Grounds for Suspicion
A cofounder of the Katrina relief organization Common Ground is revealed as an FBI informant, leaving members angry and wary.
By David Winkler-Schmit
Brandon Darby, who helped found Common Ground with Malik Rahim and Scott Crow, confirms he is an FBI informant. This photo was taken in 2006.
Photo by Ann Harkness
Brandon Darby is proud of his work in New Orleans. As one of the cofounders of the organization Common Ground, formed in the days after Katrina and the levee failures, he and the group's volunteers were among the first to distribute water, food and essential supplies. In the months after the storm, Darby, along with hundreds of Common Ground organizers and volunteers, established health clinics in the city, provided legal services and gutted homes.
And, at some point, Brandon Darby once a self-proclaimed anarchist who advocated for overthrow of the U.S. government became an informant for the FBI.
That much is public record. But when Darby became an informant and whether he was keeping tabs on Common Ground for the federal government is still a mystery.
When Malik Rahim found out Brandon Darby was an FBI informant, "It broke my heart," he says. Rahim, a New Orleans community organizer, former Black Panther and recent Green Party candidate for the U.S. Congress, formed Common Ground with Darby and Scott Crow, activists from Austin, Texas, on Sept. 5, 2005, less than a week after the levee failures. Headquartered in Rahim's house in Algiers, Common Ground became one of the first large-scale, nongovernmental relief efforts and has had more than 22,000 volunteers work for it since.
Darby, who says he was "very radical" when Common Ground started, served as the organization's interim director, but left when he became disillusioned with some of the group's anti-government leanings. According to him, he was approached by the FBI in late 2007 and asked to infiltrate a group of Austin activists planning to disrupt the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Minneapolis, Minn. Based on information Darby provided, FBI agents arrested and charged two men in a plot to firebomb a parking lot. One of the suspects, Bradley Crowder, has pleaded guilty, and the other suspect, David McKay, is scheduled for trial this month. (In an article by David Hanners in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Darby said he contacted the FBI because activists were planning violence; however, in a more recent interview with The Gambit, Darby claimed the FBI approached him and insisted "The investigation wasn't into a threat of violence."
Darby says he didn't start working with the FBI until November 2007, but Rahim and Crow suspect his spying began as early as the founding of Common Ground. Darby denies this, and says Common Ground has never been the focus of an investigation, though he adds, "However, because (Common Ground) is a large organization and there are a lot of people who have sometimes come through just like any other organization who may or may not be wrapped up in a separate investigation, then it's not like investigating on [sic] Common Ground people."
Darby had an off-again, on-again history with the group he helped found. When he first arrived in New Orleans from Austin, he was an anarchist and believed in the overthrow of the government. His views changed, he says, as the community began to accept the organization and he started to feel he could work with the government and not against it. When he left New Orleans for Austin in early 2006, he was at odds with some of those in Common Ground, but says he was asked to return in November 2006 as the group's interim director.
His tenure didn't last long. Lisa Fithian, an Austin activist and early Common Ground organizer who left the group in October 2006, says she began hearing numerous complaints from personnel about Darby in December, only weeks after he took his new position. Fithian says many volunteers described Darby as a divisive force pitting people against one another, carrying guns, verbally abusing women and purging the volunteer ranks of those who didn't agree with his methods and the organization started to fall apart.
Fithian returned to New Orleans in January 2007 for an emergency meeting of Common Ground leaders. She says Darby screamed at her and Crow during the meeting and accused them of conspiring against him.
"Man," Fithian recalls telling a friend, "this guy's not only crazy, but this is COINTELPRO."
Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in 1956. It was intended to undermine dissident political organizations by using covert operations to, as Hoover's directive stated, "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize." Bureau agents used the tactics against groups including the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, women's liberation organizations and Vietnam War protest groups and used counterintelligence techniques in order to degrade members, spread false rumors, harass and prevent exercise of the First Amendment rights of speech and association.
The program's activities were exposed in 1971, and the U.S. Senate's Church Committee, named for chairman Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), held hearings on COINTELPRO. After studying more than 20,000 pages of FBI documents and testimony from agents and the program's targets, the committee concluded in its report: "Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that. The unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order."
Although COINTELPRO was officially terminated in 1971, many activists, including Crow, Rahim and Fithian, believe the FBI still employs similar tactics.
Scott Crow (left) and Brandon Darby were photographed together on Nov. 3, 2007, at a party in Austin hosted by KUT Radio.
(The Gambit asked the FBI's New Orleans field office if Common Ground Relief was being investigated. Spokesperson Sheila Thorne says the FBI will not announce an investigation until there is something in a public record, or until a suspect has been charged.)
Crow and Fithian now believe Darby was an FBI informant since at least early 2006, a charge he denies. Darby dismisses Fithian's accusations of undermining Common Ground, and says he worked as an FBI informant for less than two years. He won't elaborate on whom he's informed, but he offers a rationale, which ironically uses the First Amendment to justify the FBI's involvement: "Any time a group of people get together and organize with an expressed intent, a publicly expressed intent, to prevent other people from exercising their constitutional right to assemble and say they're going to stop it by any means necessary, it is the responsibility of the federal government to look into it."
Fithian and Crow are members of the Austin Informant Working Group, an Austin-based group of community organizers. The group has examined 74 pages of FBI documents pertaining to Darby's informing, and Fithian says the documents prove Darby reported on conversations she and Darby held while they both still worked with Common Ground. She adds she was involved in the RNC protests, but did nothing illegal.
When accusations of Darby's involvement first surfaced, Crow confronted Darby, who said he didn't want to talk about it. When Crow asked again, Darby admits he lied and said the rumors were false. Today, he won't say whether or not he informed on Crow, but he does say his former friend was indirectly involved in the RNC protest.
"I don't have that much to say about him," Darby says. "Some of his views are a little concerning, but I don't consider him a violent person."
Now that Darby's role in the arrests of Browder and McKay has been confirmed, Crow is looking back at the three years since Hurricane Katrina and says he finds it unusual that he a self-proclaimed anarchist for 20 years wasn't considered a public threat until he became a part of Common Ground. He points to a specific example.
For a number of years, Crow was on the approved visiting list for Herman Wallace, who, along with two other prisoners, was accused in the 1972 stabbing of an Angola guard. Wallace was convicted and has spent three decades in solitary confinement. In September 2006, Crow received a letter from the prison saying his name had been removed from the approved visitors list because of information from an outside law enforcement agency.
Nick Trenticosta, Wallace's attorney, says there was a hearing that month about Wallace's incarceration, and due to security concerns, a judge decided to hold the hearing in the prison instead of a Baton Rouge courthouse. Prior to the hearing, Trenticosta says, he was shown a document stating the FBI provided information of potential trouble at the hearing. The reason given was that Crow had recently purchased a rifle. When the hearing was held, supporters weren't allowed in and SWAT teams were posted outside, something Trenticosta believes is directly related to Darby's informing: "There's not a chance that the ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) would have flagged Scott Crow buying a rifle," Trenticosta says. "Somebody had to do that."
Fithian says she will make Freedom of Information Act requests to determine when Darby became an informant. With so much information redacted because of ongoing investigations, though, she says uncovering the truth will be a challenge. As for Common Ground, she feels Darby's behavior as interim director had long-term consequences for the organization and made it less effective.
Darby maintains it is only because of his association with the FBI that his associates in Common Ground have turned against him and tainted his reputation there. Besides, he hints, he may not have been the only the one supplying the FBI with information:
"I will also say if you are called a 'reliable source' by the bureau, that means that info you have given has been cross checked by other sources."
(The Gambit called Darby on Tuesday for a follow-up interview. His phone had been disconnected, and there was no forwarding number.)
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