Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Social Movement Rumours

Everyone who is involved in social movement activity, or grassroots social change activity however defined, should read this. It is an article by Justin Podur from The Killing Train called "Stop the deadly rumours: False accusations against activists are corrosive, and have gone on long enough."

Podur writes:

An important tactic in the COINTELPRO arsenal was the spreading of rumors. False accusations about trusted activists and important organizers broke the bonds of friendship and trust that people needed in order to challenge authority, challenge themselves, and maintain their courage in the face of repression. Once those bonds of trust and friendship were broken, the organizations themselves were easy prey.

The power of such operations is that they can be used to undermine a movement while retaining plausible deniability. And the sad truth is that it is often hard to tell if our organizations have been infiltrated because all too often we don’t need to be infiltrated to implode, because of our own political errors, personal insecurities, and mistakes.

He goes on to talk about the case of Manuel Rozenthal, who has been involved in social movement work in Canada and in Colombia, and the ways in which a whisper campaign against him -- whether state-run sabotage or peresonal spite has never been clear -- put his life at risk and ruined a politically important and effective social movement organization in Canada.

Most importantly, Podur outlines four simple principles that can help keep our groups from self-destructing and can make it harder for the state to take us out using such tactics:

1. Unless I have seen credible and convincing evidence that an individual working in the progressive movement is a CIA agent or a paramilitary agent, that he has personally enriched himself from his political work, or that he has denounced other activists, I will not make claims or rumors to that effect.

2. If I do have credible and convincing evidence of any of these things, I will make my accusations in public immediately, providing the evidence, and standing behind it personally.

3. I recognize that making unsubstantiated accusations is an unethical practice, and takes on a particularly unethical dimension in contexts where such accusations can be fatal.

4. If I have political disagreements with any activist, I will raise them in an appropriate way, publicly, according to the norms of public debate and discourse. The usual rules of evidence, the presumption of innocence, and the right to face one’s accuser, should all apply.

Kind of sounds like guidelines for basic "good relationship process," eh?

I don't think any group I've been a part of has fallen apart/been destroyed in quite this way. But I know I have felt the tides of rumour and innuendo and, often enough, sectarian spite swirl around movement spaces I have been a part of, and even though the touch has been light, in my experience, it has felt unclean and dangerous.

Read the article. Adhere to the principles.


Annamarie said...

Thanks, Scott, for the good article and sage advice.

I am involved with several groups, and will certainly heed these words. Personally, I have never been one for gossip, innuendo and such, and have always been upfront if I disagree with the way an issue is handled, or a proposal is put forth, etc. I'm a great believer in diplomacy, and usually manage to solve issues diplomatically. For me to besmirch and hurt someone is totally unthinkable. However, I do realize that not everyone thinks and acts this way. There are those who resort to subterfuge, intrigue, innuendo, rumour ....

Take care and best regards.

Ricia said...

We went through this organising the G8 in AB. The community really moved together a couple of years in advance, committee's struck and projects in the works. The biggest among them; Solidarity Villiage in Kananaskis. One brick wall after a next due to gov't interference (they didn't want activists onsite, they wanted us in the city). Alliances were made with the indiginious communities in around Kananaskis, it was going to happen. Eight months prior though, harsh divisions started erupting - seriously harsh. All based upon rumours ( laundering and missing funds to the thousands adn tens of thousands of $$, betrayals in alliances and agreements made etc etc). The committee devoted to the Village was ostracized and the broader community broke into two camps.

Then, the gov't rushed in and made new deals with the local 1st Nations. We had six months to completely revise and mount G8 organising plans.

By the end of it all, there was little solidarity between groups in Alberta left to be spoke of. And in the end, we discovered that core / logistics organising groups were overwhelmingly infiltrated (appears to have been 2 of every five of us who were planted) with undercover agents. The whole affair was deeply intense and befuddled.

Given the size of Calgary's community to begin with - the experience was devestating and is still refered to today in various misgivings among local activists.

Though with hindsight, those of us whom have persisted (together) by now (of course) have reflected enough and shared enough information, to know better what exactly happened.

Scott said...

Wow...that must have been really, really tough. I had heard about the shifts in relationships with the local First Nations, but hadn't heard about there being so many police agents in the core groups...I can just imagine the long-term scars that has put in a community which is already one of the most beleagured activist communities in any major Canadian city just because of Calgary's political culture. And I can imagine that the pressure from the outside activist groups during that period, who reflected much different local political realities, must have only made things worse.

I know hindsight can be tricky, but have you and allies who've stuck around and stuck together come up with any things that you could've done differently back then to try and nudge things towards a different outcome?

Ricia said...

We tried post and further post community meets for this purpose... I think it was educational for some, but useless for others. I think, in some ways, these meetings were too soon and thus "too little too late".

What I recognise, however, is that those whom weren't involved or affiliated with a close-knit infrastructure (some nature of an organisation) - well, pretty much all of them fell away. Distain, burn out, raw feelings. The rest of us.. Perhaps we had something holding us up and keeping us attached (via those infrastructures) that by it's nature, insisted upon us each sorting through the tensions and confronting reflections. It has taken a long while to figure out what all 'went down'.

There is no doubt that things would be done differently, now. Less gullibility and more solidarity (trust). But no further meetings to discuss this specifically have occured.

Despite lessons learned, I'm not sure we could handle another G8, anytime soon. There are seemingly perminant injuries to the community here. And given our rapid decline in numbers (after the G8) everyone is quite isolated from each other in their work, always too few doing too much. This contributes to physical fragmentation, the day to day life of the community is not interwoven. Though events and actions create "reunion type" scenerios.

We need more young'un to step up to the plate here. I think it would help (in many ways), in so far as healing goes. New and fresh energy. Unscathed.

.. euh.. need more coffee... have to head out...

: )

Scott said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing your experiences, even though I'm sure it's not the happiest stuff for you to be thinking about!