Editor’s Note: In August 2008, Brad Crowder and David McKay, two young activists from Austin, Texas, traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to protest the Republican National Convention. After a trailer full of their supplies and homemade shields were seized by St. Paul police without explanation, the two sought retaliation.For months an older activist and FBI informant had been goading Brad and David to take stronger action, telling them he was going to St. Paul to “shut the fucker down.”
The night of Aug. 31 Crowder and McKay assembled eight Molotov cocktails in the building they were staying in near the convention center. The next day they decided not to use them, but failed to dispose of the devices before leaving for protests.
On the morning of Sept. 2 – the day Sarah Palin was introduced to the world – McKay was awakened by a cop’s rifle pointing at his face. Labeled by officials as “domestic terrorists” and the “Texas Two” by supporters, they found themselves the subject of a high-profile government case meant to justify tens of millions of dollars in security expenses for the convention. Crowder was sentenced to two years in jail and was released last year, while McKay was sentenced to four years.Brad and David’s story are told in the award-winning new documentary, Better This World, which will air nationwide Sept. 6 on the PBS program POV.
The following is Brad Crowder’s first published account of his experience, an exclusive to The Indypendent newspaper and Truthout.
It began with the sound of the cold metal ratchet, the pressure gripping my wrists and squeezing all the way up to my heart. A brief, almost flippant sentence uttered by Special Agent Christopher Langert signified my terrifying new reality: "Mr. Crowder, you are under arrest by the FBI.
Five days earlier, I had been arrested by the cops in Minneapolis for "Failure to Disperse from an Unlawful Assembly." We had been rounded up en masse. I had just seen David surrender to the police and witnessed another cop wield his baton like a bat across the head of a photojournalist. Another comrade, whom I knew from antiracist and antifascist organizing, was with me. Tears were streaming down his face; he was screaming at the police, his voice a poignant mix of rage, indignation and helplessness.
"Noah, come on man, we've got to go." I pressed against his chest, trying to keep him from being separated from the herd to be picked off by black-clad jackals who carried their fangs in their hands and on their belts.
But it was too late, and we had been corralled into a parking lot. The ranks closed ahead of us as we ran, turning to see another line of professional violence block each avenue of freedom. The dark noose quickly began shrinking, choking us off. I had seen protest videos before. I knew what was coming.
"Noah! We gotta get down!" I grabbed him by the shoulder and we went belly down on the asphalt amid the chaos. I looked up at the sky and saw it fill with black. A boot came down on my back, pinning me. I turned my head in a pathetic attempt to escape the spray. A stinging cloud soaked my long, blonde hair, hit the asphalt and splashed across my face and eyes. I felt the oily, peppery stench of capitalism, of the state, clinging to my flesh and burning it.
I managed to look up and see a riot cop barreling toward a videographer. He was backpedaling, camera in one hand, press credentials in the other, pleading, "But I'm press! I'm press!" It seemed naïve: a sweet faith in goodness and reason regardless of the batshit craziness going on all around.
That cop never missed a step, plowing into the journalist with a full head of steam, leaving him splayed across the parking lot and his camera destroyed. Let this be a lesson to those inclined to reason with the state. It contains no reason; it has only command, obedience and violence.
My hands were zip-tied and I was bundled onto a bus to be taken to Ramsey County Jail. As far as I knew, I was looking at a petty misdemeanor charge that carried a $300 bail. I had been arrested before for a $20 sack of weed and various traffic fines that I had refused to pay due to a combination of poverty, principle and irresponsibility. Jail wasn't a new experience for me, so I was nervous but relatively light hearted.
That changed two days later, when I heard the door to my unit slam shut. I was in a cell by myself at the time, laying on my bunk and trying to block out the burn of the pepper spray that still soaked my hair and clothes. Ultimately they held me for about five days covered in pepper spray, unable to escape that god-awful burn. My hands were beginning to crack due to my incessant hand washing. I held them to a vent to blow the pepper off. I doused them in milk. Without a change of clothes and a shower, it was all just a practice in desperate futility. I still really fucking resent those assholes for that.
Anyway, I heard the door slam. I saw David being led into the unit by a pair of men who wore their credentials on chains around their necks and clearly shopped at Men's Warehouse.
David was wearing completely different clothing from the protest. This confused me and I became very scared. What I didn't know at the time was that the building where David and the rest of us were staying had been raided by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
I became scared because David and I had made eight Molotov Cocktails the night before the protests began. The firebomb of the poor, they consisted of motor oil and gasoline poured into wine bottles that were duct-taped closed, with cotton tampons rubber-banded to the sealed necks. When the tampon was lit and the bottle thrown, the shattered glass would release the accelerant to be ignited by the flame. We were stupid for making them, but smart for not using them. When we woke up the next day we decided not to use them and to destroy them when we had the chance. What had gone wrong? Something had clearly spiraled out of control, but I had no idea what lay in store for me.
WHO’S THE TERRORIST?
I learned soon enough that our faces were all over the papers, television and the internet. I was now a “domestic terrorist.” They were serious.
I wasn't allowed a phone call for a week. All my family and friends learned of my fate via the media. My mom saw it on the local Midland news. Two close friends saw my mug shot plastered across the big screen TV at a club in Austin.I couldn't process any of it. The term domestic terrorist sounded so melodramatic. I could never build any sort of connection between my identity and the term itself. Hell, as far as it seemed to me, David and I were the only ones terrified.
IN THE PIT
When Special Agent Langert ratcheted those cold metal cuffs on my wrist, it was to transport me from state to federal custody. When I arrived at the intake, the booking area was stuffed with bodies, around 70, all coming in from anti-immigrant ICE raids. Processing was going to take a lifetime.
They split David and me up into isolation cells consisting of a concrete slab on the floor and a metal toilet/sink combination that lacked hot water. What I thought was a frosted window turned out to be a mind-numbing light that never switched off, totally disorienting me as to the passage of time. The walls were covered with a repulsive greasy paste. I never figured out what the substance was, but I didn't investigate because of a fear of what it might have been.
I sat on the concrete slab, disgusted but thankful I was only going to be in there while they processed all the immigration raid victims into the general population. Hours seemed to pass before a guard cracked the door to have me processed. At long last this included a shower and change of clothes from my street wear into jailhouse oranges. They processed my paperwork and I was anxious to move from the dungeon in which they had housed me.
When the guard placed me back into my isolation cell, he looked in, paused, and then asked why I hadn't gotten bedding. My heart sank because I then realized I was stuck in this disgusting pit on 24-hour lockdown. Two days in I received a paper from the prison administration, stating that I was being held in isolation for "my safety and the safety of the institution."
After a few days in the pit, I was transported to my first federal fourt hearings. I sat in the Chief Justice's courtroom with my attorney Andrew and looked back at the galley to see reporters scattered around. I turned to Andrew and asked in a quiet, shaky voice if this was a high-profile case. He pursed his lips and bobbed his head. Yes, it was a high-profile case. At first these were terrifying, surreal ordeals. Eventually they became another numbing routine of incarceration.
Prison was bad, but court was worse. In prison, the monsters in the room were generally the minority and much less dangerous. More honest, too. I can't recall the number of times I watched police testify in damning detail of anything that could hang me or David, while conveniently being "unable to recall" anything that might paint us as halfway human. The most enraging example was the "wooden baton" issue.
One officer testified under oath that during a warrentless raid of our travel group's UHaul trailer, he and his team had seized a large number of wooden batons that were to be used to attack cops during the protest. I wanted to stand and scream, to demand to see one "baton," one photo of a "baton," for God's sake, one witness to one of these "batons.” It was pure fiction. Nothing approximating a "wooden baton" existed. All I could do was sit in my chair and stare dumbfounded around the courtroom. I knew, abstractly, that the system was crooked, but this was concrete reality.
The same officer was asked why they had conducted the raid without a warrant. His answer pissed me off as much as the manufactured evidence. He said that given the protests the department was in "disruptive" and not "investigative" mode. Since they were more interested in disrupting protest activity as opposed to prosecuting under due process of law, there was no worry about "tainting" any evidence. The only check that was supposed to prevent illegal raids was tossed out the window, with total legality.
What needs to be said about my trip through the gantlet that is the Federal Criminal Justice System can never be properly articulated in a book or a movie or a miniseries. The truth won't fit into those boxes. Corners and edges of the story must be clipped.
I want, desperately, to write about what I learned from inmates. I want to write volumes, inspirational volumes, extolling the humanity of those I met inside the god-awful human warehouse that is prison, that these men are neither angels or demons, in all their fucked up, contradictory glory. I want to defend David against the sloppy misstatements and outright lies and attacks leveled against him. I want to put his one lie against the wall of lies built against him by this system that postures so self-righteously over the bodies it jails and buries.
But I can't in any medium. There can be no representation of the truth. It can only be leveled by the historical movement of myself, of David, of Cowboy, Ghost, Peanut, Bob, and all the others, inside and out, slammed by a twisted and historically irrelevant system. The truth can be told in only one way, through the revolution of this system, this shit. The truth of racism can only be articulated in the revolution against it. The truth of prisons, of terrorism, of State violence, of poverty, of war, and hopelessness can only be articulated in their negation.
Am I a domestic terrorist? It is a question I often asked myself, and others asked me how it felt to be labeled as such. The truth is it didn’t mean anything at all. The term is fundamentally absurd and deeply politicized. Kicking in people's doors at 3 a.m. and raiding their home at gunpoint is terrorism, whether in Baghdad or Baltimore. Building bombs may be really stupid, but at least David and I had enough of a moral compass to choose not to use them, as opposed to dropping them on civilians and cities.
But then again I'm "red-blooded" white American. Yes, I was targeted for my activism, but not for my name, for my faith, or the color of my skin. I wasn't targeted because I have family being crushed in the desert on the other side of the world. I'm not Muslim. And that is who is being targeted, spied upon, egged on, entrapped and then destroyed en masse. Domestic terrorist is an absurd term, and in its absurdity it is terrifyingly dangerous.
Despite the danger the term poses, I see only hypocrisy. Would you take Bernie Madoff seriously if he called you a crook? Why should I take the Feds, the most bomb-laden, destructive gaggle of lost souls on the planet, seriously for calling me a terrorist?
My life today is fine, except for knowing how many great people are in prison: David in particular. I'm in college studying economics. It's terrible, but for some reason I love it. I work at a local sandwich shop, the same one I worked at before I was arrested. I still organize and will continue to do so until I'm dead. I look at the Arab Spring, the European rebellions, and the rumblings of working people in the U.S., and I see clearly on whose side history rests.
They say I'm a domestic terrorist. I say they are on their way out. Let's see who's right.