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This past October, at an Occupy encampment in Cleveland, Ohio, "suspicious males with walkie-talkies around their necks" and "scarves or towels around their heads" were heard grumbling at the protesters' unwillingness to act violently. At meetings a few months later, one of them, a 26-year-old with a black Mohawk known as "Cyco," explained to his anarchist colleagues how "you can make plastic explosives with bleach," and the group of five men fantasized about what they might blow up. Cyco suggested a small bridge. One of the others thought they’d have a better chance of not hurting people if they blew up a cargo ship. A third, however, argued for a big bridge – "Gotta slow the traffic that's going to make them money" – and won. He then led them to a connection who sold them C-4 explosives for $450. Then, the night before the May Day Occupy protests, they allegedly put the plan into motion – and just as the would-be terrorists fiddled with the detonator they hoped would blow to smithereens a scenic bridge in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park traversed by 13,610 vehicles every day, the FBI swooped in to arrest them.
The guy who convinced the plotters to blow up a big bridge, led them to the arms merchant, and drove the team to the bomb site was an FBI informant. The merchant was an FBI agent. The bomb, of course, was a dud. And the arrest was part of a pattern of entrapment by federal law enforcement since September 11, 2001, not of terrorist suspects, but of young men federal agents have had to talk into embracing violence in the first place. One of the Cleveland arrestees, Connor Stevens, complained to his sister of feeling "very pressured" by the guy who turned out to be an informant and was recorded in 2011 rejecting property destruction: "We're in it for the long haul and those kind of tactics just don't cut it," he said. "And it's actually harder to be non-violent than it is to do stuff like that." Though when Cleveland's NEWS Channel 5 broadcast that footage, they headlined it "Accused Bomb Plot Suspect Caught on Camera Talking Violence."
In all these law enforcement schemes the alleged terrorists masterminds end up seeming, when the full story comes out, unable to terrorize their way out of a paper bag without law enforcement tutelage. ("They teach you how to make all this stuff out of simple household items," one of the kids says on a recording quoted in the FBI affidavit about a book he has just discovered, The Anarchist Cookbook. Someone asks him how much it says explosives cost. "I'm not sure," he responds, "I just downloaded it last night.") It’s a perfect example of how post-9/11 fear made law enforcement tactics seem acceptable that were previously beyond the pale. Previously, however, the targets have been Muslims; now they’re white kids from Ohio. And maybe you could argue that this is acceptable, if the feds were actually acting out of a good-faith assessment of what threats are imminent and which are not. But that's not what they're doing at all. Instead, they are arrogating to themselves a downright Orwellian power – the power to deploy the might of the State to shape a fundamental narrative about which ideas Americans must be most scared of, and which ones they should not fear much at all, independent of the relative objective dangerousness of the people who hold those ideas.
To see how, travel with me to rural Florida, and another arrest that occurred at almost exactly the same time. On April 28, members of American Front, a white-supremacist group labeled "a known terrorist organization" in the affidavit justifying the arrest, took a break from training with machine guns for a race war in order to fashion weapons out of fake "Occupy" signs which they planned to use to assault May Day protesters in Melbourne, Florida. No script, no choreography for maximal impact on sensation-hungry news broadcasts, no melodramatic press conference with a U.S. attorney and FBI Special Agent in Charge; this arrest only went down after an informant working with state law enforcement fled in fear for his or her life after being threatened by the group's leader Marcus Faella with a 9mm pistol. And though the media reported the involvement of a "joint terrorism task force of FBI and local law enforcement" the arresting affidavit does not even mention federal law enforcement; the charges filed were state, not federal. A circuit court judge scrawled a bail amount of $51,250; that was accidentally knocked down to $500. The Cleveland anarchists were held without bond.
Ideally, I'm sure all of us would feel better, safer, knowing that our tax dollars were being spent rooting out would be terrorists. However, it seems our FBI is quite lazy, well, maybe not so much lazy as completely horribly corrupt.
I recently spoke with Richard Schulte, a veteran activist who has known the Five from groups like Food Not Bombs and is helping to organize their legal and jail support. Schulte explained that under the influence of undercover federal agents and informants, the activists — particularly the youngest, Baxter and Stevens — found themselves increasingly vulnerable and reliant on their informant. Baxter’s lawyer, a public defender named John Pyle, recently identified the informant working with the group as Shaquille Azir, a 39-year old ex-con.
“[Azir] became something of a role model, stepping in as a father figure, offering guidance on emotional and social stuff,” said Schulte. “Connor and Brandon thought he was a rad dude but getting more and more pushy.”
Collectively, according to accounts from friends and associates, statements from lawyers, and the FBI affidavit, members of the Cleveland Five have backgrounds that include mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and social marginalization.
Brandon and Connor had been part of the full-time occupation over the winter in Cleveland’s Public Square. After having grown frustrated with what they perceived as the Occupiers’ timidity — Schulte called it “passive gradualism” — the Five were encouraged by Azir to break off from Occupy Cleveland and form their own, much smaller group, “The People’s Liberation Army.” At first it was mostly just a graffiti crew — tagging the phrase “rise up” around the city and putting up stickers, said Schulte.
Azir would give them a case of beer in the morning, according to Schulte, have them work outside on houses all day, and then give them a case of beer at night. He gave them marijuana and would wear them down by keeping them up late into the night with drinking and conversation — all the while urging them to break away from other groups, keep their arrangement secret and not to trust other activists.
Looking back, Schulte said Azir and the FBI used “security culture against activists” and “developed patterns of trust to seem legit.” The Cleveland Five, he explains, “were coached by the federal government.”
MAY 2--The paid informant who helped orchestrate the FBI sting that resulted in the arrest of five anarchists for allegedly plotting to blow up an Ohio bridge is a convicted felon who was arrested on bad check and theft charges in the midst of his cooperation with federal investigators, The Smoking Gun has learned.
Shaquille Azir, 39, was named in a pair of felony indictments filed in January in Cuyahoga County, according to court records. Azir, who TSG has identified as the informant in the federal bombing case, is accused in the indictments of passing bad checks on July 25, 2011 and December 22, 2011.
Azir, “has been working as a source for the FBI since July 20, 2011,” according to the U.S. District Court complaint filed yesterday against the alleged bomb plotters. Wearing a body recorder, Azir captured the five self-styled anarchists plotting to use C-4 explosive to take down a Cleveland-area bridge.
CHICAGO (AP) — Three activists who traveled to Chicago for a NATO summit were accused Saturday of manufacturing Molotov cocktails in a plot to attack President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and other targets.
But defense lawyers shot back that Chicago police had trumped up the charges to frighten peaceful protesters away, telling a judge it was undercover officers known by the activists as "Mo" and "Gloves" who brought the firebombs to a South Side apartment where the men were arrested.
"This is just propaganda to create a climate of fear," Michael Deutsch said. "My clients came to peacefully protest."
On the eve of the summit, the dramatic allegations were reminiscent of previous police actions ahead of major political events, when authorities moved quickly to prevent suspected plots but sometimes quietly dropped the charges later.
If convicted on all counts — conspiracy to commit terrorism, material support for terrorism and possession of explosives — the men could get up to 85 years in prison.
Outside the courtroom, Deutsch said the two undercover police officers or informants were also arrested during the Wednesday raid, and defense attorneys later lost track of the two.
"We believe this is all a setup and entrapment to the highest degree," Deutsch said.
The suspects were each being held on $1.5 million bond. Six others arrested Wednesday in the raid were released Friday without being charged.
The three who remained in custody apparently came to Chicago late last month to take part in May Day protests. Relatives and acquaintances said the men were wanderers who bounced around as part of the Occupy movement and had driven together from Florida to Chicago, staying with other activists.
Court records indicated no prior violent behavior.
Longtime observers of police tactics said the operation seemed similar to those conducted by authorities in other cities before similarly high-profile events.
For instance, prior to the Republican National Convention in 2008 in St. Paul, Minn., prosecutors charged eight activists who were organizing mass protests with terrorism-related crimes after investigators said they recovered equipment for Molotov cocktails, slingshots with marbles and other items.
The protesters, who became known as the RNC Eight, denied the allegations and accused authorities of stifling dissent. The terrorism charges were later dismissed. Five of the suspects eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, and three had their cases dismissed altogether.
Molotov cocktails are dangerous weapons, but it "kind of stretches the bounds to define that as terrorism," said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He said police have a history of abusing such tactics, sometimes infiltrating purely peaceful protest groups to search for troublemakers.
But if the allegations are true, police were justified in moving quickly to take the men off the streets, even if the terrorism charges don't stick.
Just one week before their arrest, at least two of the suspects were involved in a minor confrontation with police captured on a video that was then posted on YouTube and aired widely by Chicago media, said another defense attorney, Sarah Gelsomino.
The men had been stopped by police after turning their car into a private driveway.
In the video, one officer asks another what Chicago police would have said in 1968 when they clashed with demonstrators at the Democratic National convention.
"Billy club to the ... skull," the officer responds. Another officer says to the men in the car, who the police take as protesters, "We'll come look for you."