Police infiltration—a tactic of political repression—is on the rise in the twenty-first century

Police infiltration of political dissidents—one indicator of society’s failure to adhere to basic democratic principles—is on the rise in the twenty-first century and shows no signs of letting up.

Infiltration of political movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street illustrates the extent to which law enforcement will go in their efforts not just to seek information, but also to aggressively disrupt political organizing.

Almost as disconcerting as the routine police infiltration that occurs without any probable cause is the normalization of such tactics and how they can be carried out with the tacit approval of the public.

Historic curtailment of infiltration and other repressive tactics

Not that long ago, Americans favored curtailing police infiltration of political groups and similar tactics. After the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO)  was revealed to the public in 1971, the reaction was a rejection of politically-motivated infiltration and disruption.

In the ensuing years, U.S. Senator Frank Church helped spur reforms that curbed some of the more aggressive enforcement practices used against political dissidents. This wave of reform, though limited in scope, included the legendary “Red Squad” Consent Decree in Chicago and the Handschu decision in New York City, widely considered bulwarks against political repression.

However, with the Church Committee having mostly faded from our collective political memory, and with protections against police abuse being routinely eviscerated in the name of “counter-terrorism,” Americans commonly (and mistakenly) blame 9/11, a cataclysmic event that forced us to concede our civil liberties.

9/11 became the excuse but not the true cause of increasingly aggressive policing practices

While we certainly live in a different world today—one in which the police have virtually no constraints—the repressive playbook used by law enforcement was, in fact, developed long before 9/11.

As the Global Justice movement was building steam, law enforcement quickly became fed up with ceding control of the streets to activists (most notably in Seattle) and a set of tactics was set in motion by Philadelphia Police Commissioner and notorious anti-free speech cop John Timoney during the 2000 Republican convention.

Infiltration became an important tactic in the policing playbook, but the array of politically repressive practices also included warrantless stops and searches, interrogations, preemptive raids, extremely violent crowd control techniques (pepper spray, tear gas, tasers, rubber and wooden bullets, bean bags, concussion grenades, and brute force), mass arrests, prohibitively high bails, and malicious prosecution.

Even though Philadelphia was (and still is) prevented by a Mayoral Directive from infiltrating political groups without the express permission of the mayor, managing director and police commissioner, in 2000 the Pennsylvania State Patrol infiltrated and gathered “intelligence” that was then used by city police to preemptively raid a puppet-making warehouse in West Philadelphia. You can read more about the widespread infiltration in Philadelphia as well as other examples of this repressive tactic in Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000 (PM Press).

Timoney then went on to become Miami Police Chief, overseeing one of the most violent crackdowns against political protest in recent memory. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz heralded the police response to the November 2003 protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas as a “model for homeland defense,” coining Timoney’s method of policing political protest as the “Miami Model.”

By 2003, the Global Justice movement was in decline and we had started bombing Iraq. Threatened by antiwar activists, local, state and federal law enforcement began engaging in rampant spying and infiltration.

Republican convention protests as case study of rampant infiltration

The early 2000s saw the rise and ubiquitous use of infiltration across many social change movements, but repeated use of the tactic at Republican National Conventions (RNCs) offers us an interesting case study.

Before the 2004 RNC, New York Police Department (NYPD) officers travelled to cities across the U.S., Canada and Europe to spy on people who planned to protest at the convention. “From Albuquerque to Montreal, San Francisco to Miami, undercover New York police officers attended meetings of political groups, posing as sympathizers or fellow activists,” according to the New York Times. “They made friends, shared meals, swapped e-mail messages and then filed daily reports with the department’s Intelligence Division.”

The New York Times further stated the NYPD “chronicled the views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law,” including “members of street theater companies, church groups and antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people opposed to the death penalty, globalization and other government policies.” Undercover police were also observed among protesters in the streets sometimes acting as agents provocateurs.

Prior to the 2008 RNC, FBI informant Andrew C. Darst (also known as Andy Panda) infiltrated the RNC Welcoming Committee and gathered information ostensibly used to raid multiple political activists’ homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Around the same time, an FBI agent known only as “Karen Sullivan” began infiltrating the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee as it was planning for nonviolent protests at the RNC.

Sullivan maintained her undercover status long after the RNC was over in order to disrupt a 2009 solidarity trip to Palestine and to facilitate the 2010 FBI raids on members of the Anti-War Committee and Freedom Road Socialist Organization. Brandon Darby, the well-known co-founder of Common Ground Relief in New Orleans, helped the FBI infiltrate, entrap, convict and imprison two fellow Texas activists during the RNC 2008 protests.

The RNC 2012 saw far smaller demonstrations than previous conventions, but this didn’t stop law enforcement from engaging in repressive tactics. In addition to massive shows of force and use of fencing and barricades that severely restricted pedestrian and vehicular flow in the city, the police also used infiltration to disrupt political groups.

Not only did the police in Tampa make “widespread use of undercover operatives to gather intelligence,” according to Cleveland.com, but Tampa Police Major Marc Hamlin bragged at a recent “security” conference in Cleveland that the “organizational structure [of protesters] was extremely weak,” allowing undercover officers to infiltrate and “take over” the protest organization.

What’s next?

As we approach the 2016 RNC in Cleveland, the Movement for Black Lives is being subjected to infiltration and other aggressive police tactics. Unsurprisingly, protesters and political organizers live with the expectation that undercover police will be embedded in planning meetings and other political gatherings. If police can infiltrate and take over protest organizations with full impunity and with no call for accountability from the public, what’s next?

Unless and until we adequately resist the normalization of police infiltration and push back against such repressive tactics, we will be incapable of fully exercising free expression against the policies and practices of the state.