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Jun 18, 20

Mapping the State’s Strategy of Repression Against the Rebellion

While the recent rebellion against the police and white supremacy has been historical, it has also been coupled by an attempt by the State to drown the uprising in a sea of tear-gas and rubber bullets. While demonstrations and actions continue, the State is now gearing up for a more long-term strategy of repression, as a vast network of FBI agents, attorneys, and local police comb through hours of footage and social media, looking for targets.

Already, over 10,000 people have been arrested across the so-called US and around 75 currently have federal charges; many of which carry extensive prison sentences. Moreover, there are reports of FBI door-knocks and visits to those that have recently been arrested. Often times people are being asked if they are involved in “antifa” while some are even propositioned with becoming informants.

As the Pentagon readies for the rebellions to come, its important for us to begin to map out and prepare a strategy of long-term movement defense of all rebels swept up during the uprising. Reaching out to our legal correspondent, we sat down to discuss just what is happening and what we can expect.

IGD: Broadly speaking, what has happened, repression wise, since the rebellion? We know that there has been a slew of federal charges and lots of door knocks by the FBI, can you talk about both? 

So much has happened. Across the country, police have unleashed incredible violence against protesters, rebels, journalists, and bystanders. Countless people have been arrested and are facing all sorts of state charges in local courts. I read that the number was over 10,000 arrests nationally.

Additionally, at least 74 people across the country are facing federal charges for their alleged roles in the uprisings. This is particularly concerning because federal charges tend to carry much more severe penalties than comparable state charges, and are less likely to get lenient plea bargains. So that’s 74 uprising participants who are facing very serious prison time, just in a couple weeks. Countless more people have been visited or contacted by federal agents, usually FBI or ATF but also Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, ICE, or DEA.

There’s a long history of this repression, especially against Black liberation movements and to a lesser extent anarchist movements. The FBI has always been a political police force. Their headquarters is named for J. Edgar Hoover who founded the FBI to fight communists and anarchists, and then orchestrated COINTELPRO to destroy the Black freedom movement for close to three decades. Crushing this uprising, this movement, is in their very DNA.

But the more we understand their repression, the better we can fight back against it. So I started compiling information about all the uprising-related federal prosecutions and sharing it with other people involved in legal support and anti-repression efforts around the country.

IGD: How are these investigations unfolding? What tactics and strategies are being used to identify people?

Most of the cases I first reviewed seemed like pretty low-hanging fruit, prosecutions of opportunity. But this week I’ve seen cases where the feds together with local law enforcement put in quite a bit of effort to investigate and identify people. One example was a case out of Philly where a woman is accused of burning two cop cars. The lengths they went to in order to connect this unidentified person at the protest to an identifiable person through online shopping records, social media accounts, promo videos from work, government and commercial databases, etc. surprised even me.

I think this is where we see a significant connection to the J20 inauguration prosecutions in 2017-2018. The government is willing to invest a lot of resources into scouring the internet for photos and videos from protests, analyzing them in excruciating detail to find any unique identifying features that they can, and then scouring social media and other sources for a match. This is the full weight of the surveillance state bearing down.

Other ways they’ve been able to allegedly identify people recently include:

  • cell phone location data to corroborate someone’s location at a given time
  • many people who were caught at or near the scene. 

We should also consider the possibility that the FBI is using illegal electronic surveillance of some sort to track and identify people, and then reverse engineering the identification so they don’t have to disclose the surveillance. We know this is a tactic that is sometimes used.

Another thing we’ve seen is rarely used federal laws from the 1960’s being used more widely. These are laws that were created specifically to criminalize and punish Black and indigenous resistance movements in particular, and other resistance movements generally.

One is the Anti-Riot Act, which was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 during the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Notably, part of the reasoning behind the federal Anti-Riot Act was the belief that “outside agitators” like H. Rap Brown (now Jalil Al-Amin) of SNCC were traveling state to state to incite riots. The law was sometimes even referred to as the “Rap Brown law.” So this is all a very old playbook in some respects. The law hadn’t been used much since the early 1970s, but then was recently tested against the neo-Nazi Rise Above Movement and is now being used in the George Floyd uprisings.

The other law is the Civil Disorder law, another product of 1968.  It’s a law that also hasn’t been used a whole lot historically. The two exceptions were against the American Indian Movement in the 1970s after the occupation of Wounded Knee, and then in 2016-2017 against indigenous Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Of the many hundreds of criminal cases that came out of Standing Rock, the only federal prosecutions were against indigenous people. Now, like the Anti-Riot Act, it is also being used against uprising participants.

IGD: Why are these charges coming from a federal level?

The biggest reason is that Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have taken a particular interest in the uprisings and promised a federal crack down. I assume each FBI field office in the country and each U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) got specific instructions to begin or intensify investigations around the uprisings and select appropriate cases for prosecution. The government has always reacted extremely harshly to Black resistance movements, both in the streets and in the courts.

Federal prosecution tends to carry much more significant penalties, and the feds have more resources to invest in the cases they select than do overburdened local prosecutors. So in terms of punishing people for rising up and fighting back against the racist police state, federal prosecutions are very effective for that.

Usually the feds pick cases for prosecution based on a variety of factors. Sometimes there is a particular federal interest. For example, one person is charged with destroying federal property for allegedly spray painting on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and in Oakland, two followers of the right-wing Boogaloo movement shot two Federal Protective Service officers (killing one) outside the federal courthouse, in close proximity to the protests.

Sometimes a case is exceptionally complex and only the feds have the resources to effectively investigate and prosecute it, such as big white collar crimes or complex organized crime cases.

Other factors tend to be a bit more political and arbitrary, such as wanting someone to face a particularly serious punishment based on their background or actions. A lot of the arson and Molotov cocktail cases fall in this category to some degree. The feds have always taken a keen interest in Molotov cocktail cases, whether or not the Molotovs are used.

Finally, there are those cases where they just want to send a message to the public–the legal equivalent of a shock and awe campaign. Anytime someone is prosecuted for political activities, this factor is somewhat, if not entirely, at play. Here we are seeing a lot of unexceptional crimes by unexceptional people that the feds have decided to make a public example of in retaliation for the rebellions. One person is charged with Civil Disorder and facing a sentence up to 5 years in prison for allegedly trying to push through police lines with his body and then going limp in an act of passive resistance when the police arrested him. This is piddly shit but the feds have decided this person needs to go to federal prison for a couple years. The only real purpose is collective intimidation.

Other examples are the feds charging Civil Disorder for allegedly throwing a brick through a police car window. In most places that would be a misdemeanor, but not in federal court. Another person supposedly threw a water bottle at police, then ran when police tried to apprehend him. When police tackled him, they supposedly found a concealed handgun and about 1g of marijuana. Now the feds are charging him with Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) which prohibits people who unlawfully use or are addicted to a controlled substance from possessing a firearm and carries a penalty up to 10 years in prison. Further reading about this statute here.

Even when the alleged conduct is more serious, the feds have been pursuing extraordinary punishments that do not seem at all commensurate with the conduct alleged. Two people in New York are facing potential sentences of 45 years to life for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail at an empty police car. Regardless of what you think about particular tactics, even the potential of a life sentence for one crispy cop car is ridiculous and draconian. But that’s exactly their point. 

Some people are surprised to learn that the feds are even allowed to prosecute these seemingly ordinary crimes. But the scope of federal prosecution expanded dramatically over the 20th century and can encompass almost anything now. If it involves interstate travel; facilities of interstate commerce (the internet, phones, interstate highways); items that pass in interstate commerce (literally everything these days); an entity that affects interstate commerce (again, almost anything); or targets an entity that receives any amount of federal funding (most police departments, local governments, universities, and many non-profits) some federal prosecutor can probably find a federal law that fits.

IGD: Attorney General Bill Barr, along with Trump, has made it a personal mission to push the ‘ANTIFA’ narrative, which is currently losing steam due to the FBI’s own reports, lack of evidence, and also the far-Right killing people left and right. What is your impression of the State’s rush to demonize anarchists and antifascists? 

This is the old trope that authorities always use to displace blame for popular rebellions. The specifics vary but the general narrative does not. It’s the classic “outside agitator” story, which was very popular during the Black freedom movement in the 1960s as well.  

Anarchists and antifascists make easy and politically convenient targets. Most people don’t know much about anarchism and the biggest connotation for it is scary: violence, chaos, disorder. Also, anarchists and antifascists have been a thorn in the side of the far-right, if not the Trump regime itself, for quite a while. Blaming “antifa” has been a central talking point for Trump’s base for at least three years now. So he gets approval from them and doesn’t risk anything.

IGD: In released documents, the FBI stated that they found no evidence of ‘ANTIFA’ involvement in the rioting on May 31, one of the most intense nights of the riots and subsequent reports have ruled the same thing. At the same time, we hear of more and more door knocks by the FBI. We also hear of people being asked about their thoughts on ‘fascism’ and if they identify as ‘antifa.’ What do we make if this seemingly contradictory evidence? 

In the minds of the Justice Department flunkies, just because they haven’t found any evidence doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t exist; they just have to go find it! So they are shaking trees and seeing what falls out. If they can’t find the evidence of antifascist involvement, it’s likely they will manufacture some evidence. We should expect and prepare for more and escalating federal harassment and surveillance for a while. We should also expect and prepare for grand jury subpoenas.

IGD: Door knocks are becoming more and more of a fact of life. How should we view these encounters from the vantage point of the FBI? What are they hoping to get out of them; what messages are they looking to send, if at all?

Door knocks serve several purposes. First, despite all our efforts, sometimes people talk, and the FBI is very accustomed to having people talk to them. A not insignificant number of the uprising cases currently being prosecuted by the feds involve people who allegedly gave incriminating statements to the FBI after being told they have the right to remain silent and to an attorney.

The FBI has a few goals when talking to people. Sometimes they want specific information about a specific crime. It might even be information they already know and just want to hear you say it so they can hang you with it later. Other times they are just gathering general intelligence about movements, stuff they can use as background or leads for other investigations, vulnerabilities they can exploit, key points they can target. Creating social maps of people’s relationships and dynamics is extremely useful in campaigns of repression. The more they know the more effective they are.

Second, even when people don’t talk, they are still gathering intelligence. Who seemed confident and who seemed scared? Who lawyers up and who doesn’t? Who publicizes the visit and who doesn’t? What did they see in your house from the front window or in the second you opened the door before you realized it was the FBI? (Pro tip: FBI agents don’t usually look like Mulder and Skully from the X-Files; it’s a lot more un-tucked golf shirts and khakis, jeans, or cargo pants.)

Finally, they are intimidating people and disrupting lives. FBI knocks are scary and stressful and disruptive; even more so if they visit you at work or go to a family member’s house. Some people will take fewer risks if they believe the feds are watching. Some might step away from their movements or political communities altogether, either temporarily or permanently. Sometimes people get paranoid, not just about the FBI but about who around them might be careless or malicious and talk. All this can have a serious chilling effect on movement activity. They want us to police ourselves.

IGD: With doors knocks, what should people do if this happens to them? And what do you hear about people doing wrong that they shouldn’t? 

Most importantly do NOT let them in and do NOT answer questions or talk to them!

There’s a lot of resources out there, some of which get into a lot of detail, so I’ll just cover the basics here.

First, you are not required to answer the door (but if they are serving a warrant and you don’t answer they will kick your door in).

If you do answer, it is best to step outside and close your door behind you.

However you come face to face with an agent or officer of any sort (at home or work, in your car, in a jail interview room), it is very important that you say “I am not going to answer questions. I want to speak to a lawyer.” This invokes your legal rights. You don’t need to have a lawyer already to ask to speak to one.

They might threaten you, intimidate you, lie to you, pretend to be your friend or want to help, tell you your friends already snitched, show you incriminating evidence, show you exculpatory evidence, literally anything under the sun that they think might get you to talk. They might even physically abuse you. But it’s very important that the only words that ever leave your lips are “I am not going to answer questions. I want to speak to a lawyer.” You can’t talk your way out of trouble but you can talk your way into a lot trouble.

If they ask to search or “take a look” in your house, car, trunk, backpack, shed, purse, pocket, wallet, or anything else, say “No, I do not consent to a search.”  Repeat as necessary.

If they have a warrant, you can ask to see it and inspect it (like in those ACLU Know Your Rights trainings), but in all likelihood, they probably already have you in handcuffs with a couple guns pointed at you and are yelling commands. So mostly try to just stay cool and get your wits about you and say “I am not going to answer questions. I want to speak to a lawyer.”

If they serve you a subpoena, take it. Listen to whatever they have to say (or don’t! you’re not required to talk OR listen!). Wait for them to leave and then go back inside and lawyer up.

A nearby chapter of the National Lawyers Guild or a local anti-repression group might be able to help you find a lawyer. If that doesn’t exist where you are, you can review local attorney websites to see who seems more social justice oriented, or just start calling around and asking.

I recommend never physically resisting or interfering in any way, because it will likely just make your situation worse. Just say over and over, “I am not going to answer questions. I want to speak to a lawyer. I do not consent to a search.”

Also, don’t keep the visit a secret. I recommend being at least semi-public about it. If people find out you got visited and didn’t tell anyone, they will be suspicious of you. People also need to know so they can prepare and protect themselves. Perhaps there’s information you all can gain from connecting the dots about the FBI’s investigation. Their investigations thrive in secrecy, darkness, and isolation. Our weapons are solidarity, transparency, and support, but we can’t do that if people keep these things to themselves.

IGD: Will far-Right actors such as the “Boogaloo Boys” killing police officers push attention more towards the far-Right, or this simply doesn’t matter?

We’ve already seen two high profile prosecutions for right-wing Boogaloo types coming out of the uprising. This is on the heels of the prosecutions against neo-Nazi groups Attomwaffen Division and The Base earlier this year. We’ve also seen unprecedented numbers of prosecutions of police officers recently. This will likely continue for a while, but the legitimacy the government gains, especially among liberals, from these prosecutions will inevitably be weaponized against our movements even harder.

For example, a year ago we talked about the federal prosecution of the neo-Nazi Rise Above Movement (RAM) under the Anti-Riot Act for their actions in Charlottesville. But now we are seeing the same Anti-Riot Act being used against at least six uprising participants. 

IGD: Assuming Trump is not elected in 2020 and Barr is removed as the Attorney General, what does that mean for any potential cases? 

Honestly, probably not much. Some people might get better plea deals. But a lot of federal cases could likely resolve before then (federal criminal cases tend to move a little faster). Even the ones that don’t resolve I would not expect to be dramatically affected by a new AG.

IGD: Does the popularity of the BLM movement and growing anger at police have any bearing over what the State thinks it can get away with? 

This moment feels rather unprecedented in a lot of ways, at least in my lifetime. I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to the 1960s. I can’t think of another social movement or uprising since then that has had this much widespread resonance, especially so quickly. We do know that, historically, public support for the people facing charges can help improve their outcomes.

Unfortunately, federal prosecutions remain more insulated from this popular sentiment. Unlike most local prosecutors who are elected, U.S. Attorneys are appointed so they are insulated from the political winds insofar as the president and Attorney General are backing them (and I don’t expect either of them to soften). Also, federal districts are much larger than individual counties and so draw a larger jury pool that includes more conservative suburban and rural areas.

IGD: Do you foresee the government pulling something like at the J20 inauguration protests and attempting to create some elaborate web of charges? 

The crux of the J20 prosecution was collective culpability based on mere presence at this one march. It didn’t matter if you were a journalist, medic, legal observer, bystander; if they thought you were involved in that march in any way, you were seen as guilty for the property destruction that happened.

But J20 was a disaster for the government. It was extremely costly for us too in a variety of ways. But legally and politically, we won that fight. So I don’t expect them to want a rematch just yet, especially when the political momentum is already against them.

Additionally, I think they can exact an equal or greater toll with a lot of selective, targeted prosecutions that are successful. Already our movement is faced with dozens of new political prisoners just in the federal system, some of whom could be doing significant time. So we are already looking at a huge and long term support effort for a lot of people all over the country. It’s honestly a little overwhelming.

IGD: What should we be doing in terms of getting ready for repression? What should our strategy be?

Here are some suggestions for building collective resiliency and resisting repression. If everyone takes a couple small steps in the right direction with this stuff, it can have a big impact.

Please, please, PLEASE stop posting photos and videos of protests publicly on the internet and social media. At the very least make it private. Those videos, pictures, and posts are sending people to prison, and it might be you or someone you care about next. Even the photos “away from action” are being used to identify people. It’s not too late to take stuff down or at minimum make your account private.

Next, don’t panic. Repression is scary, but it’s not new and we can fight back. It’s important to make a sober, honest assessment of your risks and vulnerabilities. This can be hard because once you start looking you can see risk and vulnerability everywhere. So it’s important to take a step back and keep perspective on things. Radical change is inherently unsafe, but there’s always reasonable things we can do to mitigate risks.

Related, I think education is incredibly important, for ourselves, the people around us, and our movements as a whole. Learning about the history of repression and how our movements have fought back can teach us valuable lessons and perspective. Educating ourselves and each other about what to do in certain scenarios is vital. It’s one way to emotionally prepare for repression.

It sounds silly but actually role playing a FBI visit or interrogation with your friends, family, or roommates can be really helpful. It’s one thing to read a meme about not talking to police, but it’s another to actually do it. Practice makes perfect.

It’s also helpful to study the cases of people who got caught. What did they do? How did they get caught? What tactics did the cops and FBI use? There’s a lot of lessons you can learn from it. It also helps demystify the FBI and federal prosecutions.

I’m really interested and curious about how to spread this education more widely. We’ve seen recently that all sorts of participants in the uprisings have quickly learned tactics for how to deal with chemical weapons. How do we disseminate anti-repression education just as widely?

In all our work, anti-repression or otherwise, we must prioritize care. State repression is a form of abuse and can cause similar emotional and physical reactions in people. We can’t resist the state and build a new world if we can’t take care of each other along the way, emotionally, materially, politically. Always ask people what they need and want. Get creative. Mobilize sympathetic people who are looking for ways to plug in.

Probably the biggest task is building strong networks of solidarity, even with liberals when possible. This is a long-term project and there are no shortcuts. Be trustworthy, up front, and consistent. Be humble and patient. Don’t compromise your principles but don’t draw yourself into a corner with hard lines. Avoid spreading rumors and conspiracy theories. The more you can build these relationships before the repression hits the better. But it’s never too late to start working on it either.

Usually the most obvious thing is to organize legal resources like raising money for bail and legal fees and mobilizing sympathetic lawyers. But the behind the scenes support infrastructure is just as important: the jail support, the prisoner support, the court support, the public support campaign. The best support doesn’t usually come from legal professionals or activist experts but rather your friends, family, comrades.

Write to political prisoners. If you haven’t before, read up on some guidelines about how to do it in a way that is safe for you and them. They are in there for us, we are out here for them.

Finally, I recommend making a really good anti-repression playlist. Many years ago my friend told me that Rhianna’s hit song “Umbrella” is actually about supporting your friends when they are facing grand jury subpoenas and federal investigations. That song has helped me through a lot of hard times ever since. But find what works for you.

IGD: Anything else?

We are stronger than they are and have a lot of history and momentum behind us. Keep fighting and find ways to retake the initiative. As Chelsea Manning says, we got this!

Resources

Legal Rights and Legal Support:

Tech and Social Media:

Building Resilience in Face of Repression:

History of Repression:

Groups:

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It’s Going Down is a digital community center from anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements. Our mission is to provide a resilient platform to publicize and promote revolutionary theory and action.

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