Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dealing with agents provocateurs

Again and again, movement after movement, it is proven that agents of the state or corporations infiltrate movements and cause disruption, in-fighting, discrediting, escalation of destructive conflict, justification for violence against the movement (even lethal violence), and even the end of campaigns or organizations. How can we immunize ourselves against this perennial problem? There are two major steps with many smaller sidesteps to each:

  • First, create an image of the movement that is nonviolent and only seeking justice by peaceable means. We see this accomplished historically by many movements that went on to victory, even despite outbreaks of violence by those who proclaimed themselves seeking the same nominal ends, or goals. The image of the movement needs to assure everyone that it sees no distinction between the means and ends.
  • Second, defend that image from those who attempt to discredit or flip it. Use all possible opportunities to stress the nonviolent nature of the movement and be specific. Use the word nonviolent in all public outreach and internal documents. Set that tone and standard. This seems redundant but it is inoculation with booster shots on an ongoing basis.

Image creation
How can an image be created? There are a number of steps to this:

  • decide on code of conduct
  • publicize code of conduct
  • enforce code of conduct

Decide on code of conduct
This requires a decision first by each individual in the leadership of the movement (there is no such thing as a leaderless movement, just alternative forms of leadership). Some may have specific conduct they will not be willing to be associated with. They must make their specifics known and the movement leadership must decide if that is acceptable. At this point, in some movements, leadership may lose one or more leaders if no consensus is reached or if the majority are unwilling to adopt a rigorous code of conduct that excludes violence. The final code of conduct agreed to by the leadership should be simple, basic, and minimal, and then sent to the larger movement for additions. For example, if 75 organizers agree on just one simple item such as "We will not engage in nor threaten physical violence as we wage this campaign," that is a deal-breaker for each and all. Anyone who cannot sign on to that for the duration of the campaign is not considered a member of that campaign and whatever conduct that person or persons use is explicitly described as separate from and not approved of by the campaign.

The membership may add elements, such as, "We will not threaten or engage in property destruction as a part of this campaign." Or, "We will not use expressions of hatred or objectification of anyone as a part of this campaign." The code of conduct is a document, then, that the campaign uses in its outreach to recruit, to the media, to the police and to any party with whom it negotiates, such as city officials or others who may be stakeholders. The code becomes the image by its declaration and enforcement.

How does a movement enforce its code and thus defend its image and protect against agents provocateurs?

First, the code should be ubiquitous and should be one of the sets of filters that applies to all decisions. If someone in a meeting suggests an action or value that falls clearly outside the consensed upon code, that is regarded as patently inappropriate. If there is insistence upon that sort of behavior, again, that person or persons should be invited to start another organization or campaign as such behaviors have already been rejected by your movement.

Peace monitors who are identifiable (arm bands, hats, t-shirts, name tags or other clear visuals) should help everyone keep the code of conduct uppermost. Often a small handout with the code on it given out to everyone is enough to help foster an  atmosphere of image projection and protection. Done routinely, a standard becomes accepted and calls for any other behavior become immediately recognizable as out of bounds within the context of your campaign. This does not need to involve moral denunciation, just a stated and restated code that makes your movement much less vulnerable to anyone who might try to hijack it. It also becomes very hard to smear your work with the behavior of someone who claims to be with you but is acting outside your code. In a crowd without a clear code of conduct, agents provocateurs have an easy time of it and will assist in wrecking your image and make the public grateful for all police action against you.

There is no perfect guarantee of immunity, but these measures, though they may seem difficult, really have worked quite well for many movements. They are the best protection against the threats of agents provocateurs, who often look like the most radical but are often the ones setting up the rest for attack and who pose the most serious threat to the movement. Those who say these measures or something like them are unnecessary have not had much experience with movements that succeed and those which fail. We can always learn how to do this better, but this is at least a good start toward protecting your people and your campaign.


Emmanuel Goldstein said...

I believe that this is a very dishonest and divisive argument. While it's true that provocateurs do exist, let's be clear about who it is that you're targeting with this piece. As you said, it is the radicals, who in your opinion are indistinguishable from agent provocateurs. It seems to me that you're looking for ways to control people's behavior and undermine their ability to make decisions for themselves about what kind of action is appropriate. It also seems to me that because you are unable to engage radical critiques or action, you do the worst thing possible, by labeling it the work of provocateurs, instead of people with principled disagreements over tactics and strategy. This is called bad jacketing, and was one of the main tools used during Cointelpro.

Also, I've had over ten years of experience in protest movements, large and small. Opposition to peacekeepers is a practical one for me, because I have seen the conservative role that they play and the possibilities that open up when they're not present. Stop trying to control what other people do - you can only represent yourself. If you want to have an honest discussion about strategy or tactics, let's have one. But this kind of mischaracterization of people's motives is really unprincipled. And the attempt to force an agreement where there is none is authoritarian and exclusionary. If you want an agreement, then it requires dialogue, not codes of conduct.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Right, well, I'm wondering if anything you've participated in ever worked to change public policy or corporate policy? I'm not interested in controlling you nor anyone else, unless you are crashing our movement. My role here is as an analyst, not as someone who is trying to lead any movement. You and I disagree on analysis. I try to stick to the research and my experience. I'm sure you do the same.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Also check out this piece, quite informative and helpful: