As we discuss the actions of the self-confessed agent provocateur Patrick Howley, editor of the far-right-wing magazine the American Spectator, we should bear in mind that it is all too common for conservative or corporatist agents (sometimes employed by Federal, state or local goverments; sometimes working for conservative or corporatist groups) to infiltrate movements they don’t like for the specific purpose of trying to figure out ways to make them look bad via acts of violence. We saw it in the civil rights movement; we saw it in the antiwar protests of the late 1960s (when a common saying among genuine members of protest movements was “The guy who brings up explosives is the FBI plant”); we even see it in the War on Terror, where most of the bomb plots “foiled” by the FBI wouldn’t have existed were it not for FBI informants egging on and inciting the other group members every step of the way, right until the handcuffs appear.
And, as it turns out, we saw it in the Battle for Seattle in 1999, the RNC protests of 2008, and the G-20 protests of 2009. According to a 2010 report from the National Lawyers Guild that examined those three events, most if not all of the violence therein was committed by either the cops or people working against or otherwise hostile to the goals of the protesters.
Here’s how the report described the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle (emphases mine):
To the extent that law enforcement tactics are based on a foundation of avoiding “the failures of Seattle,” such tactics are inherently flawed and miss the point—the mass violations of law in Seattle were carried out by the police. Finding that police in Seattle acted inappropriately, the Report of the WTO Accountability Review Committee
of the Seattle City Council emphasized that: “[T]his city became the laboratory for how American cities will address mass protests. In many ways, it became a vivid demonstration of what not to do.”4 The report goes on to say:
Members of the public, including demonstrators, were victims of ill-conceived and sometimes pointless police actions to “clear the streets….Our inquiry found troubling examples of seemingly gratuitous assaults on citizens, including use of less-lethal weapons like tear gas, pepper gas, rubber bullets, and ‘beanbag guns,’ by officers who seemed motivated more by anger or fear than professional law enforcement.”5
The National Lawyers Guild observed such gratuitous assaults by police and on December 6, 1999 wrote to Mayor Paul Schell that police misconduct was largely responsible for the lack of control in Seattle.6 The letter cited (1) indiscriminate use of excessive force against hundreds of peaceful protesters, including pain compliance holds, the use of pepper spray, tear gas and concussion grenades, the firing of rubber bullets, and (2) detention of protesters without access to counsel, in violation of the Sixth Amendment, and without prompt processing for bail. The letter stated that police treatment of protesters ignited the response from the few individuals who engaged in property destruction. As long as law enforcement continues to perpetuate negative stereotypes of lawless “anarchists” bent on wreaking mass havoc at large demonstrations, absent credible intelligence and evidence, we can expect police to direct wholesale assaults at individuals engaging in First Amendment protected activities.
Were there any lessons learned? Well, there was one: Keep the establishment press in your corner and you can (almost literally) get away with murder. Since the establishment media dutifully followed the police-dictated framing of the G-7 protests, that’s how they’ve been inscribed in history. And because of that, the forces of reaction felt emboldened to be even bigger jerks in 2008 in Saint Paul (where, for instance, the only folks talking about Molotov cocktails were the cops and the confidential informants, both of which groups were later shown to be fabricating evidence) and 2009 in Pittsburgh.