This week, Sabrina Rubin Erdely's article "The Plot Against Occupy" was published on Rolling Stone's website. We are thankful to Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely for running an article which brings information about this case into the public spotlight. This case reflects some critical trends in law enforcement practices that have a significant bearing on our political landscape, and it's important that we are looking at these phenomena publically. Erdely also takes a stab at making sense of how these five guys could be convinced to participate in this potentially murderous act, and we appreciate her wanting to tell a story about these guys that puts this act they're accused of in context. However, beyond providing back story, the work goes astray as it enters into the realm of creative fiction, putting words into the guys' mouths and feelings into their hearts and presenting this as an authentic retelling of facts.
The problem with the situation is that, though Erdely paints a decent picture of how the guys were netted by the informant, she starts to enter into a fictional narrative when she says that they were "feeling pretty good" or otherwise casts the mood, intentions or motivations of the guys. There is so clearly a complex emotional dynamic at play, between the relationships these guys had with each other, the predatory manipulations of the informant (who not only provided for them but would also threaten violence against a number of the guys and their families), and the uncertain political feelings they seem to have been carrying. It is a jump to go from the FBI's transcripts, tainted by that organization's own agenda, to a claim about what was happening in the hearts of these guys -- and large parts of the article appears to be based on these transcripts. Since the guys' sentences hinge in part on their motivation, Erdely's conjectures have the potential to have a serious impact on their futures.
Meanwhile, the article, in its desire to simplify the situation by painting the guys as "disoriented young men wrestling with alienation, identity issues and your typical bucket of adolescent angst," disregards the committed work they were doing (cooking weekly free meals for Cleveland's homeless population, defending foreclosure victims from eviction, and organizing for Occupy). It ridicules the legitimate challenges presented to those who are serious about social change in a manufactured political context which beats down on those with the consciousness to want change. The guys' search for politically meaningful work is demeaned as a quest for an "identity." Personally, we find this description condescending, when the political questions these guys were facing are well-founded, the answers elusive. We don't support bombing bridges or hurting people to make a political statement -- not at all -- and we don't believe these guys do either; the act they are on trial for came out of the imaginations of the FBI, selected for its reprehensible nature.
Erdely's article does more than other mainstream articles to date to expose the predations of the FBI's informant (though Azir's coercion went beyond what's covered). What is alarming, though, is that the article lets the FBI off the hook for sponsoring and authorizing, and likely directing these actions. On the first page, the FBI's tactics are rationalized: "anticipating and disrupting terrorist plots require both aggressive investigative techniques and a staggering level of collaboration and resources." To say that "the feds worried [Occupy] could become a terrorist breeding ground" seems implausible, given the lack of any sort of history to substantiate this. However, there is a long history of the FBI targeting political groups on strictly political grounds. While some questions are briefly raised about this, in an article titled The Plot Against Occupy, I would have expected this story to be drawn in the context of the coordinated police evictions of Occupy groups across the country, the reports of systematic violence and sexual harassment by police against Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York, and the other incidents of undercover agents perpetrating crimes that are then attributed to Occupy. While the specific image of terrorism the FBI is selling us has changed since 9/11, these tactics of inventing crimes and charges, media manipulation to cast social justice activists as dangerous, and even the use of the label "terrorist" are familiar to anyone who's followed social movement of the 20th century, and have only grown more effective with practice.
Finally, on a personal note, it was very hard to read the closing paragraph of the article. Though we are sure Connor and the other guys have been happy to have the support that they've received, the notion that any of them are reveling in their current situation is a sickening distortion. Like most people held in prison, particulary in solitary confinement, the guys are all struggling on a physical, mental and emotional level. Brandon and Connor are both twenty, the other guys not much older. Every day, they are facing harassment, theft, threats of violence, forced medication (in some cases) and the reality that they may potentially spend the rest of their lives in this abusive prison system. The article concludes that Connor has found his "fulfillment," but the reality is that he and the other guys have found the secretive hell that more than two million Americans are subject to every day.