Police Entrapment of Nonviolent Movements
by JAKE OLZEN
The old trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist is back in the news, with a round-up in Ohio on May 1 and the three would-be NATO protesters arrested on Wednesday who are now charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism. While the impression that appears in the media is one of remnants of the Occupy movement verging toward violence, the driving forces behind these plots are the very agencies claiming to have foiled them.
The five activists arrested in Cleveland, Ohio, are facing multiple charges for conspiring and attempting to destroy the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge on May Day to protest corporate rule. According to the FBI press statement released shortly after the May 1 arrests, FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony said “the individuals charged in this plot were intent on using violence to express their ideological views.” But that is only one side of the story.
The mainstream media and blog reports, both nationally and in Cleveland, have emphasized that the young activists were part of Occupy Cleveland and self-identified anarchists (here, here, and here). The men — Douglas L. Wright, 26, of Indianapolis; Brandon L. Baxter, 20, of nearby Lakewood; Connor C. Stevens, 20, of suburban Berea; and Joshua S. Stafford, 23, and Anthony Hayne, 35, both of Cleveland — were arrested and remain in jail after they attempted to detonate a false bomb that they had set, in conjunction with the FBI.
It’s an old script: Violence-prone anarchists devise a nefarious plan and, just before they can carry it out, law enforcement swoops in to save the day, catching them red-handed. But there’s another script being acted out here too, one much more sinister, complex, and morally and legally dubious: Agents of the state infiltrate an activist group and, through techniques of psychological manipulation, lead its most vulnerable members into a violent plan — for which explosives, detonators, contacts and case mysteriously become available — until SWAT teams and prosecutors suddenly arrive and haul the accomplices off to jail for the rest of their lives. In both cases, at the end of the story, officials congratulate each other for their bravery and bravado and the public breathes a sigh of relief as more of their civil liberties are stripped away.
I recently spoke with Richard Schulte, a veteran activist who has known the Five from groups like Food Not Bombs and is helping to organize their legal and jail support. Schulte explained that under the influence of undercover federal agents and informants, the activists — particularly the youngest, Baxter and Stevens — found themselves increasingly vulnerable and reliant on their informant. Baxter’s lawyer, a public defender named John Pyle, recently identified the informant working with the group as Shaquille Azir, a 39-year old ex-con.
“[Azir] became something of a role model, stepping in as a father figure, offering guidance on emotional and social stuff,” said Schulte. “Connor and Brandon thought he was a rad dude but getting more and more pushy.”
Collectively, according to accounts from friends and associates, statements from lawyers, and the FBI affidavit, members of the Cleveland Five have backgrounds that include mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and social marginalization.
Brandon and Connor had been part of the full-time occupation over the winter in Cleveland’s Public Square. After having grown frustrated with what they perceived as the Occupiers’ timidity — Schulte called it “passive gradualism” — the Five were encouraged by Azir to break off from Occupy Cleveland and form their own, much smaller group, “The People’s Liberation Army.” At first it was mostly just a graffiti crew — tagging the phrase “rise up” around the city and putting up stickers, said Schulte.
Azir would give them a case of beer in the morning, according to Schulte, have them work outside on houses all day, and then give them a case of beer at night. He gave them marijuana and would wear them down by keeping them up late into the night with drinking and conversation — all the while urging them to break away from other groups, keep their arrangement secret and not to trust other activists.
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