For a few days in September 2008, as the Republican Party kicked off its national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Twin Cities were a microcosm of a deeply divided nation. The atmosphere around town was tense, with local and federal police facing off against activists who had descended upon the city. Convinced that anarchists were plotting violent acts, they sought to bust the protesters’ hangouts, sometimes bursting into apartments and houses brandishing assault rifles. Inside the cavernous Xcel Energy convention center, meanwhile, an out-of-nowhere vice presidential nominee named Sarah Palin assured tens of thousands of ecstatic Republicans that her running mate, John McCain, was “a leader who’s not looking for a fight, but sure isn’t afraid of one either.”
The same thing might have been said of David McKay and Bradley Crowder, a pair of greenhorn activists from George W. Bush’s Texas hometown who had driven up for the protests. Wide-eyed guys in their early 20s, they’d come of age hanging out in sleepy downtown Midland, commiserating about the Iraq War and the administration’s assault on civil liberties.
St. Paul was their first large-scale protest, and when they arrived they were taken aback: Rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, tumbling tear-gas canisters—to McKay and Crowder, it seemed like an all-out war on democracy. They wanted to fight back, even going so far as to mix up a batch of Molotov cocktails. Just before dawn on the day of Palin’s big coming out, a SWAT team working with federal agents raided their crash pad, seized the Molotovs, and arrested McKay, alleging that he intended to torch a parking lot full of police cars.
Since only a few people knew about the firebombs, fellow activists speculated that someone close to McKay and Crowder must have tipped off the feds. Back in Texas, flyers soon began appearing at coffeehouses urging leftists to beware of Brandon Darby, an “FBI informant rat loose in Austin.”
The allegation came as a shocker; Darby was a known and trusted member of the left-wing protest crowd. “If Brandon was conning me, and many others, it would be the biggest lie of my life since I found out the truth about Santa Claus,” wrote Scott Crow, one of many activists who rushed to defend him at first. Two months later, Darby came clean. “The simple truth,” he wrote on Indymedia.org, “is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Darby’s entanglement with the feds is part of a quiet resurgence of FBI interest in left-wingers. From the Red Scare days of the 1950s into the ’70s, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, a.k.a. COINTELPRO, monitored and sabotaged communist and civil rights organizations. Nowadays, in what critics have dubbed the Green Scare, the bureau is targeting the global-justice movement and radical environmentalists. In 2005, John Lewis, then the FBI official in charge of domestic terrorism, ranked groups like the Earth Liberation Front ahead of jihadists as America’s top domestic terror threat.
FBI stings involving informants have been key to convicting 14 ELF members since 2006 for a string of high-profile arsons, and to sentencing a man to 20 years in prison for conspiring to destroy several targets, including cell phone towers. During the St. Paul protests, at least two additional informants infiltrated and helped indict a group of activists known as the RNC Eight for conspiring to riot and damage property.
But it’s Darby’s snitching that has provided the most intriguing tale. It’s the focus of a radio magazine piece, two documentary films, and a book in the making. By far the most damning portrayal is Better This World, an award-winning doc that garnered rave reviews on the festival circuit and is slated to air on PBS on September 6. The product of two years of work by San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, it dredges up a wealth of FBI documents and court transcripts related to Darby’s interactions with his fellow activists to suggest that Darby acted as an agitator as much as an informant. (Watch the trailer and read our interview with the filmmakers here.)
The film makes a compelling case that Darby, with the FBI’s blessing, used his charisma and street credibility to goad Crowder and McKay into pursuing the sort of actions that would later land them in prison. Darby flatly denies it, and he recently sued the New York Times over a story with similar implications. (The Times corrected the disputed detail.) “I feel very morally justified to do the things that I’ve done,” he told me. “I don’t know if I could have handled it much differently.”
Brandon Michael Darby is a muscular, golden-skinned 34-year-old with Hollywood looks and puppy-dog eyes. Once notorious for sleeping around the activist scene, he now often sleeps with a gun by his bed in response to death threats. His former associates call him unhinged, a megalomaniac, a manipulator. “He gets in people’s minds and can pull you in,” Lisa Fithian, a veteran labor, environmental, and anti-war organizer, warned me before I set out to interview him. “He’s a master. And you are going to feel all kinds of sympathy for him.”
The son of a refinery welder, Darby grew up in Pasadena, a dingy Texas oil town. His parents divorced when he was 12, and soon after he ran away to Houston, where he lived in and out of group homes. By 2002, Darby had found his way to Austin’s slacker scene, where one day he helped his friend, medical-marijuana activist Tracey Hayes, scale Zilker Park’s 165-foot moonlight tower (of Dazed and Confused fame) and unfurl a giant banner painted with pot leaves that read “Medicine.” They later “hooked up,” Hayes says, and eventually moved in together. She introduced him to her activist friends, and he started reading Howard Zinn and histories of the Black Panthers.
Some local activists wouldn’t work with Darby (he liked to taunt the cops during protests, getting them all riled up). But that changed after Hurricane Katrina, when he learned that Robert King Wilkerson, one of the Angola Three—former Black Panthers who endured decades of solitary confinement at Louisiana’s Angola Prison—was trapped in New Orleans. Darby and Crow drove 10 hours from Austin towing a jon boat. When they couldn’t get it into the city, Darby somehow harangued some Coast Guard personnel into rescuing Wilkerson. The story became part of the foundation myth for an in-your-face New Orleans relief organization called the Common Ground Collective.
It would eventually grow into a national group with a million-dollar budget. But at first Common Ground was just a bunch of pissed-off anarchists working out of the house of Malik Rahim, another former Panther. Rahim asked Darby to set up an outpost in the devastated Ninth Ward, where not even the Red Cross was allowed at first. Darby brought in a group of volunteers who fed people and cleared debris from houses while being harassed by police, right along with the locals who had refused to evacuate. “If I’d had an appropriate weapon, I would have attacked my government for what they were doing to people,” he declared in a clip featured in Better This World. He said he’d since bought an AK-47 and was willing to use it: “There are residents here who have said that you will not take my home from me over my dead body, and we have made a commitment to be in solidarity with those residents.”
But Common Ground’s approach soon began to grate on Darby. He bristled at its consensus-based decision making, its interminable debates over things like whether serving meat to locals was serving oppression. He idolized rugged, iconoclastic populists like Che Guevara—so, in early 2006, he jumped at a chance to go to Venezuela to solicit money for Katrina victims.
Darby was deeply impressed with what he saw, until a state oil exec asked him to go to Colombia and meet with FARC, the communist guerrilla group. “They said they wanted to help me start a guerrilla movement in the swamps of Louisiana,” he told “This American Life” reporter Michael May. “And I was like, ‘I don’t think so.'” It turned out armed revolution wasn’t really his thing.
Darby’s former friends dispute the Venezuela story as they dispute much that he says. They accuse him of grandstanding, being combative, and even spying on his rivals. In his short-lived tenure as Common Ground’s interim director, Darby drove out 30 volunteer coordinators and replaced them with a small band of loyalists. “He could only see what’s in it for him,” Crow told me. For example, Darby preempted a planned police-harassment hot line by making flyers asking victims to call his personal phone number.
The flyers led to a meeting between Darby and Major John Bryson, the New Orleans cop in charge of the Ninth Ward. In time, Bryson became a supporter of Common Ground, and Darby believed that they shared a common dream of rebuilding the city. But he was less and less sure about his peers. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve replicated every system that I fought against,'” he recalls. “It was fucking bizarre.”
By mid-2007, Darby had left the group and become preoccupied with the conflict in Lebanon. Before long, Darby says, he was approached in Austin by a Lebanese-born schoolteacher, Riad Hamad, for help with a vague plan to launder money into the Palestinian territories. Hamad also spoke about smuggling bombs into Israel, he claims.
Darby says he discouraged Hamad at first, and then tipped off Bryson, who put him in touch with the FBI. “I talked,” he told me. “And it was the fucking weirdest thing.” He knew his friends would hate him for what he’d done. (The FBI raided Hamad’s home, and discovered nothing incriminating; he was found dead in Austin’s Lady Bird Lake two months later—an apparent suicide.)
McKay and Crowder first encountered Darby in March 2008 at Austin’s Monkey Wrench Books during a recruitment drive for the St. Paul protests. Later, in a scene re-created in Better This World, they met at a café to talk strategy. “I stated that I wasn’t interested in being a part of a group if we were going to sit and talk too much,” Darby emailed his FBI handlers. “I stated that I was gonna shut that fucker down.”
“My biggest impression from that meeting was that Brandon really dominated it,” fellow activist James Clark told the filmmakers. Darby’s FBI email continued: “I stated that they all looked like they ate too much tofu and that they should eat beef so that they could put on muscle mass. I stated that they weren’t going to be able to fight anybody until they did so.” At one point Darby took everyone out to a parking lot and threw Clark to the ground. Clark interpreted it as Darby sending the message: “Look at me, I’m badass. You can be just like me.” (Darby insists that this never happened.)
When the Austin activists arrived in St. Paul, police, acting on a Darby tip, broke open the group’s trailer and confiscated the sawed-off traffic barrels they’d planned to use as shields against riot police. They soon learned of similar raids all over town. “It started to feel like Darby hadn’t amped these things up, and it really was as crazy and intense as he had told us it was going to be,” Crowder says. Feeling that Darby’s tough talk should be “in some ways, a guide of behavior,” they went to Walmart to buy Molotov supplies.
“The reality is, when we woke up the next day, neither one of us wanted to use them,” Crowder told me. They stored the firebombs in a basement and left for the convention center, where Crowder was swept up in a mass arrest. Darby and McKay later talked about possibly lobbing the Molotovs on a police parking lot early the next morning, though by 2:30 a.m. McKay was having serious doubts. “I’m just not feeling the vibe on the street,” he texted Darby.
“You butt head,” Darby shot back. “Text me when you can.” He texted his friend repeatedly over the next hour, until well after McKay had turned in. At 5 a.m., police broke into McKay’s room and found him in bed. He was scheduled to fly home to Austin two hours later.
The feds ultimately convicted the pair for making the Molotov cocktails, but they didn’t have enough evidence of intent to use them. Crowder, who pleaded guilty rather than risk trial, and a heavier sentence, got two years. McKay, who was offered seven years if he pleaded guilty, opted for a trial, arguing on the stand that Darby told him to make the Molotovs, a claim he recanted after learning that Crowder had given a conflicting account. McKay is now serving out the last of his four years in federal prison.
At South Austin’s Strange Brew coffeehouse, Darby shows up to meet me on a chromed-out Yamaha with flames on the side. We sit out back, where he can chain-smoke his American Spirits. Darby is through being a leftist radical. Indeed, he’s now an enthusiastic small-government conservative. He loves Sarah Palin. He opposes welfare and national health care. “The majority of things could be handled by people and by communities,” he explains. Climate change is “a bandwagon” and the EPA should be “strongly limited.” Abortion shouldn’t be a federal issue.
He sounds a bit like his new friend, Andrew Breitbart, who made his name producing sting videos targeting NPR, ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and others. About a year after McKay and Crowder went to jail, Breitbart called Darby wanting to know why he wasn’t defending himself against the left’s misrepresentations. “They don’t print what I say,” Darby said. Breitbart offered him a regular forum on his website, BigGovernment.com. Darby now socializes with Breitbart at his Los Angeles home and is among his staunchest defenders. (Breitbart’s takedown of ACORN, he says, was “completely fucking fair.”)
Entrapment? Darby scoffs at the suggestion. He pulls up his shirt, showing me his chest hair and tattoos, as though his macho physique had somehow seduced Crowder and McKay into mixing their firebombs. “No matter what I say, most people on the left are going to believe what reinforces their own narrative,” he says. “And I’ve quit giving a shit.”
The fact is, Darby says, McKay and Crowder considered him a has-been. His tofu comment, he adds, was a jocular response after one of them had ribbed him for being fat. “I constantly felt the need to show that I was still worthy of being in their presence,” he tells me. “They are complete fucking liars.” As for those late-night texts to McKay, Darby insists he was just trying to dissuade him from using the Molotovs.
He still meets with FBI agents, he says, to eat barbecue and discuss his ideas for new investigations. But then, it’s hard to know how much of what Darby says is true. For one, the FBI file of his former friend Scott Crow, which Crow obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request last year, suggests that Darby was talking with the FBI more than a year before he claims Bryson first put him in touch. Meanwhile, Crow and another activist, Karly Dixon, separately told me that Darby asked them, in the fall of 2006, to help him burn down an Austin bookstore affiliated with right-wing radio host Alex Jones. (Hayes, Darby’s ex, says he told her of the idea too.) “The guy was trying to put me in prison,” Crow says.
Such allegations, Darby claims, are simply part of a conspiracy to besmirch him and the FBI: “They get together, and they just figure out ways to attack.” Believe whomever you want to believe, he says. “Either way, they walk away with scars—and so do I.”