Who Are These Austin Anarchists?

DPS makes a group sound more organized than it was
by Published on

There are some stories that keep getting stranger and stranger the more time passes. This is the case with the tangled piece I reported for This American Life a couple years ago about an Austin activist turned FBI informant named Brandon Darby, who turned in two young men, Brad Crowder and David McKay, for building Molotov cocktails at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Now DPS is saying that whoever firebombed the Governor’s Mansion is “directly connected” to the “Austin-based anarchist group” that “planned” the attempted firebombing of the RNC. They say that one of the members of the group who was arrested at the RNC was in a car taking photos of the mansion four days before the fire, apparently doing surveillance for the arson.

As someone who spent the better part of six months investigating this case, the news is surprising, to say the least. I interviewed several of the activists who drove together to the RNC from Austin, and it would be a stretch to say they were a “group.” In fact, many of the people were meeting each other for the first time—essentially it was more an activist carpool than an “anarchist group.”

Now, DPS says this group “planned” to firebomb the RNC. In fact, there is no dispute that most of the people in the van strenuously disagreed with the plan to build Molotov cocktails. In fact, one member inadvertently turned in their fellow activists by calling Brandon Darby (who was undercover at the time) and telling him how furious they all were at Crowder and McKay for putting them at risk. So there wasn’t a “group” that planned to make firebombs. There were a couple of young guys who decided to do it on the spur of the moment, and the rest of these “anarchists,” (some described themselves that way, but not all) thought it was a stupid idea.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Crowder or McKay couldn’t have been involved in the plan to bomb the mansion. Perhaps that’s even where they got the idea. But that wasn’t my impression of McKay, who I interviewed for two hours in 2009. He was a young guy from Midland whose first taste of politics was being tased by the Midland police while protesting a KKK rally. He seemed anti-authoritarian, but hardly an “anarchist” or even someone with well-formed political positions. He seemed like a guy who got caught up in the idea of doing street battle with the cops and built Molotov cocktails, which were found in the basement of the home he was staying at in St. Paul. When law enforcement swooped in, McKay was asleep in bed, just a couple hours before his flight left for Austin. The timing made it seem very unlikely that he was on the verge of using the firebombs. (Or perhaps he was going to throw them on the way to the airport, but that never seemed too likely. By then, the days of rage had passed.)

I consider myself a decent judge of character, but perhaps McKay had me fooled. Perhaps he was a seasoned arsonist playing the role of regretful naif for a reporter. But I’ll remain skeptical until DPS provides more than the circumstantial evidence that someone took pictures from a car four days earlier that has been connected to an “Austin-based anarchist group.”

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.