Liberal Paranoia and the Vandalism of History

Above: Vandalism during Montreal student strike (Toronto Sun, 5/16/2012)

Above: Vandalism during Montreal student strike (Toronto Sun, 5/16/2012)

Recently, an article by Todd Gitlin – Columbia University professor and ex-60’s radical – was circulated around the web entitled “The Wonderful World of Informers and Agent Provocateurs.” 1  Using the current NSA scandal as a hook, the piece described itself as an “attempt to sort out some patterns behind what could be the next big story about government surveillance and provocation in America.”  Gitlin was referring to the government’s massive post-9/11 use of face-to-face spying  – undercover cops, essentially.  This is certainly a topic dear to every activist’s heart.  It was a severe disappointment then to read the piece and find that it sorted out very little, distorted very much, and left out a great deal that was important.  In fact, Gitlin seems less interested in exposing new aspects of government abuse, and more interested in insinuating an old agenda of his: the smearing of militant activists whose tactics aren’t to his personal liking. 2

Rather than homing in on any hard data, or even solid theory, about informers and provocateurs, the article leads off with an extended smear of a favored bugaboo of Gitlin’s: black bloc tactics.  Over a year ago, the professor – who wasn’t exactly a familiar face at Occupy actions – demanded the movement “should do everything it can to isolate those who seize the spotlight by smashing things.” 3 His writing on Occupy ever since, 4  including the high-profile, lightweight book he’s published, has been fixated on demonizing militancy.

In his latest denunciation, Gitlin zeros in on an anti-gentrification action from May Day 2012 in San Francisco where numerous windows were smashed, employing it as an example of a police provocation.   Gitlin’s primary source is a blog post by a young Occupier named Scott Rossi.  Rossi appears to have had an identity crisis in the course of his posting, swinging from the opinion that “it was a bit funny to see the normally sneering people outside some of the boojie restaurants in 18th street get a little taste of their own class warfare,” to the sentiment that “Even rich WASP assholes are family when your they’re your neighbor,” in only a few paragraphs.  He also mentions some novel economic concepts like “working-class owned businesses,” (which were purportedly sabotaged).  5  As Steinbeck said, most Americans can’t decide if they’re exploited proletarians or just temporarily-unsuccessful millionaires, and hate being put in the position where they might have to choose.

In this frame of mind, Rossi emoted that the bloc seemed suspiciously “athletic, commanding… They were very combative and nearly physically violent…They felt ‘military’ if that makes sense.”  It’s worth remembering that pacifists and corporate media regularly described the black bloc that helped shutdown the Seattle WTO in 1999 as having a “paramilitary” demeanor, with the implication that they must have been cops, or at the very least macho assholes.  That bloc is now known to have included two veteran activists who have since become political prisoners for Earth Liberation Front activity: Marie Mason 6 and Daniel McGowan (McGowan’s story is detailed in the Oscar-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls).  7

Gitlin also scolds that this could not be a legitimate action because it took place in “the Mission District, a neighborhood where not so many 1-percenters live, work, or shop.”  It’s possible, I suppose, that Todd Gitlin hasn’t been to San Francisco in the past twenty years, but even so, I suspect that he’s heard the phrase “Silicon Valley” once or twice and knows that it doesn’t stop at Palo Alto anymore.  8  A dwindling number of poor Latinos still reside in the Mission District, but you don’t find a whole lot of them shopping there: the Cesar Chavez Institute tells us that “On Valencia Street, 50 percent of the businesses that existed in 1990, mostly local operations that catered to the low-income Latino community, were gone by 1998. Rental evictions tripled, and owner move-in evictions quadrupled in just two years.”  9  In October, this 1-percent sundae got a cherry on top: Mark Zuckerberg, the richest man-child in America, bought a home in the Mission District. 10  I wonder if Gitlin and Rossi consider Zuckerberg family, too.

As a caveat to his paranoia, Gitlin notes in passing that “There are actual activists who believe that they are doing good this way…”  This is damnation by faint praise, however: those “actual activists” who’ve admitted participating in black blocs in the past include David Graeber, a key organizer with Occupy Wall Street 11  ; Jeremy Hammond, a political prisoner serving 10 years for exposing corporate surveillance emails through Wikileaks  12 ; and Brad Will, the Indymedia journalist murdered by right-wing Mexican paramilitaries in 2006  13 ; in other words, some of the best activists that the previous generation has had to offer, people that Gitlin and his ilk should be saluting, not demonizing.

Of course, the particulars of the Mission riot, and even of the general black bloc phenomenon, are secondary to Gitlin’s argument – he has it in for all militant actions regardless of context.  To demonstrate this for us, he leaps back to compare this recent incident to ones from forty years ago, when Gitlin was still involved with Students for a Democratic Society.

Gitlin writes that America has a “full history of planted agents at work turning small groups or movements in directions that, for better or far more often worse, they weren’t planning on going.  One well-documented case is that of ‘Tommy the Traveler,’ a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer who after years of trying to arouse violent action convinced two 19-year-old students to firebomb an ROTC headquarters at Hobart College in upstate New York.”   A sensational episode to be sure, but the key idea here is the provocateur who steers movements in directions “they weren’t planning on going.”  It turns out, however, that this incident happened in 1968, when much of the New Left was already escalating its militancy.  In that year, Howard Zinn chided liberals for their “easy and righteous dismissal of violence,” and counseled that “in the inevitable tension accompanying the transition from a violent world to a nonviolent one, the choice of means will almost never be pure, and will involve such complexities that the simple distinction between violence and nonviolence does not suffice as a guide.”  14   The militant turn had begun in October 1967, when violent clashes had erupted between anti-war protesters and police at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.15  A few weeks afterwards, Gitlin himself took part in an anti-war riot in Oakland (a riot which made the black bloc activity in 2012 seem restrained in comparison).16

The year 1968 pops up again in the piece when Gitlin mentions COINTELPRO records showing that, up until that date, the FBI took no focused interest in SDS.  This gives the professor a laugh because “Between 1960 and 1968…the New Left was becoming a formidable force in its own right.”  The period that Gitlin is valorizing here, of course, is the period when pacifism still had some small hold on the movement (unsurprisingly, it also overlaps with the period when young Todd Gitlin was president of SDS); but this doesn’t correlate with being “a formidable force,” in fact it correlates with the opposite.  As Gitlin himself once acknowledged, through the first half of the sixties SDS was essentially a junior liberal think tank that “was not known for doing anything on its own, either as a national group or (with few exceptions) in its chapters…this bullshit talk organization that put out a lot of smart working papers and talked a lot, but didn’t do anything.” 17 Small wonder the FBI had no action plan for a group that took so little action.

If Gitlin is today the most popular New Left figure in corporate media circles, it’s because he affirms the narrative of the 1960s that the media would like us to believe: In the beginning, a pacifist civil rights movement won great advancements for African-Americans and inspired a War on Poverty, and by mid-decade, was on its way to strengthening these accomplishments and, what’s more, to speedily ending the Vietnam War – then those spoiled baby boomers started indulging LSD-Red Guard-Oedipal fantasies of killing their parents, and derailed the movement into counterproductive violence.  This is what historian Andrew Hartman calls “the myth of ‘two sixties’ -– one good, one bad.” 18

Activists will never design good strategy on the basis of bad history.  The reality is that “the good sixties” civil rights movement was most successful when it operated with a de facto diversity of tactics.  Francis Fox Piven has noted that black progress only really occurred when “self-defense against white incursions escalated into black aggression against the symbols and agents of white domination – notably the white police, merchants, and landlords…

In 1961 and 1962, “freedom riders” and other activists were the targets of violence by whites in one place after another…By 1963 however, white aggression began to precipitate a black response, usually taking the form of mass rioting, as in Birmingham, Savannah, and Charleston.19

At times the 1963 clashes could be deadly: in Lexington, North Carolina, a white supremacist was killed after he attacked a sit-in. 20  In St. Augustine, Florida, a Ku Klux Klan nightrider was shot dead when he assaulted a black neighborhood  21  ; all of this took place in the year of “I have a dream” and JFK’s belated proposal of a civil rights bill.  Escalation continued the following year: “On March 24, 1964,” Piven reports, “blacks in Jacksonville Florida attacked the police, assaulted other whites, looted and damaged property, and introduced the use of Molotov cocktails – all this in the wake of court convictions of black sit-in participants.”  Two days later, Martin Luther King warned that should the civil rights bill be defeated, America would see a “dark night of social disruption” ; later that same day, Malcolm X – who often celebrated the Jacksonville riot in his speeches – shared a surprise embrace with King at the Capitol building. 22   As a long hot summer approached, the Civil Rights Act finally overcame the longest filibuster in American history.

Throughout the early sixties, most of SDS kept itself at arm’s length (or more) from the black grassroots that initiated such militant activity.  Finally, in mid-1964, the students launched the Economic Research and Action Programs (ERAP), with the intention of organizing both poor whites and poor blacks for economic justice.  For the sake of efficiency, however, it ended up doing most of its work in the ghettoes, as this was where impoverishment was most concentrated.  The results were a failure by most accounts, with Gitlin noting in his memoirs that by 1967 it was clear that “ERAP’s much-touted ‘interracial movement of the poor’ was not materializing…To win the simplest reforms— housing repairs, a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, more money for welfare recipients and their children than 22 cents per meal (the Chicago rate)— proved Herculean.” 23 Activists also noticed that where empowerment of the poor did emerge, it had little to do with nonviolence or professional organizing; ERAP organizer and SDS co-founder Tom Hayden experienced the Newark riot of 1967 up close and wrote an admiring cover story – illustrated with a sketch of a Molotov cocktail – for The New York Review of Books:

The riot was more effective against gouging merchants than organized protest had ever been. The year before a survey was started to check on merchants who weighted their scales. The survey collapsed because of disinterest: people needed power, not proof… During the rebellion People felt as though for a moment they were creating a community of their own…While the conservative is hostile and the liberal generous toward those who riot, both assume that the riot is a form of less-than-civilized behavior…Against these two fundamentally similar concepts, a third one must be asserted, the concept that a riot represents people making history.  24

In his memoir, Gitlin also recalled Hayden’s keynote address to an SDS conference in Michigan that year, where he proposed that “rifle practice was the next step; we might need to know how to break off friendships and become urban guerrillas.”  Unless Gitlin thinks Hayden is an FBI agent, then it seems the turn towards militancy can’t be laid at the feet of any paid provocateur.

But still, the conventional wisdom says, surely militants are more likely to be police agents than any other type of activist.  There is no solid evidence of this, however –  in fact, there’s evidence to the contrary.  Let’s recall that the first time Occupiers were charged with felonies in a police sting, it was actually for nonviolent 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 distinctive bushy beard and had been with Occupy Austin “since probably the beginning.”  25

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 both the abuse and the war.  In the Bay at least, 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 a 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.”  They 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 May march away from the police station in order to avoid confrontation.  The undercovers accomplished that goal “smoothly” and the police department publicly lauded the protest as a success.  The ACLU, who 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. 26

“Who casts the first stone?” Gitlin rhetorically asks us in his article. “How many demonstrations are being poked and prodded by violent undercover agents?”  It would do just as well to ask: how many nonviolent actions are being led by police agents as in Austin and Oakland?   And how many militant insurrections – of the sort that are making history from Brazil to Turkey (and which, in the case of this year’s East Flatbush riot, jumpstarted debate on police violence in New York City  27 ) – are being smothered at birth by cops posing as pacifists and moderates?

The point is not to repeat Gitlin’s scapegoating by singling out any particular tendency.  The hard truth is that police pose as pacifists, as street fighters, as photographers, as medics, as marshals, and as journalists.  In Great Britain it was recently revealed that the co-author of a Greenpeace pamphlet that resulted in a lengthy libel suit from McDonald’s was an undercover cop 28 – does this mean that writing pamphlets should now be presumed to be an agent provocateur activity?  It does under the paranoid logic that Gitlin promotes.

Politically active people absorb a lot of uncomfortable facts about the world; the reality that mass mobilization – all mass mobilization, nonviolent or otherwise – is vulnerable to infiltration is another one of those inevitable dangers you file in the back of your mind and move on from.  There is no shortcut around it; and it’s the height of cynicism for a writer to suggest he has such a shortcut and then substitute his own ancient prejudices.


  1. Todd Gitlin, “The Wonderful World of Informers and Agents Provocateurs”  –
  2. Naomi Klein “Review of ‘Letters to a Young Activist’” –
  3. Todd Gitlin “In Chicago, Throwing Down the Gauntlet”  –
  4. Todd Gitlin, “More than a protest movement” –
  6. Marie Mason, “Review of Battle of Seattle” –
  8. San Jose Mercury News, “Welcome to the New and Expanded Silicon Valley” –
  9. “Gentrification in San Franciso’s Mission District” –
  10. “Mark Zuckerberg buys pied a terre at hipster hood” –
  11. David Graeber, “Concerning the Violent Peace Police” –
  12. Janet Reitman, “The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Hammond, Enemy of the State” –  ; see also “Jeremy Hammond’s Electronic Civil Disobedience” –
  13. Sarah Ferguson, “The Inconvenient Death of Brad Will” –
  14. Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (Random House 1968, and South End Press 2002) p 39-44
  15. PBS American Experience – Two Days in October
  16. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Days of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam 1987) [ version, p242]
  17. Wesley Hogan, “How Democracy Travels: SNCC, Swarthmore Students and the Growth of the Student Movement in the North 1961-1964” –
  18. Andrew Hartman, “The Gay Sixties” –
  19. Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor (Random House 1971), p 238; Abel A. Bartley, Keeping the Faith: Race, Politics and Social Development in Jacksonville, 1940-1970 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), 111
  20. “Man Killed, Another Hurt in Race Riot,” Red Bank Registry (Lexington NC), June 7, 1963
  21. “St Augustine FL Movement – 1963”Civil Rights Movement Veterans website  –  ; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( ,1987), p 317
  22. For “dark night of social disruption” and MLK with Malcolm X, see Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., And the Laws That Changed America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), p126-130;  for Malcolm X on Jacksonville riot see “The Black Revolution” in Malcolm X Speaks (Grove Press, 1965) p 48, and the famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech of April 3, 1964.
  23. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties,[ version, p 218-219 ]
  24. Tom Hayden “The Occupation of Newark”  –
  25. “Infiltrating Occupy” Democracy Now
  26. “State of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of Political Activity in Northern & Central California A Report by the ACLU of Northern California”  Written by Mark Schlosberg, Police Practices Policy Director, July 2006  –
  27. Kathleen Horan, “What Does the Position of Inspector General Means for the NYPD?” –