Conspiracy Law and being true to yourself

In a number of recent cases, the police have used infiltrators/provocateurs posing as activists to entrap people on charges of conspiracy to set fires or blow things up. People went to jail just for talking about such actions, even though no property was ever damaged. In one case, a young punk woman got to know people over a period of years going to mass protests and radical convergences. She flirted and traveled with people, wrote posts for Indymedia, acted as a medic at mass protests, contributed money and resources to activist projects, and gained lots of people’s trust and respect for how radical she was. All the while, she was giving real-time reports to the police and FBI, wearing a wire to record conversations, and plotting her next move with government handlers and psychological consultants.

In the end, she put a lot of pressure on people to participate in illegal property destruction that she was suggesting, and her victims agreed in large part because they wanted to impress her, maintain her respect, and show her that they were “really radical” and totally devoted to the cause. This dynamic frequently operates even when a government agent is not involved. People get involved in militant actions that they may not feel comfortable with for the wrong reasons — due to peer pressure and out of the sometimes mistaken impression that being more militant always makes us more effective.

It’s important to understand how conspiracy charges work and not get yourself in trouble with a bunch of loose talk that you have no intention of ever acting on. You can be guilty of conspiracy just for agreeing with one other person to commit a crime even if you never go through with it — all that is required is an agreement to do something illegal and a single “overt act” in furtherance of the agreement, which can be a totally legal act like going to a store.

Sometimes activist campaigns involve breaking the law — for example trespassing at a powerplant or clearcut site. And sometimes masked figures disable a bulldozer or engage in other highly illegal property destruction. As you read the historical events in this calendar, you’ll see many times when illegal actions were reasonable, helpful or even necessary to move social change forward. Having said that, deciding to do such direct actions must involve a careful weighing of the risks (to others, to your own freedom, to public opinion about the movement) and the benefits. Actions with minimal risks are easier to consider. Hopefully, actions involving huge risks are considered very calmly and carefully.

You and only you have to determine if you feel comfortable with each particular action. If you feel unsure or uncomfortable with what other people are talking about doing, the brave thing isn’t necessarily to go along with someone else’s idea and suppress your own fear and misgivings. If someone is proposing something that you’re unsure about, it can require a lot of courage to excuse yourself from the situation. Responsible activists considering risky actions will want to respect other people’s boundaries and limits and won’t want to pressure you into doing things you’re not ready for. Doing so is coercive and disrespectful — hardly a good basis on which to build a new society or an effective action.

We shouldn’t be paranoid that everyone advocating militant action is a government agent, but it is reasonable to be suspicious of people in the scene who pressure us, manipulate us, offer to give us money or weapons, or make us feel like we aren’t cool if we don’t feel comfortable with a particular tactic, no matter why they do these things. Sometimes the most radical thing we can do is to be true to our own intuition and take the time to think through each situation.