I started Occupy Wall Street. Russia tried to co-opt me
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on November 2, 2017.
I have sometimes been approached by persons that I suspected were either agents or assets of intelligence agencies during the 20 years that I have been a social activist. The tempo of these disconcerting encounters increased when I abruptly relocated to a remote town on the Oregon coast after the defeat of Occupy Wall Street, a movement I helped lead. My physical inaccessibility seemed to provoke a kind of desperation among these shadowy forces.
There was the man purporting to be an internet repair technician who arrived unsolicited at our rural home and then tinkered with our modem. Something felt odd and I was not surprised when CNN later reported that posing as internet repairmen is a known tactic of the FBI.
I’ve had other suspicious encounters. A couple seeking advice on starting a spiritual activist community, for example, but whose story made little sense. And a former Occupy activist who moved to my town to, I felt, undermine my activism and gather information about me.
Those few friends that I confided in dismissed my suspicions as mild paranoia. And perhaps it was. I stopped talking about it and instead became highly selective about the people I met, emails I responded to and invitations I accepted.
I hinted at the situation by adding a section to my book, The End of Protest, warning activists to beware of frontgroups. And, above all, I learned to trust my intuition – if someone gave me a tingly sense then I stayed away. That is why I almost ignored the interview request from Yan Big Davis.
Yan Big contacted me for the first time through my website on 18 May 2016. He wrote that he wanted to interview me about protest for an organization called Black Matters, an online community that he claimed had 200,000 likes. His email was strange. His English was awkward. I’d never heard of Black Matters but it sounded like a copycat of Black Lives Matter.
My intuition told me to stay away. And initially I did. But two weeks later, on a lark, I wrote back and accepted his request. In a sign of my residual wariness, I scheduled the interview for nearly a month after his original email.
The interview with Yan Big was immediately uncomfortable. The phone quality was terrible: it sounded like he was calling internationally or through a distant internet connection. He had a strange accent and an unusual way of phrasing questions. He was obviously not a typical American.
I rationalized that he must be an African immigrant living in America and that was why he was interested in protesting against racism and police brutality. His attempts at flattery set off more alarm bells. I finished up the interview as quickly as possible and got off the phone.
Yan Big posted the interview on the Black Matters website and for the next few months he emailed me to ask for help promoting protests in America against the continued incarceration of the MOVE 9 and Jerome Skee Smith. I never replied again.
I actively forgot about Yan Big until 18 months later when a reporter with Russia’s RBC informed me that Black Matters was a frountgroup run by the nefarious Internet Research Agency, a Russian private intelligence and propaganda firm – a “troll factory” - with deep ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Black Matters was one of many fake activist groups, such as Blacktivist and the police brutality tracker DoNotShoot.us, created to mimic and influence American protesters. RBC discovered around 120 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram frontgroup accounts with a combined total of 6 million followers and likes.
As a revolutionary American activist I’d been on guard against domestic intelligence agencies, not foreign governments, and Russia exploited that posture.
The American media started calling me within hours of RBC breaking the story. Russia had attempted to use me for their anti-democratic agenda – rather unsuccessfully as I had stopped replying to their emails – and now the American corporate media was vying to use me for theirs.
BuzzFeed rushed out a report. CNN sent a car to transport me to Time Warner headquarters for an on-camera interview that was instantly uncomfortable in a way oddly reminiscent of my brief encounter with Yan Big.
CNN’s interviewer and producer seemed to want me to play the naive victim: angry at the US government for not protecting me and furious at the Silicon Valley tech companies for allowing this to happen. I got the tingly sense and refused this disempowering and anti-revolutionary narrative.
Instead, I gave a nuanced reply and told them I wanted a revolution in America, not a clampdown on social media’s role in protest. CNN did not air the interview. The same thing happened when I spoke with a producer of NPR’s flagship show All Things Considered.
So what is the American media unwilling to consider?
First of all, Russia’s efforts are part of a larger shift in the nature of war in which activists are becoming the pawns of superpowers. We are witnessing the advent of social movement warfare: the deployment of social protest as an effective alternative to conventional military conflict.
Russia’s attempts to foment, stage and manage social protest in western democracies is a strategic response to allegedly American-funded “color revolutions” like the Rose, Orange and Tulip revolutions against Russian-allied governments in Georgia (2003-2004), Ukraine (2004-2005) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) along with, arguably, the Arab Spring (2010-2012) and Euromaidan Revolution (2013-2014).
The Russian ministry of defense hosted an international conference in 2014whose primary focus was developing counter-strategies against these color revolutions. And, although this has never been publicly disclosed, it is reasonable to suspect that sparking a color revolution in America was discussed in the backrooms.
I am reluctant to respond to this trend by calling for a ban on foreign support for domestic activism. This kind of meddling might be a necessary evil. I can think of very few successful revolutions that did not rely on foreign aid.
France supported the American Revolution beginning with the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1778. Germany, which was at war with Russia, helped Lenin return from exile to lead the Bolshevik Russian Revolution in 1917. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa received significant international support. Or here is an example close to my heart: Occupy Wall Street, a global movement that ostensibly began in New York City, was actually created by a Canadian magazine.
In fact, although it is rarely discussed, the Occupy movement received substantial support from Russia. I remember how the state-owned RT television station (formerly Russia Today) aggressively supported the movement with hyperbolic coverage of police brutality.
RT even rewarded one prominent Occupy political comedian known for YouTube tirades with his own show, Redacted Tonight. A recent profile of that former activist revealed his now complete reluctance to criticize Putin. And during the height of the movement, RT invited David Graeber and other prominent founding Occupiers from New York City to London to film an episode of Julian Assange’s show.
These were all obvious attempts to co-opt our social protest by amplifying it and becoming the movement’s primary mouthpiece and media source. But it still helped Occupy spread to 82 countries.
What is qualitatively different about the situation today, and reason for genuine concern among activists, is that Russia now seems less interested in supporting authentic movements and more concerned with outright control.
Russia never tried, as far as we know, to splinter off a fake Occupy frontgroup. Back then Russia wasn’t seeking to create American movements directly led and controlled by Russian citizens.
Today, on the contrary, we know that Russians created fake Black Lives Matter protests and fake Standing Rock social media accounts. This shift from providing support to actively establishing groups under their total control is the real danger activists must resist.
From co-opting Occupy to cloning Black Lives Matter, the next step will be the creation of new, previously unheard of, contagious social protests in America that are conceived, designed, launched and remotely controlled entirely by foreign governments.
Many activists might join these protests because they believe in the cause being espoused without realizing who owns the leadership. But if the suspicion becomes widespread that tomorrow’s social movements are actually Russian, Chinese or North Korean frontgroups then there will be a profound delegitimization of protest that significantly bolsters the anti-democratic forces in western democracies that already want to clamp down on activism.
Both outcomes represent truly terrifying future scenarios that lead to the most pressing question of all: what can activists do?
The way forward begins with an honest acknowledgement from American activists that we were complicit in Russia’s ability to mimic our protest movements. We allowed our techniques of protest to become so entirely predictable that a fake Black Lives Matter group can gain more likes than the real one and an agent in Moscow can organize a plausible protest in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Activism has become scripted and this has increased not only the ineffectiveness of our protests but also our susceptibility to mimicry by external anti-democratic forces. The indistinguishability between fake and real protest is a wake-up call for protesters and must be the catalyst for a profound rethink of contemporary activism.
That is how we protect ourselves. Here is how we fight back.
Genuine social protests tend to boomerang around the world. So let’s ensure that foreign governments fear that the protests they create abroad will return home. To protect against fake activism in America we must insist that every protest be globally oriented.
That means exporting our protests to every country, especially those suspected of supporting, co-opting or controlling our movements. If Russia wants to create civil rights protests in Oakland then they must be prepared to deal with those same protests back into Moscow. From this point forward, our best defense is a global offense.