Domestic Terrorists? Or Activist-Acolytes Led Astray by a Mentor?
Documentary 'Better This World' ponders the endless shades of gray
"We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear – fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer."
– Hunter S. Thompson, 2003
Everything is different now, except the fear. The laws, the activists, the country, the world. It's as though our hard-won Bill of Rights was being put to the ultimate test, under punishing conditions, along a recklessly accelerated pace. Haste not only makes waste but also stokes confusion, coercion, and chaos. Which is where we are at right now, because everything is different, and suddenly not only do respectable American citizens and perfectly average, peaceful protesters in the full bloom of youth detect a creeping sense of unease about their government, but their government, judging entirely by its own actions, is learning to fear its citizens.
When Austinites Bradley Crowder and David McKay were arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and jailed on charges of domestic terrorism, however, the National Defense Authorization Act had yet to be signed into law, the Arab Spring was three years away, WikiLeaks was as yet unheard of, and Anonymous' "hacktivism" was focused almost entirely on the Church of Scientology. Someday, we'll probably refer to that period as "the good old days."
Filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane's compelling documentary about the (non)events of that Labor Day weekend, Better This World, stands as a stark reminder of just how broken the U.S. criminal justice system is, and how difficult it is for even the best-intentioned people to steer clear of it once it's gone, as they say in the biz, "eyes on." (The film won Best Documentary Screenplay at last week's Writers Guild Awards.)
In a story already familiar to members of the Austin activist community and readers of The Austin Chronicle both, Crowder and McKay, childhood friends from Midland with a matching progressive bent, traveled from Austin to St. Paul planning to engage in nonviolent, peaceful demonstrations against the Republican National Committee. Unbeknownst to them (or anyone else in the activist community at the time), their mentor figure, the intensely charismatic, older, and Hurricane Katrina-seasoned Brandon Darby, had been "flipped" and turned informant for the FBI for reasons still unclear.
While in St. Paul, the prosecution attests, Crowder and McKay abandoned their plans for nonviolent actions and began making Molotov cocktails, allegedly to be used against the police barricades. McKay initially testified that the Molotovs were Darby's idea, but he later admitted during retrial that this was a lie.** In the end, both Crowder and McKay accepted plea bargains and served federal time. (Both men will participate in an Austin Film Society-sponsored screening on Feb. 29, but because of the conditions of their paroles, they cannot occupy the stage at the same time; AFS programmer Ryan Long explained that "we're going to carefully orchestrate their movements.") Regardless of the plea bargains, important questions of ethics, the rules of entrapment, and other issues – many of which are unknown to the public-at-large – remain.
"For me," says co-director Katie Galloway by phone, "these were things that I had seen before because of work that I had done [for PBS' Frontline and P.O.V.] about the drug war – things like the use of informants, the use of conspiracy law, and the ways in which people can be followed, surveilled, and prosecuted on the word of or with the deep involvement of an informant who clearly has something to gain. So for me this wasn't new information, but I think it's something a lot of people don't know.
"My work has pretty much focused on the criminal justice system throughout my career," Galloway continues, "and I think there are so many aspects of the federal criminal justice system that would be jaw-dropping to everyday people but within the context of that world are just the norm. I guess what shocked me [about the Crowder/McKay cases] was the amount of resources, financial and otherwise, that could go into an investigation where it seems so little is happening. It's all very symptomatic of what's been happening post-9/11."
So does Galloway see herself as an "activist filmmaker," given her recurrent subject matter?
"That's a good question. I don't really label myself as an 'activist filmmaker.' I would instead say that I'm a filmmaker working from a place of real political engagement and concern who wants to bring to light things about the political and social structure that I find troubling and in need of a deeper discussion and recognition in the public sphere."
The Austin Film Society's Best of the Fests series presents Better This World Wednesday, Feb. 29, 7pm, at the Alamo Village (2700 W. Anderson Ln.). There will be a special post-film Q&A with David McKay and Bradley Crowder in attendance.
[Editor's note: This story has been amended since publication. It originally stated that both David McKay and Bradley Crowder testified that Brandon Darby encouraged them to make Molotov cocktails; in fact, only McKay claimed this, testimony which he later recanted.]