Anarchism, Violence, and Brandon Darby’s Politics of Moral Certitude BY MJ ESSEX
Ultimately, Brandon Darby explains his full and final betrayal of friends and fellow organizers as a moral issue. The invitation to meet FARC leadership, his realization that Common Ground was “undermining” the US government, that his colleagues were making dangerous alliances with the “Ayatollah,” the elder Black Panthers giving Common Ground and other organizations long-term vision; he seems to be concluding that it was all misguided, serving only to create unnecessary violence in the world.
Recently Darby has made statements to the press concerning his love for his country, his alliance with the FBI and state, and against anyone who would do harm to his patria. If we are to believe his tale as it has been told through the corporate and state media, then in the end Darby, like most Americans, is simply a terrified authoritarian. Sadly, this is the most conciliatory thing that can be said about him. In bad faith he has fled from the ambiguity of freedom and the inner struggle required to assess each and every act of violence or nonviolence, justice or injustice, within the wider field of already occurring violence and injustice. He has sought out moral certitude in the authority of the state, through an alliance with the FBI. No statement of his better sums up this retreat from the ambiguity of freedom than this bizarre piece of advice to those seeking social justice: “I’ve watched countless activists begin to work in the Legislature and begin to do things that participate in the system; we have a system that is wide open for our involvement. You can get involved and have a say so; if you disagree with the way our city is run, you can get involved. If you have an ideological bent that’s on social justice, you can become a law enforcement officer, you can get involved with the FBI, or a lawyer.”
Darby justifies his work as an informant by explaining that he was out to stop two young men from possibly doing harm to someone, from doing violence during the protest against the Republican National Convention. As a contingency plan, after their shields had been confiscated by the police (due to a tip from Darby actually), McKay and Crowder had fashioned several Molotovs and planned to burn out police cars in a parking lot. According to trial documents acquired by the RNC Felony Working Group, Darby conferred with McKay about the plans:
Darby says he warned McKay of the consequences of using the Molotovs during this conversation, saying (to paraphrase in brief) “you have to be willing to go to prison for a long time if you get caught. I am a revolutionary but I don’t think there is any shame in backing out now and I wouldn’t tell anyone that you backed out.” Darby says McKay claimed he still wanted to use them. Darby says he asked McKay, “What if an officer gets hurt?” to which McKay responded “It’s worth it if an officer gets hurt.”
Moral Clarity and Violence?
This acceptance of an undesired hypothetical proposed by Darby was enough to send McKay to jail, along with Crowder, enough to malign the entire dominant narrative about the anti-RNC protests for those millions of Americans who simply digested it on the evening news, and enough to plant in the heads of millions of Americans reading stories about the Texas Two that “anarchy” is solely about violence and recklessness. Darby explains himself after the fact, saying “one morning, I woke up and realized that I disagree with the group I was associating with as much as I disagree with the Republican Party.” He has even implied that his actions were to defend the rights of Republicans and “peaceful protestors” to gather in St. Paul for the RNC and to express themselves through their constitutional rights. While McKay and Crowder never sought to kill or harm anyone, just to destroy police cruisers, they have been vilified along with the radical antiauthoritarian politics of justice they represent, their names and faces flashed across TV screens and in newspapers from coast to coast as examples of the enemy within.
All of which brings us to the question of violence and morality. Alexander Berkman, a brilliant and brave organizer, a thinker and direct actionist who once attempted to kill a man of great wealth and authority with his own hands, wrote up this possible exchange between an authoritarian and a radical to try to inject some clarity into the subject of political violence:
“Yes, Anarchists have thrown bombs and have sometimes resorted to violence.
“There you are!” your friend exclaims. “I thought so.”
But do not let us be hasty. If Anarchists have sometimes employed violence, does it necessarily mean that Anarchism means violence?
Ask yourself this question and try to answer it honestly.
When a citizen puts on a soldier’s uniform, he may have to throw bombs and use violence.
Will you say, then, that citizenship stands for bombs and violence?
You will indignantly resent the imputation.
It simply means, you will reply, that under certain conditions a man may have to resort to violence. The man may happen to be a Democrat, a Monarchist, a Socialist, Bolshevik, or Anarchist. You will find that this applies to all men and to all times.
Just what these conditions are is up to each and every individual to decide. This is the daunting freedom and discomfort of anarchism. When one becomes a “citizen,” even an agent of the state, as Darby has done, she or he in-effect makes a choice to no longer have to make choices. Now they can simply take orders, march in line, fire on command, and tune-in to the news at 10 where the corporate media presents parables like the case of the terrible Texas Two.
The Republican Party held its convention and at last count the only serious violence that occurred was police brutality against demonstrators. Of course the authoritarian will argue that there might have been more like McKay and Crowder who without the intervention of the brave FBI would have done harm to someone, somehow. But even if demonstrators had rushed police barricades, burned out police cars, stormed the convention and shut it down, even if they had gone so far as to physically attack, perhaps even kill some of those Republican Party bosses in attendance, particularly those in the party’s uppermost ranks who have more or less run the federal government from 2000 to 2008, how would this violence morally compare to that which the Republican (and Democrat)- controlled United States of America has been visiting upon Iraq and Afghanistan during this span of time? How would it morally compare to the torture operations, the secrete prison network, the extraordinary renditions, the assassinations, the firing of missiles and “collateral” killing of civilians in North Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere? Is it equivalent? If it is different, how so? How is it different beyond the mere illusion of legitimacy provided by the state so that these murderers could gather last summer in Minnesota to nominate their next war president?
Keep in mind again that Mckay and Crowder intended to do nothing remotely approaching these hypotheticals. Their goal seems to have been to destroy police property as revenge against the police confiscation of a trailer filled with shields to protect RNC protesters from police assault.
Nevertheless, how would this hypothetical violence against the Republican Party’s leadership compare to the massive violence they are responsible for through the weapons manufacturing companies they own (the majority of military contracting corporations are owned and operated by men who donate huge sums to the RNC, and sometimes take leaves of absence to run for office through the Party, e.g. George H.W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Don Rumsfeld. et al.). How would it compare to the federal, state, and increasingly private prison systems they operate (which disproportionately lock up people of color, especially blacks); the huge transnational energy and mining corporations they own and operate and which are responsible for unthinkable ecological crimes and human rights abuses, from the Gulf Coast to Nigeria and Indonesia (again, another pair of industries strongly aligned with the RNC)?
What about the violence McKay and Crowder now face from guards and inmates, the “people who will ass-rape us,” as Darby described it to McKay and Crowder during one conversation? in which he During the same interchange he also teased them as “tofu-eaters,” and told them point blank: “I’m going to shut this fucker [RNC] down […] any group I go with will be successful. [The] process is developed by working together, not by sitting down like lawyers to work it out first.” Darby said he “wasn’t there to fuck around — direct action is intense, and we can all expect to have violence used against us.” What about that violence?
One of the twisted lessons of Darby’s parable is that that violence is excused and ignored because it is state violence. All state violence, were are to believe, has moral authority. Anyone who accepts their freedom and responsibility to treat all others as beings with rights cannot accept this position, however. Anarchism doesn’t offer moral certitude or eternal comfort in one’s choices. It demands the recognition of ambiguity, complexity, contradiction, and the flux of life. It requires that each and every individual make their own ethical judgments, not to seek comfort in the morality of authority.
Antiauthoritarianism offers a collective way of coming to moral consensus, or not, which stands counterposed to the state’s forceful hegemony. As violent as it is, bending to the state’s demand for legitimacy, its Weberian core (the state being an entity which proclaims the sole legitimate use of force in a given territory) produces a feeling of comfort and assuredness in those who obey. If it is anything, anarchism is a most uncomfortable and burdensome ethic because it gives us all freedom, and excuses no act of violence, whether it is perpetrated by the state, or a “terrorist.” All harm is harm. We are already born into a world of incredible violence. Most violence is in support of upholding ongoing structures of oppression. To choose freedom and make ethical choices in this kind of world is inherently antiauthoritarian and daunting.
A major significance of the Katrina crisis for anarchist theories and practices has been the multiple, complex, and often contradictory experiences of people organizing in this context. What can these experiences can teach us about liberation? What went wrong? What did we do right? Where did we fail to build solidarity and where did we succeed? In what ways did we successfully respond to the state’s omissions, its violence, or to the predatory behaviors of urban capitalism? And how did we respond to our own failures, our own acts of oppression and aggression?
The world is a complicated and contradictory reality of already existing forms of violence, oppression, suffering, all sedimented in durable sets of power relations in which we must act. While anarchists act toward common ideals, there are few self-identified anarchist who are utopian enough to believe that we can all agree on this end goal, or even if we could, that it would ever be reached. Most self-identified anarchists I have met in New Orleans are like those I know across the United States: they don’t believe in unity around an end goal. They recognize that utopian visions are more often than not components of authoritarian projects that justify violence in the name of “order” and “progress.” They recognize the dreams of capitalist globalization and liberal democracy as possessing these imposing agendas, not unlike other political philosophies or projects that seek to create unity under state government, or one capitalist market.
Of utmost importance, anarchism offers no ultimate moral clarity for us to discover what needs doing, how it must be done, and why. Instead, it offers a political philosophy of freedom and responsibility to act against the organized forms of authoritarian violence and hierarchical oppression of the state, capital, patriarchy, and white supremacy. If it is anything, anarchism is a skepticism of concentrated power and authority and a creative exploration of increasingly egalitarian and free forms of relating to one another through cooperation. It requires humility and agnosticism to questions of what is ultimately right and moral. Instead, it challenges us to incessantly search for better means and ends, knowing that the search, the process itself is joyful and painful.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, anarchist truths found fertile, if toxic grounds to take root and grow in. New paths were walked on. Antiauthoritarian principles both emerged as an important guide for reconstruction and the struggle against disaster capitalism. A million or more equally important stories can now be told about mutual aid, cooperation, subversion of authority, disruption of state and capitalist plans. And yet Brandon Darby’s morality tale has become a media darling, due in no small part to his perfect and full adoption of his role as a state agent, regardless of whether it was official in 2006, or whether the FBI is still cutting him paychecks. We owe it to ourselves to tell these other stories of New Orleans, St. Paul, and beyond.