by Steve ChaseJuly 18, 2017
In my June 20 post, “Let’s Get Strategic,” I critique the argument for mixing violent and nonviolent tactics in our movements, or what is often euphemistically called a “diversity of tactics.” In this post, I want to add that as an activist, I also have never seen anyone promoting violent tactics get real enough to mention, let alone discuss, the agent provocateur problem that has long bedeviled popular resistance movements.
The term agent provocateur is French and literally translates in English to “inciting agent.” While the term may be best known today as a luxury lingerie brand, in movement circles it refers to paid government agents who infiltrate social movements and pretend to be activists. These paid agents work at being disruptive influences within movements and discredit movements in the public eye by taking, or encouraging others to take, detrimental actions such as violence. Their ultimate objectives are to decrease mass participation in the movement, decrease sympathy for the movement, and to create plausible excuses to repress the movement with increasing violence.
This practice has a long history in many countries around the world, including the United States. It has been well-documented that the FBI and many local police departments, and some corporate security offices, have used such covert anti-movement tactics for decades. Why do advocates of a “diversity of tactics” not squarely face this reality? The likely reason is that agents provocateurs typically advocate for the same kinds of “low-level violent” tactics that they do.
There is simply no documented case that I know of where a paid undercover government or corporate agent has encouraged activists to engage in strategic civil resistance tactics and maintain their nonviolent discipline doing it. They do not see such movement actions as being in their interest. The actual tactics encouraged by paid agents provocateurs are dividing movements by denouncing nonviolent activists as not being sufficiently radical, and sometimes accosting and assaulting them. During public mobilizations, agents provocateurs yell at counter-demonstrators, punch them, break windows, burn cars, riot, and street fight with police.
The powerholders that hire agents provocateurs know that undermining a movement’s nonviolent discipline, and encouraging the kinds of tactics also advocated by some well-meaning but strategically challenged activists, makes movements easier to defeat. Low-level movement violence is in the powerholders’ interest. If it wasn’t, how likely would it be that oppressive regimes all over the world would routinely spend significant time, human resources, and money trying to get activists in growing movements to engage in violent activities?
The powerholders’ understanding of movement dynamics makes sense. In her comparative case study research reported in her 2011 book Nonviolent Revolutions, Sharon Erickson Nepstad discovered that the three failed national civil resistance movements she studied had a significantly lower level of nonviolent discipline and, as a result, far fewer defections among the police, military, and security services than the three successful cases she examined. None of this surprises government agents provocateurs. Yet, advocates of movement violence seem oblivious.
For me, it has always been a painful irony that the small but sincere group of Black Bloc anarchists who regularly engage in these types of “low-level violent” behaviors during mass nonviolent actions are unwittingly doing the dirty work of repressive regimes by voluntarily acting like agents provocateurs. Such unrealistic, but well-intended activists even create a fertile environment for actual paid agents provocateurs to operate within our movements. This doesn’t help us win. It makes success that much harder.
Because of this painful irony, I am excited about the growing efforts by various researchers and movement strategists to discover creative and responsible ways to shift the dynamic and increase the degree of nonviolent discipline in our civil resistance movements and thereby increase our effectiveness and chances of success.
Steve Chase is a long-time activist, educator, and writer. He was an editor at South End Press for many years, the founding director of Antioch University’s master’s level activist training program in Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability, and is currently ICNC’s Manager of Academic Initiatives.Read More