by Arun Gupta Dissent NewsWire November 24, 2014
As people across the United States anxiously await the announcement of whether a grand jury will indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on criminal charges for the August 9 killing of an unarmed Michael Brown, the FBI appears to be stoking fears of violence. It arrested two men alleged to be members of the St. Louis chapter of the New Black Panther Party on gun charges, amid anonymous insinuations that they were also involved in bomb plots.
Reuters reported Nov. 19 that an “unsealed federal indictment [charged] Brandon Orlando Baldwin and Olajuwon Davis with purchasing two pistols from a firearms dealer under false pretenses. The news service said an unnamed “law enforcement source” claimed the two were “reputed members of a militant group called the New Black Panther Party,” and they “were arrested in the St. Louis area in an FBI sting operation.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch added that the “arrests were part of an ongoing investigation that has spanned several months,” while ABC News reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had played a part in the arrest.
The Post-Dispatch also quoted unnamed “police sources” alleging that Baldwin and Davis were members of the New Black Panther Party.
The two were arraigned in a federal court Nov. 21. Baldwin was charged with intentionally misleading a licensed gun dealer at Cabela’s Retail, a sporting-goods store in the St. Louis suburb Hazelwood, about who was the intended recipient of two 45-caliber handguns he purchased. The brief indictment noted Baldwin and Davis had conspired to purchase the handguns earlier in the month and that “Baldwin a/k/a Brandon Muhammed was acquiring said firearms on behalf of another person.”
Other charges are allegedly pending, according to NBC News, based on allegations from two “federal law enforcement officials” that the pair was “trying to acquire pipe bombs with the intent of using them during protests in Ferguson, Missouri.”
Here’s where the picture starts to get murky. NBC reported investigators “heard” the two men were “trying to acquire guns and explosives” and placed them under surveillance. “We wanted to see where this might go,” one official told NBC.
This seemingly does not match up with the reports the arrests were part an FBI sting. If the FBI operation has really spanned “several months,” that would mean it likely began before the 18-year-old Brown was shot and killed by Wilson—or at the latest a week or so afterwards.
If that timeline is accurate, it’s curious the FBI choose to investigate protesters even as the Ferguson police were so heavy-handed that they appeared to be violating numerous constitutional principles such as freedom of assembly and the right not to be the victim of excessive force or unreasonable search and seizure.
Raising further suspicions, on August 13, according to KTVI-TV, the FBI’s St. Louis office issued a warning that “members of the New Black Panther Party are in Ferguson, Missouri and advocating violence against police.”
Additionally, federal prosecution of gun buyers submitting false applications is almost unheard of. According to politifact.com, gun-buyer applications that the FBI rejects “are typically denied because the applicant failed to acknowledge” a prior criminal conviction, a restraining order, or something else that would have disqualified them. “In almost every case, these people can be prosecuted,” Politifact states. But of 72,659 applications the FBI turned down in 2010, only 44 were actively prosecuted. That’s about one out of every 1,600 people.
It appears the FBI had its eye on political activists the moment Ferguson erupted in protest, and after months came up with evidence, however thin thus far, that some were itching for violence.
Given the FBI’s history of political repression from its origins during the World War I Red Scare to the systematic targeting of Muslim-Americans after the September 11 attacks, its motives in Ferguson should be seen as questionable at best. The many reports linking Baldwin and Davis to the New Black Panther Party dangle a convenient bogeyman in front of the public.
Further, the indictment came two days after Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency for 30 days throughout Missouri. Nixon also called up the National Guard and created a unified police command with “operational authority” in Ferguson and “in such other jurisdictions it deems necessary to protect civil rights and ensure public safety.”
In effect, Nixon has lifted any meaningful checks on militarized repression against protests.
Even more troubling, ABC News reported on Nov. 17, the day Nixon signed his order, that the FBI issued a bulletin “warning law enforcement agencies across the country that the [grand jury] decision ‘will likely’ lead some extremist protesters to threaten and even attack police officers or federal agents.” The FBI warning allegedly stated that “critical infrastructure” like electrical facilities or water treatment plants were potential targets.
The threat was supposedly extended “to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities.”
The notion that some demonstrators are planning to use a high-profile profile event to launch what amounts to warfare is ludicrous. A premeditated, organized attack on police or public infrastructure during a demonstration is virtually unprecedented in modern U.S. history.
But the FBI warnings and the arrests do fit a different pattern: that of fueling fears of violence in advance of a heated but peaceful national protest. Before the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, FBI informant Brandon Darby, described by some as an “agent provocateur,” reportedly egged on two young Texas activists to plot to commit violence at the convention. The two pleaded guilty to felonies and were imprisoned
The FBI’s bulletin and sting operation also fit a pattern of disrupting peaceful protest activity. Arresting black radicals for planning to bomb protests may cause many demonstrators to think twice about openly opposing state repression. Then, by invoking defense of civil liberties, the FBI tries to present itself as a neutral watchdog of the public interest when it has actively disrupted the work of environmental, antiwar, and animal-rights activists in recent years.
On May 1, 2012, the day Occupy Wall Street organized nationwide protests and strikes that it hoped would reignite the movement, the FBI announced the arrest of five Occupy activists in Cleveland for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge. As I later reported, the five men, most barely out of their teens, were jobless and from broken homes. The FBI informant in the case played “father figure to the lost men, providing them with jobs, housing, beer, and drugs. Every time the scheme threatened to collapse into gutterpunk chaos, he kept it on track.”
A couple of weeks after that the Chicago Police Department with support from the FBI ensnared three hapless youths in an alleged terrorist plot on the eve of a demonstration that drew tens of thousands protesting against a NATO summit in Chicago.
Over the coming days, more information should filter out about the arrests of Baldwin and Davis, any further charges, and how extensively the government was involved in the alleged plot. While they of course should be presumed innocent, the damage has been done. Not just to two more men who are probably more clueless bumblers than nefarious bomb-throwers, but to the broader movement against police violence in Ferguson and nationwide. That may very well be the FBI’s intention.