A still from Informant
Back in the 60s and 70s, Jay Edgar Hoover's FBI program COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) stood as one of the primary disintegrating forces in America's countercultural movement. It's purpose: the fracturing and destruction of the counterculture's revolutionary potential. Any means were justified, even lies.
It was never about keeping tabs on possible domestic terrorism, but about bringing the entire countercultural movement, with its various nodes (the Black Panthers, SDS, psychedelic mind expansion, etc.) down. The idea being that America had its revolution in 1776, and it didn't need another one; or, rather, several running in parallel.
COINTELPRO's legacy is one of paranoia, disgust, coercion, lies, totalitarianism, and, to borrow Walter Sobchak's expression, unchecked aggression. It is the America that Hunter S. Thompson so perfectly eulogized in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas's “Wave” narrative. The era that Thomas Pynchon so masterfully distilled in kaleidoscopic fashion in the tragically underrated Vineland; a novel that serves as a startling satire of what America's children—in and outside of the state, irrespective of political ideology—did to one another.
Brandon Darby, the subject of the new documentary film Informant, lies on this continuum. His legacy is synchronous with COINTELPRO and every other effort to neutralize America's various revolutionary and progressive movements. He just doesn't know it. These instruments of the state, these pawns never do.
Darby attempts to earn audience sympathy early on in Informant. He projects the image of a somewhat broken man. One who tears up when thinking of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. None will deny that the ruined landscape could do this to a person, even a person with as interesting a psychological profile as Brandon Darby.
Anti-Brandon Darby flier in Austin, as seen in Informant
See, eight years ago he and scott crow took a boat to New Orleans in an effort to save Robert King Wilkerson. Full of equal parts hope and sadness, and the will to do something about the Katrina situation, he actually did something instead of watching the news. For that he (and crow) deserves credit. Most Americans are content sitting on their asses as the world crumbles around them. But, anyone who knows the Brandon Darby narratives (emphasis on the plural there), who has heard NPR's This American Life program on the story, spoken to his former associates, or recently seen Informant, will know that there is more to the story. And they will know that unwrapping and decoding the competing narratives is a difficult task. That isn't to say that a clear picture doesn't exist in the Darby nararatives (more on that below).
The film's director, Jamie Meltzer, essentially visualizes for audiences what has long been known about Darby's activities with the Common Ground Collective, New Orleans police, the FBI, Riad Hamad, the RNC Welcoming Committee, David McKay and Bradley Crowder's molotov cocktails, which Darby—ever the storyteller—describes in the film as “napalm" bombs. It was a pleasure to see McKay, in the much publicized HuffPo Live debate, take Darby to task for this wild exaggeration. It convinced me that Darby's future lies not so much as a Breitbart mouthpiece, or in this absurdist persona and one-man anarchist-turned-Tea Partier industry, but as a writer of fictions. Who knows, he could become a latter day John le Carré. (Darby: since I'm sure you're reading this—because you love any kind of press—I want royalties if you write spy novels.)
It's important to remember that Darby was not alone in his desire to volunteer post-Katrina. Many thousands of others had the same idea, including activist former Black Panther Malik Rahim, community organizer scott crow, and Sharon Johnson. If anyone was the real force behind CGC, it was Rahim. It was around him that a group of volunteers coalesced, eventually becoming known as the Common Ground Collective. Depending on who you ask, Brandon Darby is either a co-founder of CGC or a Johnny-come-lately, both in New Orleans and in community organizing in general. This narrative is mostly irrelevant. Because, as you will see in the film and articles written about Darby's actions, the real story is about what he does and how his informant career functions within American history.
"No story is ever told in the same way twice by Darby... [But], the ecstatic truth is immunized against Darby's bullshit."
The whole unending saga is one of perception. There is Darby's perception, and everyone else's. Naturally, we as the audience and observers are left to conclude who is right and who is wrong. We must wade through a whirlwind of truths, lies, half-truths, distortions, historical revisionism, and self-serving propaganda to arrive at something approaching what Werner Herzog calls the “ecstatic truth.” A truth that is inexplicable; one that defies words and messaging, whether liminal or subliminal.
If Meltzer can be criticized of any gross error, it is surely the space he creates for Darby to craft a narrative—sorry, narratives (one must remember that there is no definitive narrative with Darby—it's always in flux). And when it comes to balancing Darby's personal propaganda with the competing narratives of former associates and neutral observers, Meltzer falls short. As a result, Darby weaves his web of truths, historical revisions, lies, and propaganda about as well as a man of his intellectual, ethical, moral, and psychological maturity possibly can. No story is ever told in the same way twice by Darby. Sift through internet articles, radio programs, YouTube videos, and the like, and you will see it all in technicolor. The ecstatic truth is immunized against Darby's bullshit.
There is, for instance, a truly bizarre scene in the film when Darby, standing in a room of Citizens United members, says that he was proud to have helped foil a plot to bomb the 2008 Republican National Convention. Molotov cocktails are bombs? A truly fascinating embellishment. The Citizens United supporters ate that distortion up. And, of course, documents scott crow obtained under a FOIA request suggest Darby was talking to the FBI at least a year before 2007, which is when Darby claims he became an informant.
While it would be easy to chalk Darby's behavior and rationalizations up to pure sociopathology, most sociopaths don't spend nearly a decade very publicly defending their actions. They simply act and lay waste to everyone and everything around them, issuing lies as rationalizations when they're caught, then move on to the next person or situation they can manipluate. Darby cannot fully move on. He is stuck in a sort of feedback loop of megalomaniacal self-perception, fighting the world like a paranoid schizophrenic. So, it's great fun to see that mentality up on screen, but also disheartening to realize that Darby is getting exactly what he wants—more attention. And us critics are only adding to his addiction.
Darby's actions during his CGC days, the Riad Hamad saga, and the Crowder/McKay timeline reveal a person who is at bottom an opportunist with a hero complex.
"The film is not, as advertized, a puzzle like Errol Morris's Fog of War... Darby had his intentions. And the FBI, working with a neo-COINTELPRO blueprint, used Darby to defuse the revolutionary potential in New Orleans and elsewhere."
At some point, Darby saw a chance to be a hero in New Orleans, and he took it. He saw a chance to be a leading force in the CGC, so he took it and tried to fashion himself into leader (for better or for worse). He saw a chance to become a Che Guevara-esque revolutionary (if only in his own mind), so he went to Venezuela, lied about what happened, and came back looking like a jackass. He saw a chance to cozy up to power in the form of a New Orleans Police Major John Bryson, and he took it. Later, disillusioned after his ouster from CGC, and now aimless and depressed, his imagination saw something in Riad Hamad's Palestinian fundraising, and took an opportunity to redirect his life by informing on Hamad's non-existent terrorist crimes, driving him to suicide.
Now an informant, he was past the point of no return, and he—by his own admission—relished the opportunity to “serve” the FBI and, in his mind, America. And then Darby saw an opportunity to become a hero of the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul, and he took it. Never mind that he could have told Crowder and McKay, “this idea is stupid”; which informants cannot do that by the way.
Suspected of being a rat, Darby outed himself in a 2008 open letter published on Indymedia. The die now cast, Darby had eclipsed the event horizon. His community organizing days were well and truly over. But, an opportunist never lets an opportunity go. He saw a chance to reclaim some of the lost adulation he had enjoyed for a time during and after Katrina. Now accepted by the right wing, from Tea Partiers to Andrew Breitbart, Darby created a cottage industry out of regaling gullible conservatives with his story of how he'd transformed first from an anarchist into an FBI informant, then into Breitbart's propaganda puppet and a conservative activist. He saw that opportunity, and, wow, did he ever take it. But, where else was he going to go? Nowhere.
For Darby, Informant isn't so much Meltzer's film as it is just one more opportunity to be taken. And it is as unreal as the film's reconstructed scenes. The film is not, as advertized, a puzzle like Errol Morris's Fog of War. There is absolutely nothing puzzling about this failure of a documentary. Darby had his intentions. And the FBI, working with a neo-COINTELPRO blueprint, used Darby to defuse the revolutionary potential in New Orleans and elsewhere.
"Brandon Darby was just one more pawn in the state's never-ending game, which runs from the Alien and Seditions Act and COINTELPRO to the NSA's surveillance programs... to preserve power."
Meltzer made a devil's bargain. If you want access to Brandon Darby, you have to allow him to tell his story. Over the last few weeks I've been setting up interviews with various subjects in Informant, including Darby. Working through the film's publicity team, I was told he wouldn't agree to a phone interview. Darby demanded an email interview. Fine, I wrote to the film's publicity team, but I have my own conditions: 1) he has to answer all of my questions, and 2) I will able to ask follow-ups. Darby refused. If Darby cannot control the narrative, or reclaim it, as he likes to describe his tactic, he has no interest in talking. So, when Darby felt sufficiently safe with Meltzer and confident that he could control much of Informant's narrative, Meltzer became, like Darby himself, a useful idiot. Meltzer should have seen that he, too, had crossed the point of no return and, unlike Darby, walked away. As it stands, he is the puppet of a puppet.
As you will see in the Darby vs. McKay HuffPo Live debate, Brandon Darby believes that no one has the right to psychologically profile or otherwise analyze his motives and intentions, and draw conclusions. But, you see, that's exactly what Darby has done since he became an informant. For him, it's Brandon Darby's world, and we all are just living in it.
And let this absurd and tired saga, resurrected in such an unnecessary film, serve at least some useful function. As Pynchon observes in Vineland, the state always has need for useful idiots and opportunists in its never-ending quest to dismantle revolutionary movements. And know that the ecstatic truth here is that Brandon Darby was just one more pawn in the state's never-ending game, which runs from the Alien and Seditions Act and COINTELPRO to the NSA's surveillance programs, as well as multiple corridors in between, to preserve the power of America's elite.