Whom I Don’t Know

Tom mentioned “infiltrators in the local peace movement” as a topic we might take up.  (No, I’m not using the royal “we”.  I consider comments received to be part of the blog.)

This really brings up the subject of ANY people who participate, or pretend to, or say they will and don’t, who might make difficulties.  Whenever a group makes a point of being open, inclusive, and public, there will be some of the public that one could do without.

Let’s see if I can do a fast & dirty classification:

(1)  Wackjobs —  Those who are clearly, scientifically, not well. If your meeting is open to the public, it’s open to them too, and they can waste vast amounts of time treating the meeting like a therapy session, or simply disrupting things with very odd behavior.

(2)  Personal agendas — Some might be a much milder form of #1.  In any case, it means behavior that doesn’t really make much sense in the context of trying to get work done.  It might mean treating the activity as more a social club, singles bar, or networking session.  They might even be trying to sell a commercial product.  There also might be a bit of hijacking involved.  This is sort of a catchall category.

(3)  Hijackers — May take up time trying to pull the “like minded” people they hope to find in your meeting into some other activity unrelated to your mission.

(4)  Infiltrators —  Might come informally, as individuals curious about seeing their “enemy” in action, or as employees hired as spies or provocateurs.

Let me make it clear right now that all these categories can actually provide useful members in some cases.  You have some doubts about groups 1 & 4?  Well, I’ll try to explain that.


#1 People with serious illnesses can function very well at times, and may have some useful talents.  Others need to be told that, whatever it is they need, it’s not here.  Assessing which is the case can take up quite a bit of time.

#2 The “personal agenda” types come in many varieties, and some have the potential to be some of our most active and reliable members, if they grow to have a real interest in the work.  This also may take time.  If too much time passes with someone still pursuing the personal agenda on every occasion, and clearly not pursuing the group’s mission with any tangible product, there might be a need to do something about it.

#3 Any of us who might be trying to pull together a “coalition” of some kind could be perceived as hijackers.  It’s important to assess quickly whether people are interested in what you’re pitching.  If not, don’t waste their time or yours.

Those who don’t catch on to this, the very persistent hijackers, can waste lots of time in a meeting (or on a listserve) dedicated to a purpose entirely outside the hijacker’s pet project.  If the hijacker is particularly dense, the time may come for a simple “F–k off!”

There is, however, the potential, in some cases, for a hijacker to become a useful contact for some kind of cooperative thing at some point.

#4 Infiltrators provide much material for both study and speculation.  All I can do is some preliminary ranting, and maybe hope for some enlightening comments.

Please note:  paranoia about this within any group can do much more harm than the infiltrators themselves.  It’s not unusual for an infiltrator to accuse someone of being an infiltrator as a way of disrupting the group.

I can think of several varieties of people who might deliberately infiltrate an activist group with ill intent toward it.

a.  The vigilante — someone probably active with some opposing group, not the government, wanting see the “enemy” in action.  Such a person is unlikely to be a pro, and will probably expose himself by his ineptitude fairly early, but maybe not.

b.  The hired informant — Not a sworn officer, but someone recruited by “law enforcement” to spy on a group and perhaps be a witness for later prosecutions.

c.  The provocateur — Maybe a subset of b., but engaging in deliberately destructive behavior within the group.  See the link below for a classic case.

A more recent, more amusing story along the same lines:

And still more recent:

d.  The pig — a sworn officer who does b. or c. as part of the job.  Sometimes they really know what they’re doing, but could have some telltale signs due to being what they are.

When b., c., or d. show up, you know that your group has arrived.  Someone in power is willing to pay to neutralize you.  You’re actually perceived as a threat of some kind.  I don’t know for sure whether I’ve ever been in such a group myself.

A recent, very relevant, case is described here:

Secret government informer “Karen Sullivan” infiltrated Minnesota activist groups

Who was Karen Sullivan? Minnesota activists remember the undercover government agent

I’ll try to list a few ways that any of the above might give themselves away.  Certainly not an exhaustive list, and none of these by itself should raise suspicions.  Some might apply to myself.  This is based mostly on reading, and on one case that I’ve heard of locally.

i. Moves rather fast to get close to anyone who appears to be a “leader”.

ii. Moves around among various groups, both geographically and ideologically, often seeking out the more “radical” or “violent” groups, according to “mainstream” perceptions.

iii. Pushes people toward ineffective actions that would surely, easily, lead to arrest, and seems oblivious to risks to the group from such activities.

vi. Tries to amplify divisions in the group:  Picks a side and advocates it with more vehemence than normal.

v. Tries to closely monitor or monopolize some part of the operation without clear reason.

vi.  Volunteers for an important job, keeps saying it will be done, but it just doesn’t happen, though the person appears competent in other respects.

vii. Shows up for nearly everything, and seems to have no life.

viii.  Seems to be trying a little too hard to make excuses to hang around the group.  (One case:  said s/he was enrolled at a certain college, though s/he had no apparent purpose in it, as an excuse to hang with a student group), or makes up some bogus project they’re engaged in as an excuse to be considered “active”.  (One case:  claims to represent one, two, or three “organizations” that don’t seem to have any other members)

ix.  Seems to have a much better knowledge of the widely published part of the group’s belief system than average, probably not equalled by experience in the group.  (Back in the day, FBI agents could quote Marx & Lenin better than most actual Commies.)  Might use “lefty” catchphrases more than normal, but usage might be just a little off.

These last three come from the U.S. gummint’s security culture.  (I actually got some instruction in identifying spies who were after classified material, for a job I once had)

x.  Might be more easily bribed than most people:  has heavy debts or expensive habits like drugs, gambling, or conspicuous consumption.

xi.  Has sudden, unexplained wealth.

xii.  Might be easier to blackmail than most people:  history of crimes or major embarassments like adultery that are still not publicly known.

How to deal with infiltrators?

This leads into a much larger consideration of a couple of questions about living, not just about activism.

– how to stay out of jail

You stay out of jail by generally staying away from illegal activities and people who engage in them.  Where this isn’t possible, you keep your mouth shut about it.  With EVERYBODY, not just with cops.  You also make sure that things like your car registration and insurance paperwork are up-to-date and pay your parking tickets.  It also helps to be “white”, English-speaking, wealthy, and mature in both appearance and behavior.  Activism is no different from life in this respect.

– how to get along with people

Infiltrators offer a great opportunity to communicate with the enemy.  Knowing that there might be infiltrators in a setting should make us all want to present our best face to everyone in that setting.  Yes, we all might think about bombing things once in a while, and if we talk about it, it’s always a grim joke.  That doesn’t mean the infiltrator taking notes in the meeting is going to report it as a joke.  We also want to appear to be good, tolerant people in all respects.  To respond to disagreement with slogan-shouting, name-calling, or bullying makes us look bad in activism, as in life.

Could infiltrators be useful?

It’s not unknown for infiltrators to turn on their employers when they see a wild disconnect between what the boss says about people and what they really are.  It’s also not unknown for a provocateur to actually provide the means to build up an effective organization that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.  Life imitates art, and the actor can become the part.  If fighting a “threat” is your job, creating and perpetuating a “threat” means job security.

You never know who might turn out to be on your side if you give it a chance.  Remember Dmitri Bogrov, a provocateur working for the Tsar’s secret police, infiltrating socialist and anarchist groups.  He used his friendly connections with the cops to gain access to the building where he assassinated the Prime Minister Stolypin in 1911.  Spies can be an unpredictable lot.

End of Rant.  Continue with comments, and we can see where this goes.

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10 Responses to Whom I Don’t Know

  1. Sharon Tipton says:

    In defense of “wack jobs”: Being slightly wacky myself (I call it theatrical), I do take offense for all who may suffer from mental illness including PTSD, untreated depression, etc. etc. I think that we in the Peace Movement should ‘have a heart’, and should someone come into a meeting, perhaps a better way to deal with a problem person is one on one, outside of the meeting, trying to resolve their issues temporarily, or referring them to someone who can. I think we need to be careful about heartlessly labeling people whose needs we don’t understand. But as far as by-the-book meetings go, this is exemplary information!

  2. Tom Lash says:

    Mudge, This goes so far beyond “fast and dirty.” You did a fantastic job of explaining a little talked about fact of the daily life of a community organizer. If you are advocating for the end of corporate domination of your life you tend to run into problems with those that want the system to continue. The better you are at this job the more likely you will be to experience betrayal. The people Mudge mentions above in the various catagories all have betrayed the mission of peace in one way or another. The way we handle this in anarchist circles is to simply work the person. We are already well versed in security culture and work side by side with police whether they are out or undercover agents. Everything Mudge mentions is right on. I know I recognize myself in many of the descriptions of a provacateaur. Talk about not having a life…I feel like I cannot have fun until this nightmare of war ends. It can be all consuming. One must be careful not to burn out. I get angry when I see folks having fun and ignoring what they are doing to people in Iraq and other countries around the globe. Thank you very much Mudge. This information is so important and you laid it out beautifully. If anyone would like to learn more about security culture the Coastal Convergence Society has a great little flyer on the ABC’s of the issue.

  3. Pat Alviso says:

    Yeah- I recognized myself in the “having no life” division.:) Anyway, I am the one who trusts everyone too much so this was a good primer. I do want to re-emphasize the point Mudge made earlier that we can do more harm to ourselves by getting over paranoid, but keeping all things legal is our safeguard. Thank, Mudge.

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  8. Mic Check says:

    There is some really good info here – thank you for letting us know.

  9. Mic Check says:

    Ultimately persons who exhibit disruptive, sometimes dangerous, behaviors are a detriment to any movement and the collective spaces the movement uses to organize and take action in.

    People who display such behaviors repeatedly – especially after they have been duly warned – are likely to not just repeat those behaviors, but to escalate them as well. This could present a physical danger to you or others.

    Regardless if they are a cop, CI, or other it is best not to have them in your group. If that’s not possible – simply don’t participate with them in planning or executing actions. Avoid them at all costs. Hopefully your group is such that concerns can be openly aired. If so, express your concerns in a polite and respectful way. Call-out bad behavior when you see it.

    If you have allies in your group – enlist their support and help. If you care about your cause and your group in particular – it is worth trying to save it by making it an uncomfortable places for people who act poorly to be in.

    If that’s not possible or presents a danger to your safety or the safety of others… Consider making a new group with allies you trust.

    Clear and concise messaging of what constitutes behaviors your group find unacceptable and should be drafted and agreed to – with each new participant being clearly informed and consenting to abide by those principles. All standards should be applied equally to ALL the groups participants regardless of their contributions to, status within, or quantity or quality of resources they may provide the group and/or movement.

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