Transcript

381:

Turncoat
Transcript

Originally aired 05.22.2009

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/381

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When Madison Nguyen was elected to the San Jose City Council, she was just 30 and was a really big deal. There is a huge Vietnamese community in San Jose, but no Vietnamese had ever made it to the city council.

My Thuan Tran

The Vietnamese-American community was just beside themselves with having the very first Vietnamese-American elected official there.

Ira Glass

My Thuan Tran is the reporter who covers California's Vietnamese communities for the Los Angeles Times.

My Thuan Tran

They really saw her as the beloved daughter, as a golden child. There was a lot of celebrations. And she won and her face was all over different magazines. She was interviewed by all the Vietnamese press. People were following her every move. They wanted to know what she was up to.

Ira Glass

But within two years, mainly because of one issue. One issue. Lots of people were furious with Madison Nguyen.

My Thuan Tran

People started protesting in front of City Hall every single Tuesday. And they would hold banners that had a slash across her face. They wrote Madison Nguyen is a traitor. There was one protest that drew thousands of people, not only from San Jose but from the neighboring cities in the Bay Area, and also people who came from as far as Orange County or Houston.

Ira Glass

Also there was a hunger striker?

My Thuan Tran

Yes, there was. He was camped out in a tent for 29 days in front of City Hall and he was flanked by a lot of his supporters.

Ira Glass

And the main issue that turned so many people against Madison Nguyen? That eventually led to a special recall election for the golden child?

Well, there's a area of San Jose just a couple blocks long on Story Road, with lots of Vietnamese stores, and restaurants, and businesses. And one of the first things that Madison Nguyen did on the City Council was convince her colleagues they should do to economic development there, and designate that area with a special name.

Several possible names were discussed. Most Vietnamese Americans who cared enough to come out to those meetings preferred Little Saigon, but Madison Nguyen chose the name Saigon Business District. That's it. That's the whole controversy. Little Saigon versus Saigon Business District.

My Thuan Tran

I think the issue, it's a very subtle one. And I guess for a lot of non-Vietnamese, it was very difficult for them to understand, because they felt what's the difference? It's just Little Saigon versus Saigon Business District, but for many Vietnamese refugees, it just invoked everything that they had lived through in their lives. Of Vietnam and coming over here.

Ira Glass

Specifically, the name Little Saigon had taken on huge significance. That's what some other Vietnamese exile communities like this big one that is down in Orange County had called themselves, partly as a political statement.

These communities, you got to remember, were full of people who had fought the Communists during the Vietnam War and then fled the Communists after the war. The name Little Saigon was seen as an act of defiance against people who had taken over the city of Saigon and renamed it. Renamed it, actually, after the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party-- Ho Chi Minh City.

My Thuan Tran

The name that she did not choose, the name Little Saigon had just become such a symbol for them. It became a symbol for them of why they fled Vietnam, of why they fought for South Vietnam, of what hardships and pain that their family went through. And when she didn't choose that name, they felt like she wasn't listening to their stories, or to their history. Anything that wasn't Little Saigon, it's just seen as an insult.

Madison Nguyen

Me, on a personal level, I like the name Vietnam Town. Because we have Chinatown, we have Japantown, but obviously I guess what I liked didn't really matter.

Ira Glass

This is Councilwoman Madison Nguyen. The San Jose politician at the center of all this controversy. She says that although a vocal portion of her Vietnamese constituents definitely preferred Little Saigon, Vietnamese-Americans only make up a third of her district. Non-Vietnamese people and businesses in the district wanted other names. And she thought it would be better to avoid a name that was so political. So she chose what she thought was a compromise.

Madison Nguyen

And so I thought, OK, well both names have the name Saigon in it, and this is a business district designation. Why don't we just called it Saigon Business District and hopefully that will make everyone happy.

Ira Glass

I want to play you a recording from this six and a half hour City Council meeting about this. And it's many people standing up, saying that they don't want this name. And here's one man and-- there's a point in the tape where he says if Madison wins, what he means is if you get your way and the community is not called Little Saigon. Here let me play this for you.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-Before 1975, I was Ranger Commander in Vietnam. I was in jail nine year. Tonight I come here to request only one vote from you for Little Saigon. I strongly support you from the beginning. But if Madison win, we stay away from her, because she's pro-Communist. Thank you.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

What's your reaction to that kind of thing?

Madison Nguyen

It was torture to have all these people, who are pretty much at the age of my parents or grandparents, coming up and looking you, staring you in the face, in your eyes and said we no longer trust you. You're not one of us. We regret that we ever supported you. To hear that over, and over, and over, and over again. I mean it's painful.

Ira Glass

Then there's the fact that she was being called a Communist, widely.

Madison Nguyen

The first time I heard it, I was very hurt. I felt that-- I came here as a boat child back in the late 1970s. I escaped Communism in Vietnam and I came here. We pretty much risked our lives to come to this great country. And to have this particular group of people in the Vietnamese community label me as a Communist sympathizer, I thought was really beyond absurd.

Ira Glass

Madison is convinced that if she had been a non-Vietnamese City Councilperson suggesting the exact same name, Saigon Business District, it never would have gone this far. No protest. Nobody would have been labeled a Communist.

People felt betrayed, she says, because she was one of them. They expected her to do what they wanted. And they couldn't believe it when she didn't. To them, she was a turn coat. What strikes deeper than that?

Well today on our show, we have two other stories of turncoats. It's This American Life from WBEZ in Chicago distributed by Public Radio International.

We'll get to those in a bit. In Madison Nguyen's case, things are ugly. Things happened pretty fast.

Act One. Code Red.

My Thuan Tran

If you listen to Vietnamese radio during that time period, a lot of people would come out and say they believe she was a Communist.

Ira Glass

Again, reporter My Thuan Tran.

My Thuan Tran

I just felt that it was a really interesting case because it kind of showed the challenges of being a Vietnamese-American politician. That you kind of had to navigate among all these lingering emotions from this war that had ended 34 years ago.

Ira Glass

Yeah, you wrote, "The rules of politics are different for a Vietnamese-American politician. Even business owners, reporters, and pop singers carefully tiptoe around inferences and innuendo that can cast a person as being soft on Communism. A misstep can launch vocal protests and accusations. Reputations can be tarnished. People must bow to the pressure."

My Thuan Tran

Right. I think it's a surprise for many people who are kind of unfamiliar with the Vietnamese-American community how much this name-calling and suspicion still resonates. I think some people feel like it looks like out of the McCarthy era when they view the Vietnamese-American community.

Ira Glass

There are tons of examples of this kind of red-baiting. The first Vietnamese Superintendent of Schools in the Westminster School District in Orange County was removed a week after she was appointed, she says, because an activist lobbied school board members, saying she was a Communist.

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, when a Catholic bishop visited from Vietnam, he asked that not be photograph with anything political. So his Vietnamese- American host in Minnesota, a man named Tuan Pham, took down the flag of the old country of South Vietnam which was in many exile communities. Tuan Pham was vilified as a pro-Communist because of that.

Protests at his store were so intense that customers stopped coming. His business went bankrupt. Tuan Pham not only battled the Communists as a soldier during the war, but was held in one of their prison camps for two years.

My Thuan Tran

There's another interesting example I wanted to bring up. There was a Vietnamese-American pop singer named Tommy Ngo. And in one of the posters for a concert, he's wearing a belt with the word L-O-V-E on it. And the O has a star in it. And the word "LOVE" is in red and the star is white, but on the poster it kind of looked like the star was yellow. And a yellow star on a red background is actually the symbol of the official Vietnamese flag, which is known as the Communist flag. So, even that concert was protested against, and Tommy Ngo was protested against. And a lot of people didn't end up going to the concert.

Even one of the contributors to our radio show, Thanh Tan, who is a reporter from Boise Public Television, has watched as her dad, who runs a Vietnamese community organization in Olympia, Washington, has been red-baited. It's particularly galling to her, she says, because she spent her childhood resenting how much time her dad spent at anti-Communist demonstrations.

Thanh Tan

It's just really upsetting to hear these accusations against somebody who-- his idea of fun with the family was to take us to a protest in Seattle, and to wave around the old nationalist flag, the yellow flag with the three stripes.

Ira Glass

You mean an anti-Communist protest?

Thanh Tan

Yeah. Like, I grew up on that. I have pictures of me when I was like, six years old, holding a sign that says Ho Chi Minh is a criminal.

Ira Glass

Thanh's dad has now won a defamation against the activists who called him a Communist sympathizer. The Thurston County Court awarded him and his organization $310,000. But Thanh says that the stress of all this has hurt her parents' marriage and her dad's health. And somehow her family doesn't feel a sense of victory after all this.

Thanh Tan

You know, I don't just because like right after the trial, like within a week, I saw a television, like a Vietnamese television report where the defendants were interviewed. And the main guy, he said that my dad-- he said something along the lines of Communists don't wear their badge on their chest. And to me that just said going through this whole trial, three week trial was not enough to prove to him that my dad apparently is not a Communist. And that really was pretty upsetting.

I mean my mother, she calls me, and she just said Thanh, what do we do? Like, what we do? Like, the Vietnamese media is still reporting that your dad could be a Communist. Like, I don't know what to do.

Ira Glass

I understand that there's a Vietnamese phrase for red-baiting that's used here in the States.

Thanh Tan

Mm-hmm. It's called "chup mu."

Ira Glass

And what does it mean literally?

Thanh Tan

It literally means to put the Communist hat on someone.

Ira Glass

The City Councilwoman in San Jose, Madison Nguyen, faced a recall election and she won. Mainly, she's just tired of the red-baiting. At the height of all the protests she wondered, is this why we came to this country? So we could fight over who's a Communist?

Madison Nguyen

Even now, which is really sad, but I'll share with you anyways. My in-laws, they're still living in Vietnam right now, and I was recently married. And my father-in-law had a stroke about two months ago. And so, I wanted to have the opportunity to go back. But I can't, because I know that if I go back now, imagine what's going to happen when I come back here to San Jose.

Ira Glass

You can't say you're visiting a relative?

Madison Nguyen

Yeah, good luck.

Ira Glass

Why? What will they say?

Madison Nguyen

I mean, I really-- and when I tell people, I tell my friends that, they're like, there's no way you can go because if you go, the first thing that's going to happen when you come back is that, oh look! She's going back there. She's probably trying to connect with the Vietnamese government, or get in some kind of relationship.

And so it's just-- and so, here I am thinking like, am I ready to put up another fight?

Ira Glass

She says she doesn't want to put her supporters through all that again. So she's careful. But she wants to be in politics, she says. With so many people ready to see her as a traitor. And that's just how it's got to be.

Act Two. My Way Or The Fbi Way.

Ira Glass

Act Two, My Way or the FBI Way.

On the morning of September 3, 2008, the day Sarah Palin would address the Republican National Convention, a SWAT team broke down the door of a home in downtown Saint Paul. Local TV news had this story.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-Two Texas man are now charged with plotting to attack police with molotov cocktails during the Republican National Convention.

-Police say David McKay and Bradley Crowder are both associated with the radical Austin Affinity Group. If convicted, McKay and Crowder could face up to 10 years in prison.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Two men who'd been arrested were young, in their early 20s. The RNC was their first big protest. And they'd been nabbed in an elaborate sting operation. Word spread around the country among activists that there was an informant in their midst. And it had to be somebody big. But who? And why? The rumors started circulating about one guy. A guy who'd been notorious even before this. Michael May tells what happened.

Michael May

Four months after the Republican National Convention, Brandon Darby posted a letter on Indymedia, a website used by activists worldwide from Chiapas to London to Seattle. "To all concerned," he wrote.

Brandon Darby

There are currently allegations in the media that I have worked undercover for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Michael May

The allegations seemed ludicrous. Everybody knew Brandon Darby hated cops. He talked openly about overthrowing the US government.

One of his friends, a sort of living legend among anarchists, had posted his own earlier letter on Indymedia saying, "The idea of Brandon working for the FBI was absurd. It would be the biggest lie of my life since I found out the truth about Santa Claus as a child."

You can see where this is going.

Brandon Darby

The simple truth is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Many of you went against my wishes and spoke publicly in defense of me. I really did mean it when I said I didn't want to discuss it, and that I didn't want folks addressing the allegations. I'm looking forward to open dialogue and debate regarding the motivations and experiences I've had, and the ethical questions they pose.

Michael May

What followed wasn't debate and dialogue. It was vitriol. People were shocked. Brandon Darby was one of the best-known radical activists in the South.

In Austin, Texas, where he lives, posters with Brandon's face went up on bulletin boards, at coffee shops, and stores around town. The poster said, "BEWARE! BRANDON DARBY, FBI INFORMANT RAT LOOSE IN AUSTIN!" Brandon still has some loyalists in activist community, but for the most part he's hated. I've interviewed probably 20 people who know or worked with Brandon, and their feelings about him now are pretty extreme.

Megalomaniac.

Manipulative

Brandon Darby is very charming.

Very brash. He's very macho.

Brandon is known for being kind of macho.

Very confrontational and--

Violent at times

Brandon never advocated violence.

He never once would suggest to do harm to anybody.

Brandon is crazy.

He's a wing nut.

Very loving, you know what I mean? Like a brother, like a best friend.

He thinks he's on a larger mission.

I mean I do think he has that hero complex.

He loves publicity, and he loves being interviewed, and he loves to be the center of attention.

I think he's a pathological liar.

Whatever Brandon said he was real about, he was always real. Whether you liked it or not, he was real.

How do you gel that into one picture? How do you-- I don't know.

Michael May

I first met Brandon two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. I did a story about him for our local radio station in Austin. And Brandon had this crazy, true story to tell. He bought a boat and drove from Austin to New Orleans after the storm to find his friend, a former Black Panther named Robert King Wilkerson, who lived in a flooded neighborhood.

Brandon couldn't get the boat into the city, so he decided to wade in. At the time, he told the story like that was the only reasonable thing to do.

Brandon Darby

I came under an overpass and there are law enforcement officers on the overpass. And they stopped me and they told me to wait there. That I didn't have a reason to be there or right to be there and asked me who I was. And I told them I was going to get my friend. And they said you can't do that. And I said, well, I don't mean to be rude, but you're on an overpass and I'm down here. And so I really don't see how you're going to stop me from getting my friend.

Michael May

So Brandon literally swam into the fetid water. And when he couldn't reach his friend's house on his own, he somehow, while stranded on a fence pole, badgered the Coast Guard into rescuing Wilkerson.

The story became famous among activists in New Orleans. And it sums up Brandon pretty well-- a mixture of heroism, recklessness, and arrogance.

Brandon Darby looks a little like an action hero. Six-foot-plus, stubble, he's got some muscle. Good looking in a rugged movie star sort of way, down to the cleft chin. And he didn't become a political activist after taking a Marxist theory class. He didn't go to college. He was a smart guy from a crappy Gulf Coast refinery town who spent a lot of his teenage years running away from home. He lived on the streets of Houston, and was in and out of group homes and treatment centers.

By the time he hit 20 with an eighth grade education and GED, he learned what he took as the central lesson of his life. People in power lie and take advantage of people weaker than themselves. And when he moved to Austin, he discovered radical politics. He showed up at the Anarchist Bookstore, read up, and started channeling his anger towards the US government. And it all came to a head after Hurricane Katrina.

Brandon Darby

I believed for years that the government was out of control and that it didn't have any concern for the average person. And then Katrina happened, and it reinforced it 500%. I was very dedicated and sure that it would be a huge error on my part to spend any time trying to work with or change our government. And that they just were so rotten to the core, I needed to do something about it. And that maybe I needed to become a revolutionary who believed in overthrowing the state.

Michael May

So he moved to New Orleans. And post-Katrina New Orleans was the perfect place for someone who believed sincerely and literally in the overthrow of the US government. A wasteland with no functioning central authority is a paradise for anarchists.

It was a chance to prove what Brandon and others already believed. Government sucks. We can create a better world without it. So he and three other more experienced activists started up a relief organization with $50.00 and named it Common Ground.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-In the vast plain of devastation that is the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, there's a little blue house. It shines in the sun like a wild flower amid the wreckage. And it was here, at the little blue house on Desland Street that we found something rare in New Orleans. A real success story. An American success story. It's called Common Ground.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

That's from Nightline. Common Ground might have been heralded as an American success story and a wild flower by the time the mainstream media found them a year later. But at the beginning, it was a bunch of outraged radicals. Anarchists promising to deliver relief by any means necessary.

Ken Gaspard

They were the only relief group here in the upper Ninth Ward.

Michael May

Ken Gaspard grew up in the Ninth Ward.

Ken Gaspard

Red Cross was handing out food in uptown New Orleans where no damage was happening. You couldn't find Red Cross down here in the Ninth Ward. To this day, I will not give Red Cross a dollar of my money for that reason.

Michael May

Within weeks after Katrina, Common Ground, with Brandon leading the Ninth Ward effort, became a force. Providing meals, health care, and help with gutting houses, all for free. They didn't have permits or anything. They just did it, and police did not like it. Common Ground was being run out of the house of a former Black Panther name Malik Rahim. And Brandon says it quickly became a target.

Brandon Darby

The police would show up every night at Common Ground at Mailk's house and they would find some means of intimidating the hell out of us.

Michael May

Specifically what would they say?

Brandon Darby

Arrest everybody for things. Like, I almost got arrested because I didn't have proof that my car was registered. And I was like, well look at my sticker. And they go, yeah, but do you have a receipt for it? And I was like, I don't think I need a receipt. They're like, well Mr. Darby if you don't have a receipt, I'm going to arrest you. And it's like, well, OK, I guess you're going to arrest me, because I don't this-- like really find infractions to arrest us with.

John Bryson

We did have a hard early going.

Michael May

Major John Bryson with the New Orleans Police Department was in command of the Ninth Ward.

John Bryson

One of the first people that I ran into on the streets was Brandon Darby. I invited Darby and his staff over to the Fifth District police station where we met in a trailer, of all things. That's what we were actually working out of, temporary trailers. And it was a very interesting first meeting. Brandon kept interrupting what I was telling him, what was expected of them. And he laid some expectations down on police.

He kept saying that you don't understand, I'm an activist. I said yes, Mr. Darby, I know you're an activist, and I'm just being just as polite as I could be. But Brandon was at my throat. He kept saying that you don't understand, we're going to be videotaping you, we're going to be audiotaping you. I mean he was-- very aggressive meeting, I would say, on his part.

But over the coming days and weeks and months of watching them do what they did. Bringing in, my God, doctors and feeding people. It was just a work of art. And I'm not saying this is what they said. I'm telling you what I saw. And we were scratching our heads trying to figure out, well, where's the government?

Michael May

At the same time Bryson was changing his mind about Common Ground, Brandon began changing his mind about Bryson. It started when he got a call from Bryson.

Brandon Darby

He said, hey Brandon. I was driving around my district, thinking of how much I dislike you and what you stand for. And I was like, I was just thinking about how much I dislike you, too. And he was like, but I came across all these youngsters who said that you had given them medicine to deliver to elderly residents. A lot of them I know.

And I said yeah, that's what we do. And he goes, well I'm having a hard time disliking you when you're doing stuff like that. And I said well, I'm having a hard time disliking you when you're talking to me like this. And that was the start of an interesting friendship.

Michael May

Brandon, to his surprise, started thinking that maybe he and some of the police in New Orleans were actually on the same side, trying to do the same thing. Fix a crippled city. Meanwhile, Brandon found himself in an organization with hundreds of volunteers and no clear hierarchy. Others at Common Ground wanted to run the organization by consensus, where everyone gets a say and no one walks around telling other people what to do. But Brandon came to believe that the volunteers did need someone telling them what to do. And what not to do.

Brandon Darby

Folks would take over the kitchen and decide because they were the kitchen now, and they wouldn't tell you this before they took over the kitchen responsibilities, but then once they took over the kitchen responsibilities, it became a vegan kitchen.

That's like, well, A, we're relying on handouts here. Like we don't have money to buy food ourselves to feed people. And, B, the people we're serving don't want vegan food. They might not like ginger noodles every day. And like, well our kitchen has decided-- that we as the kitchen crew have decided through our process that we're not going to serve oppression. And I was like, well, then I've decided that you're not going to work in the kitchen.

A lot of people were mad because, well I don't consense on working in a church because churches are patriarchal, and churches are-- And I say, well, then don't work in a church, but we're working in the church. Thankfully there's like 20 other areas of the city that are open for leadership. Why don't you go talk to Malik and ask Malik if you can take that area and run that area how you see fit.

Michael May

Brandon had rebelled against authority his entire life. He didn't trust authority figures. Now he was the authority figure. And this was one of many ways that Brandon was finding himself out of sync with the anarchists at Common Ground. Brandon yelled at people. He ate meat. He slept with a lot of women. Plenty of them Common Ground volunteers. He owned guns. A lot of people thought he was a bully, including the other people who created Common Ground-- Scott Crowe, Malik Rahim, and Lisa Fithian.

Scott Crowe

He didn't ask a lot of times. He just assumed that nobody knew what they were doing. And he was going to do it, even though he'd never organized anything, never organized, never organized anything. Zero.

Malik Rahim

You know, Common Ground wouldn't be, I know we wouldn't be around now if Brandon would still be here because of the chaos that he started and he perpetuated.

Lisa Fithian

It was all about him if Brandon's all about the community, he's all about community if he gets to be the savior.

Michael May

A documentary on YouTube shows Brandon at his desk when he was in charge of Common Ground. He sits in front of a boarded-up window with a sign on it that says "Stop police corruption. Call Brandon Darby." In the video, he launches into one of his signature political rants that manages to connect Katrina to just about any other historical injustice he can think of.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-Yes, the same people that decided, you know, inject black men with syphilis in Tuskegee and, and decided to drop an atomic bomb that caused cancer in millions and millions of people. We have these people deciding when it is or is not appropriate to deliver humanitarian aid.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

But the more Brandon talked to the residents in New Orleans, the people he was trying to help and trying to sell them on his politics, the less he could avoid yet another unsettling conclusion.

Brandon Darby

As much as I might want revolution, the residents don't.

Michael May

For instance, Brandon had a plan that he was excited about. When the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, made a grandstanding offer to help New Orleans after Katrina, Brandon wanted to take him up on it.

Brandon Darby

Initially, a lot of residents were cool. They're like, I don't care who helps us. But after a while a lot of them weren't. And it was like, yeah, but we can get money and they can build trailers for you, like Chavez trailers. If the FEMA is not going to give you trailers like they're supposed to by law, we'll get Chavez trailers. And then the US government will look at that and go, gee, this is embarrassing. We better build FEMA trailers for them.

And there were like, no, bro. I love my country. It ain't about that for me. My kid's in the military, man. I support my kid in the military. I just want my house, and I want my kids to come back, and I want my grandma's house next door to get fixed. That's all I want. I don't want the Ayatollah buying me any houses. That's OK. I'd rather be homeless.

Ken Gaspard

See, these people in the Ninth Ward ain't activists, bro. They ain't going to be activists.

Michael May

Ken Gaspard again. The Ninth Ward resident.

Ken Gaspard

You know, at one point, they wanted me to come with them to protest the closing, tearing down of one of the low-income projects. I asked him are you [BLEEP] crazy? 'Cause you know what? They'll look at you and go like, hmm, he ain't from here. But me? I'll be the first one they cart off to jail.

Michael May

But in spite of residents' objections, Brandon went to Venezuela. He and a group of activists flew to Caracas. And Brandon met with an official in the Chavez government to ask for money for Common Ground. And that's when things got weird.

Brandon Darby

So we're in his office and I was just like in heaven, I was like, wow. I'm in this revolutionary country for the people of the United States who are oppressed. And over a period of time, the conversation turned into, would I go with him to Colombia to meet with FARC?

Michael May

The FARC is a communist guerrilla group that's been at war with the Colombian government for more than 40 years, and sometimes kidnaps people. Brandon started to get panicky.

Brandon Darby

What if these guys are working with the FARC and want to kidnap an American with resources, or what if-- I didn't know what the heck was going on. But these guys began to pressure me, and over a number of days and over about a week, they were really laying it on me to go with them to Colombia.

Michael May

What was it they were telling you? Why did they want you to?

Brandon Darby

They said they wanted to help me start a guerrilla movement in the swamps of Louisiana. And I was like, I don't think so. I don't think I'm going to do that, thank you.

Michael May

And what--

Brandon Darby

Aren't you a revolutionary? Aren't you a revolutionary? Then what do you care about the danger? Come with us, come-- you should meet these people. I was like, yeah-- Not going to do it, you know?

Michael May

Brandon, it turned out, was not a revolutionary. When push came to shove, he didn't want the violent overthrow of the US government.

When Brandon returned from Venezuela, he went back to Common Ground, but it didn't end well. The group was in chaos and having money troubles. Brandon it took over officially as director of the whole operation. And his blunt methods in contempt for consensus led to a mutiny. Around 10 coordinators at Common Ground resigned in protest. Brandon managed to stay in charge and fix some things in the organization. But within six months, he left Common Ground and never went back.

Brandon Darby

Politics. It's politics, you know? We were no more morally correct than the political system of the US government. It was a big realization for me that I was on the wrong track.

Michael May

I didn't see Brandon for three and a half years after Katrina. And so it's strange, to say the least, to meet the former revolutionary in his hotel room in Minneapolis, where he showed me what he was planning to wear to testify against one of the activists he'd informed on for the FBI.

Brandon Darby

This is my suit and underwear. I didn't bring my slacks over.

Michael May

The FBI did not recruit Brandon. He wasn't a criminal they'd convinced to snitch in exchange for a lower sentence. He went to them, but not right away.

Ira Glass

Coming up. How a revolutionary becomes a spy. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

This is This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Turncoats. And we return to Michael May's story about the political activist, Brandon Darby.

When Brandon left Common Ground and went back to Austin in the beginning of 2007, he turned toward something quite exotic to him. Ordinary life. He bought a house. His daughter was born. He tended his garden.

Brandon Darby

I just tried to fit back into normalcy. Not being in New Orleans. Not being in the situation I was in in New Orleans. I think at the time, I was having a very difficult time making sense of my views, I guess.

Michael May

Brandon also missed the intensity of Common Ground, and the moral certainty. He had idea for an organization called Critical Response, where he would lead medics into war zones to help civilians caught in the crossfire. They'd go to Lebanon, or maybe Darfur. But instead, one of the acquaintances he made while planning Critical Response, an older man who ran a Palestinian charity, came to him with a very different plan.

Brandon Darby

An idea to put explosives on motorcycles so that they could go through the barricades that were meant for vehicles.

Michael May

Where?

Brandon Darby

In Israel. And I didn't agree with it. And that person went further to ask me to help them funnel money to Hezbollah and Hamas. And I was like, no, I'm not doing this, man.

Michael May

Brandon was going to let it go. But the man started asking other people to do it. People Brandon knew. So he went to the one cop he trusted. Major Bryson of the New Orleans Police Department. His onetime adversary, now ally. It was Bryson who suggested that Brandon tell the FBI.

Michael May

So how do you do that? You just walk into the FBI office?

Brandon Darby

No, you don't-- you could just walk in if you wanted to, I suppose. They'd probably talk with you. But a meeting was set up. He gave me a phone number. I called the number. And then that man brought another agent with him. And we met and had a cup of coffee and talked. And I left, and I drove back to Austin. And It was just a strange experience. And I was really bothered by the fact that I had met with the FBI. I felt like I had done something that I would never be able to tell anybody about.

And then ultimately, it began bother me. I was like, well, wait a minute. I just did something that probably prevented people from getting blown up. Who are the people I associate with that if I said, hey, I tried to stop violence, they would be upset with me?

Michael May

And the more Brandon thought about it, the more he remembered how many times he'd come close to violent political action himself. Over the years, he'd been asked by friends to get together and rob an armored car for the revolution. He'd been invited to train to do eco-terrorism. He'd had long, serious talks about committing arson to fight gentrification. He never did any of that. But now, maybe because he'd gotten older and less angry, or because of his experiences at Common Ground and in Venezuela, he decided he needed to take a stand against it.

He called the FBI back and volunteered to become an informant. And in my interviews with him, I asked him over and over-- Why go that far? I could see why he'd gone to the FBI in the first place, but to become an informant? To go undercover? Not many people would choose that option. Especially people who just bought a house and had a kid. I ran one theory by him and he didn't react well.

Brandon Darby

My desire is to be a hero. Like that's a really, I feel a kind of a negative way to portray that. I don't think that's a fair analysis, you know?

Michael May

Why is that--

Brandon Darby

I don't think I want to be a hero anymore than someone who's a firefighter. Are they firefighters because they want to be a hero?

Michael May

Yes.

Brandon Darby

I don't think so.

Michael May

How would you call it, then? I mean you put it like--

Brandon Darby

I think some people feel a natural desire to stick up for others.

Michael May

Why is this up to you?

Brandon Darby

'Cause it's in my lap. It's in my lap, you know? That's the deal. Is some people--

Michael May

But Katrina wasn't in your lap.

Brandon Darby

Well it kinda was in my lap though, that's the thing. Because-- it was in my lap because I had access to buy a boat. And I knew that I had just the right mentality that I was going to go and get my friend. And I knew that nobody was going to tell me I wasn't. And so I did it. That's what I did. And that's kind of been how I've always done things. That's what my brain naturally does, you know? Some people are really good with numbers and they're accountants. My brain thinks of ways to fix things I think are wrong.

Michael May

It was during this conversation, roughly our 17th, that I finally understood. Brandon kept using this analogy. He'd say, if you walked by an alley and saw someone getting beat up, wouldn't you try and stop it? And I thought, well yeah. But how often does that happen? Brandon is always walking by that alley.

Brandon Darby

There some words I get sensitive about, like hero complex. But I kind of think all of us as activists have some degree of that. I definitely know I do, you know? But I think more than that the thing that doesn't feel good is when you could have saved someone and you don't. That sucks. When you can fix something and you don't. When you can't hold people accountable, and you don't.

Michael May

So Brandon's work as an undercover informant for the FBI began. Brandon met David McKay and Brad Crowder, the two guys who were convicted of making molotov cocktails, at a meeting in Austin at the Monkey Wrench Bookstore in February of 2008.

A group called the RNC Welcoming Committee was recruiting protesters for the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul. The goal was to shut down the event with swarms of activists, including some using black bloc anarchist tactics. Protesters you've probably seen with black bandanas covering their faces, making human chains, pushing dumpsters into the street, breaking glass.

The FBI sent Brandon to the RNC Welcoming Committee meeting to check it out. Brandon thought spying on them was a waste of time, but he says when he got there the group used a phrase that alarmed him. They talked about protests involving "a diversity of tactics."

Brandon Darby

It's a common term used in radical leftist circles in relation to arson.

Michael May

And Brandon says from that moment, it seemed possible to him that something violent might happen at the convention. Not likely, but possible.

Brandon Darby

I think ultimately, there's a lot of bark and no bite with a lot of people. I think you have a lot of people who are very reasonable and rational, as much as I might not agree with the way they do think sometimes, pretty reasonable people. But the thing is, there are always someone who will do it, when the space is created for him to do so and the support network is set up for him to do so. I felt like there would probably be some who would do something crazy even though the majority wouldn't.

Michael May

For the next six months, Brandon spied on guys who were essentially younger versions of himself. Two Texas activists in their early 20s who didn't have college degrees and turned to leftist politics to help them make sense of the world. Brandon identified with them, especially Brad.

Brandon Darby

I related to him a lot. And I related to David McKay somewhat, too. I thought he was probably a pretty decent guy who was getting caught up in some stuff that I would have hoped he wouldn't have got caught up in. My initial reaction to he and to Brad was like I should try to find a way to just get these guys and tell them the people they're associating with it are being idiots. But again that's not the role I was playing.

Michael May

The FBI told Brandon that the role he was playing was to be accepted by the group but not to be the leader. But Brandon had an odd way of trying to pull that off. He became a sort of caricature of his former hardcore activist self. In Brandon's own FBI reports entered in David McKay's trial, he talked about berating David and Brad as tofu eaters who needed to bulk up, saying he was going to the RNC to shut the [BLEEP] down. And bragging that any group I go with will be successful. Brad Crowder wouldn't agree to an interview. But David McKay remembers the meetings with Brandon.

David Mckay

We had a lot of discussions about how we need to be-- how he was criticizing us about our physical-- where we were physically. He gave Brad a lot of flack about that because Brad's a very skinny individual. He's not very athletic and stuff like that. And he always, like, put him in a choke hold out of nowhere one time, just to test what Brad would do. And like things like that. Like comments about how Brad specifically, and me too, were kind of like weaklings.

Michael May

Why did you put up with us?

David Mckay

Well, we really didn't want to. We really didn't. And we really didn't feel very comfortable about Brandon for a long time, but it always came into play that we had never done anything like this, ever. We didn't want to just be these guys who just showed up without any, like, credentials, or any kind of credit. And like, that's everything that Brandon was. He was the activist guy from Austin. And like with him, we felt like we were legitimate.

Being a revolutionary instead of an activist was kind of what he made the situation feel like. That we weren't just going here to protest, but we were coming here to fight for our beliefs. Not just to voice our opinion, but to actually fight.

Michael May

Brandon says that if he was busting their chops, it was because he was trying to discourage them without stepping out of character. In other words, the very things that David says egged him on are the things Brandon says were supposed to stop him.

Brandon Darby

When they talked about their willingness to go to prison, then what I did was begin to tease them about the fact that they weren't prepared to go to prison and probably weren't prepared to make those kind of decisions for themselves. Saying like, you guys have no muscle mass. You would get killed in prison.

So yes, I did say things to try to discourage them from doing stuff. And I felt the pull between my role as a person working with law enforcement and my role as just an older person who had some realizations in my life and wanted to discourage people. Was a huge dilemma for me the entire time. It was something that I struggled with the entire time.

Michael May

In August 2008, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, Brandon traveled to Minneapolis with David, Brad and a few others in a van dragging a trailer full of homemade shields and other protest equipment. Brandon tipped off the FBI. And as soon as the group parked the U-Haul, the cops raided it and took the shields and everyone else's stuff. David and Brad were angry about the shields. And they didn't want to show up at the protest empty-handed. So David McKay says they made eight molotov cocktails in about 15 minutes with supplies they bought from a Minneapolis Walmart.

David Mckay

It was just gasoline in a bottle with little bit of oil and then he duct taped the top. And that's it.

Michael May

Where did you do it?

David Mckay

In the bathroom, in the tub. Yeah. No, it is incredibly easy. The fumes were really strong, so right after we went outside. And by that time it was nighttime and we kind of just sat up on the roof and-- He going to get mad at me that I'm going to tell you this but, we talked about-- before we talked to anybody and we were like, I said to him I hope this isn't one of those "when keeping it real goes wrong" scenarios. And we kind of laughed and. No, we were very light-hearted about the whole situation.

Michael May

When word got out to the rest of the activists about the molotovs, they weren't so light-hearted. In fact, they were angry.

David Mckay

When we found like, how the group felt about the situation, that impacted us a lot because we're like, well we're going to bring something to the group of people that we'll be able to use and implement. We'll be doing another good thing. We'll be helping them out.

When we heard from them, you know, what you're doing is ridiculous, stupid, and dangerous. That made us feel like, well, we need to rethink this.

Michael May

What follows is a depressing series of events, no matter whom you believe. David and Brad never used the molotov cocktails. They left them stuffed in bags in a basement while they went out to protest. But Brandon, on behalf of the FBI, asked David what he planned to do with the molotov cocktails.

David now says he didn't want to lose face with Brandon, so he made up a plan. He suggested that he and Brandon use the molotovs that night on a parking lot filled with cop cars next to a checkpoint. If David wasn't serious about doing it, as he testified, he made a terrible mistake by telling an FBI informer that's what he was planning.

David Mckay

I didn't want him to think that I was scared. Scared of what was going to happen. Or afraid of him.

Michael May

Brandon, for his part, says he did everything he could to stop David. But again, the way he did it seems as much like goading as discouragement.

Brandon Darby

I told him a lot of times, a number of times that I didn't think it was a good idea. If he wanted to back out, I wouldn't tell anybody. Nobody would know. I did say I'm a revolutionary and if you want to do this, I'll do it with you. But as a revolutionary, I think people should probably wait 'til they're 30 before they make decisions that could put them in prison for two decades. That's what I said to him. I said it over and over again. That he's not old enough to make that decision. And I'm glad I didn't make decisions like that in my 20s I think people should wait 'til their 30. He got very adamant and angry that he was going to do it whether it helped him or not, and I was like fine. And at a point, I let it go.

Michael May

David and Brandon agreed to meet at 2:00 AM. But when the time rolled around, David blew it off. And then he stopped responding to Brandon's calls. At 4:30 AM, David was awoken by a police officer pointing a rifle at him. He was asleep next to a girl he'd met in Saint Paul. It was around an hour before he was going to the airport to fly back to Austin.

Since then, both Brad and David have pled guilty to the possession of unregistered firearms, which is what the law calls molotov cocktails.

Brandon Darby

Here's a good one. You're a whore.

Michael May

A few months later, Brandon is sitting at his desk reading emails.

Brandon Darby

Brandon, was curious how much money the FBI compensated you for being a sewer rat. Why didn't you advise and guide your friends towards nonviolence? Why not? Because you must be a brainless, heartless FBI whore. Congratulations on your brilliant career of whoring your soul. I'm kind of envious. Does it pay well to be a whore?

Michael May

It didn't pay well actually, Brandon got a total of $12,750 from the FBI, plus $3,028 in expenses.

As a result of his informing, he's been skewered in the alternative press and shunned by many friends. He's gotten death threats.

Michael May

You feel 100% certain that law enforcement was right way to go with this?

Brandon Darby

No, I don't feel 100% certain of anything. It depends on you ask me. You know? It depends when you ask. Sometimes I feel bad enough for them that I don't go to sleep. They made their choices. I made my choices, and we both have things to live with.

Michael May

Here's what Brandon has to live with, as I see it. In one of the first emails he wrote to the FBI after meeting Brad and David. He worried that they might end up as quote "some strange form of collateral damage."

I don't think this means Brandon somehow encouraged Brad and David to make the molotov cocktails, as David's lawyer argued, and as activists all over the country now believe. But I do think that if Brad and David had met Brandon as he actually was, not in character, not playing a role for the FBI, but as an older activist and a natural leader who was profoundly regretful over the extremism of his past views. He would have stopped them from making molotov cocktails. And Brad and David wouldn't be facing years in prison.

Ira Glass

Michael May in Austin Texas. Brad Crowder was sentenced to two years in prison for making and possessing molotov cocktails at the Republican National Convention. David McKay was just sentenced this week. Four years.

[MUSIC - "I SPY (FOR THE FBI) BY JAMO THOMAS]

Act Two. Part Two.

Ira Glass

Act Three. "If the Shoe Fits."

Well, we end our program today with this story of somebody trying not to be a turn coat. From Etgar Keret, who lives in Israel. I'm going to a mention that so you don't wonder, why is this story happening in Israel? It's read for us by actor Matt Malloy.

Matt Malloy

On Holocaust Commemoration Day, our teacher Sarah took us on the number 57 bus to the Vohlin Memorial Museum and I felt really important. All the kids in my class had families that came from Iraq except me and my cousin, and one other kid, Druckman. And I was the only one whose grandfather died in the Holocaust.

The Vohlin Memorial Museum is a really fancy building, all covered in expensive-looking black marble. It had a lot of sad pictures in black and white, and lists of people and countries and victims. We paired up and walk along the wall from one picture to the next. And the teacher said not to touch, but I did.

I touched one of them. A cardboard photograph of a pale and skinny man who was crying and holding a sandwich. The tears running down his cheeks were like the stripes on an asphalt street. And Orit Salem, the girl I was paired up with, said she'd tell the teacher on me. I said as far as I was concerned, she could tell everyone, even the principal. I didn't care. That was my grandfather. And I could touch whatever I wanted.

After the pictures, they took us into a big hall and showed us a movie about little kids being loaded onto a truck. They all choked on gas in the end. After that this skinny old guy came up on stage and told us how the Nazis were scum and murderers. And how I got back at them, and even strangled a soldier to death with his bare hands.

Jerabi, who was sitting next to me, said the old man was lying. And from the looks of him, there wasn't a soldier in the world he could beat up. But I looked into the old man's eyes and I believed him. There were so much anger in them that all the attacks of all the hot shot punks in the world seem like small change by comparison. In the end, after he was finished telling us about what he'd done in the Holocaust, the old man said that everything we'd heard was important. Not just for the past, but for what was happening now, too. Because the Germans were still living, and they still had a country.

The old man said he'd never forgive them and he hoped we wouldn't either. And that we should never, ever go visit their country, God forbid. Because when he and his parents had arrived in Germany 50 years ago, everything looked really nice. And it ended in hell.

People have short memories sometimes, he says. Especially for bad things. They prefer to forget, but don't you forget. Every time you see a German, remember what I told you. And every time you see anything that was made in Germany, even if it's a TV, always remember that the picture tube and the other parts underneath the pretty wrapping were made out of the bones, and skin, and flesh of dead Jews.

On our way out, Jerabi said again and if that old man had strangled so much as a cucumber, he'd eat his t-shirt. And I thought it was lucky our fridge was made in Israel, 'cause who needs trouble?

Two weeks later, my parents came back from abroad and brought me a pair of sneakers. My older brother told my mother that's what I wanted. And she bought the best ones. Mom smiled when she handed them to me. She was sure I didn't know what was in the bag. But I could tell right away by the Adidas logo. I took the shoe box out of the bag and said thank you.

The box was rectangular. Like a coffin. And inside it lay two white shoes with three blue stripes on them. And on the side it said Adidas Rom. I didn't have to open the box to know that. Let's try them on, Mom said, pulling the paper out. See if they fit.

She was smiling the whole time. She didn't realize what was happening. They're from Germany, you know?, I told her and squeezed her hand hard. Of course I know, Mom smiled, Adidas is the best make the world. Grandpa was from Germany, too, I tried hinting. Grandpa was from Poland, Mom corrected me. She grew sad for a moment. But it passed right away, and she put one of the shoes on my foot and started lacing it up.

I didn't say anything. I knew by then it was no use. Mom was clueless. She never been to the Vohlin Memorial Museum. Nobody had ever explained it to her. And for her, shoes were just shoes. And Germany was really Poland. So I let her put them on my feet and I didn't say anything. There was no point in telling her. It would just make her sadder. After I said thank you one more time and gave her a kiss on the cheek, I said I was going out to play.

Watch it, eh? Dad kidded from his armchair in the living room. Don't you go wearing down the soles in a single afternoon. I took another look at the pale leather shoes on my feet. And thought back about all the things the old man who strangled the soldier said we should remember. I touched the Adidas stripes again, and remembered my Grandpa in the cardboard photograph.

Are the shoes comfortable? Mom asked. Of course they're comfortable, my brother answered instead of me. Those shoes aren't just some cheap local brand. They're the very same shoe that Pele used to wear. I tiptoed slowly towards the door, trying to put as little weight on them as possible. I kept walking that way towards Ben Gurion Park.

Outside, the kids from Borouchoff Elementary were forming three soccer teams-- Holland, Argentina, and Brazil. The Holland group was one player short, so they agreed to let me join even though they usually never took anyone who didn't go to Borouchoff. When the game started, I still remembered to be careful not to kick with a tip, so I wouldn't hurt Grandpa. But as it continued, I forgot. Just like the old man at the Vohlin Memorial Museum said people do. And I even scored the tiebreaker with a volley kick.

After the game was over, I remembered and looked down at them. They were so comfortable all of a sudden. And springier, too. Much more than they'd seemed when they were still in the box. What a volley that was, eh? I'm reminded Grandpa on our way home. The goalie didn't even know what hit him. Grandpa didn't say anything. But from the bounce in my step, I could tell he was happy, too.

Ira Glass

Matt Malloy, reading the story "Shoes" from Etgar Keret's collection of short fiction that's titled, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, and Other Stories.

Our program is produced today by Sarah Keonig and me. With Alex Blumberg. Jane Geltes, publicist. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Andy Dixon. Seth Lind is our production manager. Music help by Jessica Hopper.

Act Four. If The Shoe Fits.

Brandon Darby

I don't, I don't, I don't want the Ayatollah buying me any houses. That's OK. I'd rather be homeless.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories from This American Life.

[MUSIC]

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