My first reaction when asked to review Informant, the new Music Box Films documentary by Jamie Meltzer set to screen in theaters on September 13th, was to question why I would want to give Brandon Darby any more attention than he's already received. Darby,
the film's subject and a self-described "revolutionary" turned FBI informant, had already been interviewed by NPR's This American Life and told his story in a previous documentary film Better this World. Why draw further attention to someone whose goal is to undermine political struggles I've been involved in? Why help promote a movie that acts as a soapbox for an FBI informant and right-wing propagandist? I ultimately decided to review Informant not for its content, which mainly consists of Darby rationalizing his actions and attempting to evoke sympathy from his viewers, but more for what the film doesn't say about Darby and informants being used with increasing fervency by law enforcement in the U.S.
Although Informant centers around Darby's undercover effort to criminalize fellow activists from Austin, Texas, who were brought up on terrorism
charges during the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Minnesota, Darby doesn't really fit the typical profile of so-called
"counterterrorism informants" routinely used by the FBI. While it's true that the federal government has engaged in intense infiltration of political
groups on the left -- from antiwar protesters in the Pacific Northwest to the NATO demonstrations in Chicago and the Occupy Wall Street movement -- since the passage of the
Patriot Act, the FBI has more commonly used informants to target and criminalize entire Muslim and Arab-American communities.
Whereas Darby appears in the film as a charismatic, macho, and misogynistic political activist who was well known, if not
idolized, across the left and in his own community, the more typical informant is someone who has been marginalized and criminalized
by our legal system. According to Darby, he sought out the FBI, but most informants are pressured to serve the agency's interests either with the "stick"
of extended prison time if they don't help, or with the "carrot" of money if they do.
Counterterrorism has become a booming industry in the U.S. and, eager to cash-in, the FBI has taken to manufacturing the same crimes that it purports to
solve. According to research conducted by Mother Jones in 2011,
nearly half of the 500 people the government has prosecuted on terrorism charges since 9/11 were taken to court based on the evidence and testimony of
informants. If any similarities exist between Meltzer's obsessive case study of Darby and the more consequential efforts by FBI informants to spy on
Muslims, it's in their common behavior of manipulation, coercion, and domination of targeted individuals. If the prize at the end of the "investigation" is
arrest and prosecution, then FBI informants demonstrate over and over that they will do whatever it takes to deliver, even if the crime would never have
materialized without their involvement.
Meltzer's decision to allow Darby, now in his mid-30s, to play a twenty-something version of himself in reenacting historical events is odd to say the
least. As a film technique, it fails to convince viewers of Darby's profound disillusionment that supposedly led him to send his fellow activists to
prison. It only makes us wonder why Meltzer would give Darby so much control over the film's narrative. Indeed, the combination of Meltzer's strange
artistic choices and Darby's largely unchallenged storytelling insults the viewer's intelligence and, sadly, Meltzer misses an opportunity to be objective
and truthful with his audience. One case in point is Darby's sum total premise for infiltrating RNC organizing meetings:
"I thought that there was a likelihood that somebody would go to an extreme."
But, Darby didn't just drive from Austin to the Twin Cities in the summer of 2008 to ensure the arrest and federal prosecution of two young activists.
According to a member of the RNC Welcoming Committee, three and a half months earlier, in May of that year, Darby disrupted a planning meeting of activists
visiting Minnesota from all over the country by claiming his van had been broken into and insinuating one of the activists in attendance was responsible.
The move engendered distrust and an atmosphere of suspicion that effectively brought the day's discussion to a grinding halt. This is old hat for the FBI,
though. Maneuvers like these came straight out of the counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) playbook from the 1960s and 1970s, which disrupted the work of the
American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, as well as antiwar and civil rights organizations. Darby's particular pattern of disruption was also
observed by people who worked with him in the Common Ground Collective in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Unfortunately, disruptive and dominant behavior is too often tolerated and can be allowed to fester in political organizing settings on the left, but far
more insidious were Darby's fellow informants who were also gathering intelligence for the FBI at the same time. At least two other informants were
infiltrating the RNC Welcoming Committee at the same time that Darby was working with the FBI in Austin. Andy "Panda," later identified as confidential informant Andrew Darst, was a Welcoming Committee member who regularly fed
information to the FBI. Also on the agency's payroll was Karen Sullivan, another Welcoming Committee member who not only spied on activists during the 2008 RNC, she continued to surreptitiously work with Midwest
antiwar activists, at one point disrupting a planned trip to the Palestinian Occupied Territories in 2009. Sullivan went on to infiltrate the Twin Cities
Anti-War Committee even after a number of their members were subpoenaed in 2010 to a federal grand jury in Chicago,
ostensibly investigating material support for terrorism.
If Meltzer had been intellectually and artistically honest, he might have confessed early on that Darby was actually not an enigmatic subject who traversed
the political spectrum from far left to far right after all. "Brandon had never organized anything in his life," said activist and author Scott Crow about
Darby before they helped form the Common Ground Collective. "[Common Ground co-founder] Malik had elevated him to a status that was beyond anybody else."
Indeed, much of Darby's influence and status during his reign as a legend within left and anti-authoritarian circles came from his cult of personality.
Without a doubt, Informant has ensured that the cult of personality around Brandon Darby is well fortified.
As a youth, without much political foundation, it appears that Darby was directed more by seeking acceptance from male (father) figures in his life than
distinct political ideas. Whether it was former Angola prisoner Robert King Wilkerson, King's fellow Black Panther Party member Malik Rahim, Darby's FBI
handler, or more recently Andrew Breitbart (the recently deceased right-wing blogger whose most notable recognition came from setting up the sting that
brought the community organization ACORN to an end), Darby appears to be on a quest for acknowledgment from whichever older man plays center stage in his
life at the time. In this light, the seemingly radical political shift from militant anarchist to FBI informant is demystified and it's starkly apparent
that political ideas and political work have almost nothing to do with Brandon Darby's story.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Darby makes the claim to a room full of Tea Party activists that, "I wanted to help people, and I thought the way
to help people was to help the left, but really I wasn't such a leftist after all." This, again, is a shallow rationale that Meltzer leaves unexplored and
fails to critically examine in light of numerous comments Darby makes throughout the film that directly contradict this declaration of altruistic
motivation. The clear pattern that does emerge throughout the film, demonstrated by Darby's own commentaries and interviews with those who worked with
Darby and those who were ultimately imprisoned as a result of his testimony, points to a much more complicated interweaving of motivations and unresolved
traumas that are consistent with at least three out of the five criteria of Antisocial Personality Disorders, vernacularly known as sociopathology. These three criteria are:
- deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
- reckless disregard for safety of self or others; and
- lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
When confronted with the ire of people who trusted him, Darby complains that the left is "pretty intense about making you pay if you challenge them." Yet,
Darby's attempt to seek sympathy here is insincere and falls flat. Instead of challenging his fellow activists by engaging them in dialog around political
strategy and tactics, Darby purposefully and intentionally tries to send friends and young activists to prison.
"My entire history, everything I've ever done that was good, was not there anymore. Almost like Stalin. Erased out of the picture."
If there was any doubt that Darby has delusions of grandeur, the comparison of himself to Stalin is proof positive. That Stalin killed tens of millions of
people seems missed on Darby, as does the disproportionate comparison. But maybe Meltzer agreed that Darby, like Stalin, had some good qualities too.
In the film, Darby gets a standing ovation from the far right political group Citizens United (yes, the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that now
allows unlimited corporate contributions in political campaigns) after stating that he was honored to have been part of thwarting a bomb plot against RNC
delegates. The problem is that there was never a bomb plot against RNC delegates and Darby just made that part up to seek adoration. Meltzer has to know
this, but in his zeal to give Darby a platform, however flimsy, he elevates Darby's pathological misrepresentations at the expense of the truth.
Lisa Fithian and Scott Crow, who both knew and worked with Darby, provide a helpful counter-narrative and are important voices in this otherwise unbearably
vacuous film, but they are only window dressing for Meltzer. If the filmmaker was serious about probing Darby's propensity for reinventing history instead
of giving deference to that dysfunction, he could probably have produced a more interesting documentary. For example, Meltzer missed or didn't care about a Mother Jones article that appeared around the time
of the 2011 release of the documentary film Better this World. "[I]t's hard to know how much of what Darby says is true," wrote Mother Jones
reporter Josh Harkinson.
"For one, the FBI file of his former friend Scott Crow, which Crow obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request last year, suggests that Darby was
talking with the FBI more than a year before he claims [in 2007]."
If I were to imagine (or fabricate, Brandon Darby style) the genesis of this near-mockumentary, it's almost as if Darby decided one day to call up his
friend Jamie Meltzer to let him know about a great movie idea. "Yes, it's been done before," says Darby, "but there's a fresh opportunity to focus more
attention on me. My friend Andrew Breitbart said I was an 'American hero' and people need to know that. They also need to know that I'm still receiving
death threats and alarms are constantly going off in my home" (and in my head). "If I don't get some more attention really soon, I'm going to lose it. Can
we make this movie?"
Seriously, though, if you decide to watch Informant, be sure to bring along your anti-nausea medication.
Erin Stalnaker, who worked with Brandon Darby in New Orleans and did political organizing in St. Paul during the 2008 Republican convention protests,
contributed to this review.