was the “man with the umbrella” in Minneapolis, accused but never verified as a police “agent provocateur.” Then came the pallets of bricks purportedly deposited at protest sites by police trucks. No one bothered to ask why fully uniformed police would be sent to unload equipment in broad daylight for a covert action, but in any case, The Boston Globe and other press organizations soon exposed it as urban legend. The rumors appear to have originated with liberals, but by the end of the cycle the paranoia had been transposed onto conservatives: the Alt-Right blogger Jack Prosobiec alleged that bins of bricks were secretly being delivered by Antifa (who, he claimed, were not sincere anti-racists), and from here it was picked up by Commissioner Shea.
It’s important to keep such disinformation in mind as we now hear reports from police that the Minneapolis “man with the umbrella” was an unnamed “white supremacist.” Indeed, similar claims were made about a white woman who apparently set fire to a Wendy’s in the wake of the police murder of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Later it was revealed that this woman was Brooks’ girlfriend. The umbrella man story seems especially shaky given that the police won’t even charge the alleged perpetrator.
The fact that enemies of the rebellion—including Donald Trump himself—have seized on provocateur rumors to divide and disarm the protests should be enough to unmask these stories as fake news. But to illustrate further, let’s discuss two other countervailing facts: 1) property destruction was foundational to the George Floyd uprising, and 2) governments employ at least as many nonviolent provocateurs as violent ones—In fact, the most notorious police agent in protest history was a respectable pacifist.
As Floyd’s death was announced, the mood on the streets of Minneapolis was violent rage. “Several pastors asked the community to remain peaceful in its protest” but that didn’t last long. Both protesters and police remembered the clashes that had taken place on I-94 in St. Paul in response to the police killing of Philandro Castile in 2016. Mayor Jacob Frey tried to head off a reckoning by firing the four officers involved in Floyd’s killing, but less than 24 hours after the murder, the first anti-police vandalism took place. Minnesota Public Radio reports:
Crowds marched about 2 1/2 miles to a city police precinct, with some protesters damaging windows, a squad car and spraying graffiti on the building. A line of police in riot gear eventually confronted the protesters, firing tear gas.
There was no man with an umbrella at the scene. He only appeared on May 27, well after hundreds of protesters were seen throwing bottles at police by the local television station and, by some accounts, after Target had already been looted. Wednesday’s violence did not hinder the movement in any case. On the contrary, later that night, as Minneapolis burned, Mayor Frey first floated the idea of indicting the officers who killed Floyd.
The mayor also called in the National Guard, but it was too late. The whole nation had seen Minneapolis fight back, and began to realize what was possible.
“I marched with Dr. King and never broke nonviolent discipline. When they killed him, I knew what my job was…Everyone who we had contact with, I told them ‘Start burning the cities. Let them know we ain’t playing this.’” – Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), 1992
The conventional wisdom says militants are more likely to be infiltrators than any other type of activist. There’s no solid evidence of this, however—in fact, there’s much evidence to the contrary. The first time protesters in the Occupy movement were charged in a police sting, for instance, it was for peaceful activity: participants in Occupy Austin were infiltrated by a nonviolent undercover who built a blockade device to support a human chain. The blockaders were initially facing 10 years in prison for “use of a criminal instrument.” The provocateur didn’t have a military demeanor, and he didn’t show up out of the blue; defendant Ronnie Garza told Democracy Now the undercover had a bushy beard and had been with Occupy Austin “since probably the beginning.”
Another, even more counter-intuitive, example from 2003: At an April protest that attempted to prevent military equipment from being shipped to Iraq through the Port of Oakland, peaceful protesters had been bombarded with rubber bullets by the police. The Bay Area movement was both traumatized and energized by the event, and a comeback march was planned to protest the abuse. In the Bay Area, it is fairly standard for police brutality to be met with escalation on the part of protesters (It was only after the severe injury of a demonstrator at Occupy Oakland, for instance, that an anarchist black bloc first appeared there). The state made efforts to ensure that would not be the case here: Oakland police infiltrated undercovers into the planning meeting and managed to get themselves elected into leadership positions to, as internal documents put it, “plan the route of the march and decide where it would end up and some of the places that it would go.”
The provocateurs didn’t foment any violence against police or property. Quite the contrary: subpoenaed private comments by Captain Howard Jordan indicate that his goal was to steer the march away from the police station in order to avoid confrontation. The undercovers accomplished that goal “smoothly” and the police department lauded the protest as a success. The American Civil Liberties Union, who later revealed the operation, called it “insidious.” In internal documents, Captain Jordan mentioned this strategy was common in other police departments, including San Francisco and Seattle.
Instead of worrying about piles of bricks or “white antifa wreaking havoc” in social movements, we might do better to ask this: How many “responsible” nonviolent actions are being led by police agents as in Austin and Oakland? How many militant insurrections—of the sort that made history from Ferguson, to Baltimore, to Minneapolis—are being smothered at birth by cops posing as pacifists and moderates?
Historical “lessons” about agent provocateurs proliferate online, and most of them reference infiltration by the Russian secret police prior to the revolution. Yet many Americans remain unfamiliar with the most destructive Russian agent of all, Father Georgy Gapon. Gapon was a progressive pacifist clergyman secretly recruited by the Tsar’s officials in 1903. The charismatic priest maneuvered himself into leadership of the 10,000-strong Assembly of Russian Factory Workers. Gapon used his hidden government connections to woo small concessions for workers, while leaving the overall tyranny of the Russian Empire unchallenged.
Nonetheless, radicalism continued to spread in the country. A general strike was called in St. Petersburg in 1905, and Gapon proposed a peaceful march to the Winter Palace. Not only was this march nonviolent, it was patriotic, expressing appeals to the Tsar’s humanity and wisdom. Gapon discouraged the participation of anarchists, Bolsheviks or any other militant revolutionaries. The march was largely peaceful, but the response of government forces was not. While Father Gapon led his followers singing hymns into the police lines, the Tsar’s troops opened fire on the crowd. Despite being at the front of the march, Gapon was unharmed. At least one hundred other marchers, however, were killed in Russia’s “Bloody Sunday.”
There’s no point in singling out any particular tendency of course. The hard truth is that police pose as pacifists, as street fighters, as photographers, as medics, as marshals, and as journalists. Once in Great Britain it was revealed that the co-author of a Greenpeace pamphlet that resulted in a costly libel suit from McDonald’s was an undercover cop – does this mean that writing pamphlets should now be presumed to be an agent provocateur activity? It does under the paranoid logic that circulates nowadays.
Two months after the beginning of the uprising, we have now seen clear documentation of Blacks and local people taking direct action against capital over and over again. When the next wave of resistance begins, let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past and promote our own enemies’ propaganda. These fearful libels were designed only to divide us.