Police provocateurs, real and imaginary


From Libcom / By Scott Jay

There are ongoing efforts by law enforcement agencies to infiltrate, disorganize and destroy social movements. This creates a challenge for anybody who attempts to confront the state’s ability to carry out austerity and repression. To deal with this, we need to develop anti-repression strategies based on actual efforts and tactics by the police and not based on fantasies. It is challenging enough to deal with the efforts of genuine infiltrators, it does us no good to chase after phantoms or, worse, point the finger at somebody who is actually on our side.

Most radicals would agree, and yet for some there is often rampant speculation with no evidence for one type of supposed police provocation. Specifically, this is the occurrence when somebody at a protest throws a rock at the police, or breaks a window, or takes some other provocative action, which leads to uniformed police cracking down. “It must have been an undercover cop who threw that rock,” is the common refrain, even when there is no basis whatsoever for believing this. The idea, apparently, is that only a poorly planned rock-throwing would cause this or, from the liberal perspective, that the perfectly planned peaceful protest was ruined by the efforts of the state to make it look bad.

This assumption is made so often, with so little evidence, that it keeps being made because so many people are led to believe that it must happen all the time, because so many people say that it does, even though it probably never occurs the way many people claim that it does.

A case in point is a recent article at SocialistWorker.org by three people reporting on the rebellion in Baltimore who noted: “As we began to move back away from the police, a bucket of ice was thrown from behind us. While we can’t know for sure who threw the bucket, given the peaceful nature of the day’s protests and the presence of several recognized undercover police officers in the crowd, we believe there is a strong possibility that this was the work of state agent provocateurs.”

Other than the existence of undercover police in the crowd–and there certainly must have been–no evidence is given for this statement. In other words, it is wild speculation.

I wrote a response to this statement, noting that it is irresponsible to make up these stories out of thin air, in part because it encourages people to keep making up these stories even though there is hardly ever any evidence to back them up, but also in part because there are actual consequences to these statements. That is, some people actually believe this stuff and they go after the person who threw that rock. Of all the possible conclusions one could draw, the idea that it was an undercover cop, or informant, or paid police provocateur, or whatever, is the least likely conclusion.

This is Baltimore in May 2015. There are Black people all over the city throwing rocks at the police. We do not need to make up reasons why somebody would do this. The very concern that “peaceful protest” is being ruined by people throwing things is a completely backward approach to social struggles, usually pushed by liberals who really do want to keep protests symbolic for good media coverage and to appeal to the good nature of those in power.

For raising these issues, I was accused of “sectarian bloodsport” by the three authors of the original statement. Perhaps they think I am denying the existence of undercover infiltrators in social movements? Of course, I readily admit to their existence, including in Baltimore, I just deny that they are using this specific tactic. As far as I can tell, the only serious rebuttal to my argument is that there is, apparently, plenty of evidence that these incidents happen all the time so the suspicion is not unfounded.

They offer evidence to back this up, or attempt to, but I wish they spent as much time looking at their evidence as they did coming up with clever insults. I am not sure they actually read the articles they linked to. All of the evidence proves my point–that this claim is made all the time with nothing to back it up beyond pure speculation.

The three authors of the original statement, for example, insist that I must surely know that “one could cite any number of cases” showing just this tactic from undercover police. And yet, they fail to provide even one. They provide two links documenting genuinely nefarious activity where undercovers masked up and infiltrate a march on the one hand, and chased after black bloc actions on the other. But neither of these articles even allege that these undercovers instigated a crackdown from uniformed police during a protest.

Another response is provided by Paul D’Amato who argues that “it defies basic logic to conclude from this that there are no provocateurs in Baltimore, or that every bottle and rock thrown comes from the hand of a genuine protester.” According to D’Amato there must have been police provocateurs throwing rocks and bottles. It is assumed from the beginning, to assume otherwise is foolish. He also offers evidence, some of which (though not all) actually does suggest this tactic occurring. Most significantly, he points to a recent incident in Oakland where undercover California Highway Patrol officers wore masks and infiltrated a march. When they were unmasked, one waved a gun at the crowd while the other arrested somebody. It was a terrifying and outrageous incident. Unfortunately, when this incident erupted on social media, rumors of their participating in window smashing erupted as well.


Shortly after this incident, as people who were actually on the scene talked about what happened, these rumors disappeared. For example, the primary piece of evidence from the article D’Amato linked to is a tweet by Dave Id, the well-known activist behind Indybay.org. That tweet has since been deleted. The article offers another tweet by “Morpheus Ravenna.” I have no idea who this person is, but they do not even claim to have seen the incident and instead refer vaguely to “witnesses.” Nonetheless, these rumors have been documented on web sites and the rumors will remain, possibly indefinitely.

This is unfortunate, because this incident led to a wide ranging discussion among many radical activists in Oakland in which it became very clear how these oft told stories inevitably fall down for lack of any evidence, and how little sense they make in the first place. What happened in Oakland was outrageous enough and we do not need to spread unfounded rumors that only confuse the situation. Some people even went to great lengths to clarify what actually happened with independent journalists so they would not print these unfounded and confusing rumors, but that is no easy task when such a sensational story provides instant clickbait. Nonetheless, these efforts were important because the next thing you know, people across the country point to these rumors as evidence of this type of thing happening all the time simply because they do not know better.

D’Amato provides another link which seems to document several cases where this tactic occurred–until we actually read them. Just as above, we often have to click one or more links to understand the real story. I wonder if Paul actually read through these examples. Some of them are absurdly hilarious.

For example, one of them mentions a person leaving behind a box of bricks at Occupy Minnesota labeled “Riot equipment.” The peace-loving Occupy activists distanced themselves from this person in the media and turned him into the cops, who let him go, probably because he had done nothing illegal. In other words, this is a radical with a sense of humor confronted by humorless liberals cooperating with the cops.

Another refers to Canadian union leaders at a protest accosting masked young men with rocks and accusing them of being provocateurs–with no evidence. The article quotes a former cop saying he did not think they were “legitimate protesters” and “If they weren’t police, I think they might well have been working in the best interests of the police.” Another refers to a Liberal Democrat MP at a London G20 protest doing essentially the same thing. In other words, these are mainstream liberal officials attempting to keep things “peaceful” by making accusations, with no evidence even to the identities of these people.

Another story refers to a right-winger who infiltrates a march for his own amusement–he is a bit more bold than the others, but that is about it. Another involves “undercover Denver detectives [who] staged a struggle with a police commander in order to get out of the crowd undetected.” Instead they are unwittingly pepper-sprayed by the uniformed police. This is about as close as we will get to this tactic occurring, though it appears to have been instigated on accident.

Finally, there is an incident where “demonstrators said” it was undercover police that began throwing stones at a protest in the West Bank. Maybe this actually is a tactic used by Israeli undercovers, but I have heard “demonstrators say” a lot of things with no evidence so you must excuse my skepticism.

This is D’Amato’s evidence for this tactic occurring. It all falls entirely flat. It actually proves my two points, which is that these claims are made all the time with no evidence to back them up and often to justify a liberal narrative that discredits the idea that somebody just might be angry enough to throw a rock.

There is a mountain of documentation from law enforcement agencies admitting to all sorts of horrible tactics, including death threats, rape and murder. It is not hard to find examples of them encouraging suggestible people to create devices that will kill people–they admit it to the media and in court. And yet real evidence of undercovers in a crowd instigating uniformed police responses always seems thin to nonexistent. It is more often a convenient story told by liberals who want to isolate themselves from people being “too radical,” alleging that cops trying to destroy their peaceful protest.

Which is not to say that police do not infiltrate movements, mask up and join black blocks, entrap people into making bombs and molotov cocktails, and do all sorts of other horrible things. One reason they get away with it is because people speculate wildly and irresponsibly about the existence of feds–but in all the wrong places. It does not help our cause to do this. It not only distracts us and threatens to put ordinary people at risk from scurrilous accusations.

So to the litany of unfounded speculation about this tactic, we can add this incident in Baltimore, which almost certainly did not happen as described by the witnesses, who saw nothing more than a bucket. If anybody bothers to scratch the surface on the allegation, they will quickly see how thin it really is. Hopefully, the next time somebody raises this unfounded suspicion–and have no doubt, they will do so time and again–I hope people do not say “Yeah, just like I read about in Baltimore.” But that will require them reading through the lines of the original article and not accepting it at face value.