After almost three years of investigation into who torched the governor’s mansion, the Texas Department of Public Safety held a news conference last month to announce a breakthrough. DPS head Steve McCraw explained the department had gone through thousands of hours of surveillance video and found footage of someone in a white SUV taking pictures of the mansion at 3 a.m., four days before the arson. The DPS said the person was doing pre-op surveillance to determine the placement of security cameras. Though the footage was too grainy to read the license plate, law enforcement somehow found the SUV’s owner by looking at the owners of 3,000 similar vehicles and eliminating them one at a time. McCraw made a startling claim: He said DPS had “established a direct link with these individuals [in the white SUV] to an Austin-based anarchist group that was linked to the planned attack on the Republican Convention in September 2008 using Molotov cocktails.”
I spent the first half of 2009 investigating the convention incident for a radio piece on This American Life. (Listen here.) The story focused on controversial FBI informant Brandon Darby, who turned in the two Molotov-makers, Brad Crowder and David McKay. McCraw’s implication—that an organized group of Austin anarchists conspired to bomb the convention—did not square with my investigation, not to mention the evidence presented at McKay’s trial.
It’s possible that some unhinged leftist radical bombed the governor’s mansion. But the vague way the DPS presented its case and the way the news was received show that the story of the RNC bomb makers is a media Rorschach test. People see in it what they want to see.
For many folks, the fact that Crowder and McKay made Molotov cocktails at a Republican event is proof of domestic terrorists lurking within the radical left. The DPS announcement fed this view. If the agency does arrest an Austin activist, the arrest will go a long way to validating this fear. McCraw’s words, however, were deliberately vague—he said there were individuals linked to a group linked to an attack. It’s unclear what “linked” means. The DPS statement led some reporters into what seems a bad game of telephone. The Austin American-Statesman reported that McCraw said that “one of the men arrested in the Minnesota case has been identified as a passenger in the Jeep.” That is not, in fact, what McCraw said.
The announcement raised more questions that it answered. Primarily, who are these “Austin anarchists?” And how likely is it they were involved in burning down the governor’s mansion?
McKay and Crowder grew up together in Midland. McKay was an artist. Crowder was more political. The two bonded because, as McKay puts it, “we both disliked Midland so much.” They began working on a documentary about Midland and George W. Bush’s childhood, but that fizzled out. Eventually McKay moved to Austin, where his mom lived, but he returned to Midland in June 2006 to take part in his first protest, against a Ku Klux Klan rally. Crowder had helped organize the protest. McKay says someone he didn’t know mooned the KKK, and in the confusion afterward, a friend of his was mistakenly tased by the police. “So I rush over, and I’m dragging him,” McKay remembers. “He’s completely limp, and he comes to life a bit, and I look down at him, and get hit by a Taser.”
McKay was arrested and thrown into jail. He says the cops harassed and threatened him. “Saying things like, ‘you’re lucky we didn’t beat the shit out of you,’ or ‘how did that Taser feel?’” McKay says. “They were very demeaning, tobacco-chewing cowboys, talking about ‘lassoing me like a pig.’”
Eventually the charges were thrown out, but McKay says the experience left him with a strong distrust of authority.
Soon after, he and Crowder moved to Austin. In early 2008, Crowder invited McKay to an event at MonkeyWrench Books, which specializes in radical literature. The event would change their lives. A group from Minnesota called the RNC Welcoming Committee was there recruiting activists to “shut the convention down” by blocking streets using a “diversity of tactics.”
As it happened, a well-known Austin activist, Brandon Darby, also showed up at the meeting. He volunteered to help with the Austin effort. Darby had built a reputation with a swashbuckling approach to radical politics in New Orleans after Katrina. He helped start the remarkably successful radical relief group, Common Ground.
He went to the RNC Welcoming Committee meeting in a guise. He was working for the FBI. When he heard the represantive from the RNC Welcoming Committee talk about a “diversity of tactics,” that worried him. “It’s a common term used in radical leftist circles in relation to arson,” he says.
Crowder and McKay felt the RNC would give them a chance to vent their frustration with the two-party system, and in particular to the eight years of George Bush. Along with Darby, they formed a group to plan for the convention. So the “Austin anarchist group” was Darby, Crowder and McKay.
The FBI had told Darby he should be accepted by the group, but not become its leader. Darby was 32 while Crowder and McKay were in their early 20s. He was used to leading young activists at Common Ground, so he resorted to a character based on his former self. In Darby’s own FBI reports entered in McKay’s trial, he talked about telling Crowder and McKay they were “tofu-eaters who needed to bulk up,” saying he was going to the RNC to “shut the fucker down” and bragging that, “Any group I go with will be successful.”
Crowder says Darby pushed them to be prepared to fight for their beliefs. He also says Darby seemed like a postive mentor at times. “He once called me up, ‘Brad, I don’t know how to say this, but you remind me of myself at your age, I think you’re going to do important things,’” Crowder recalls. “At the time I thought it was kinda weird, but also cool. Because I had tried to learn from other people who were a lot more condescending.”
Brad Crowder in Austin, photo courtesy Brad Crowder
THEIR INITIAL PLAN HAD NOTHING to do with Molotov cocktails. In the months leading up to the convention, Crowder and McKay built dozens of shields out of traffic barrels, which they figured would prove useful in warding off cops. If Crowder and McKay were involved in bombing the governor’s mansion, they didn’t mention it to Darby, who was reporting their every move to the FBI.
A few days before leaving for St. Paul, Crowder, McKay and Darby connected with five other protesters. They rented a van, including a trailer with supplies like the shields, helmets, gas masks and medical kits. This was closer to an activist carpool than an organized group. “The only thing we had in common was that we wanted to go,” says Crowder. “If you want to find out what the goal was, you’re going to have to talk to every individual person. Our goal was, let’s get up there, split up or do our own thing.”
Most carpools tend to be civilized affairs, but this one felt more like a dysfunctional family vacation with kids squabbling in the backseat. One of the riders, a young woman named Sasha who doesn’t want her last name used, was new to Austin and had never met anyone in the group. The atmosphere surprised her. “I’m not used to male, macho energy, and I found it shocking,” she says.
Darby and McKay were constantly going at each other. Darby was angry that McKay had brought a sleeping bag full of cat hair and not warned him about it. Darby is allergic to cat hair, but ended up sleeping in it. Later Darby had to pee, and McKay, who was driving, didn’t want to stop. According to Sasha and McKay, Darby threatened to pull the keys out of the ignition. The confrontation escalated when McKay pulled over in cornfield so Darby could relieve himself. “I thought I was going to see a fistfight in a cornfield in Iowa between two supposedly enlightened anarchists,” says Sasha.
Crowder says he started to pull away from Darby. “I started to distance myself from him after he threatened to crash the van and everything,” Crowder says. “I started to feel pretty uncomfortable with him.”
McKay says he wasn’t getting along with anyone except Crowder. “I’m not a very politically minded person,” he says. “I wasn’t into being politically correct, and I was labeled a misogynist 20 times just because I was being myself. I felt like everyone was trying to fit an identity.”
Things became more testy when the five Austinites pulled into St. Paul. The federal government gave St. Paul $50 million to secure the convention. Authorities raided the homes of activists associated with the RNC Welcoming Committee before the convention started. Darby’s presence in the van assured that the group was under scrutiny. The activists dropped the trailer off at a house so they wouldn’t draw attention, but on the way into the city, the van was stopped by police with their guns drawn. They pulled everyone out of the van and had them lie on the ground before letting them go. Later, when the group returned to the trailer, they found it had been cleared of the shields and the rest of their supplies. The police took them, but didn’t explain their actions or reprimand them.
After the shields were taken, Crowder and McKay decided to make Molotov cocktails in retaliation. “When we got up there, the situation was superheated,” says Crowder. “The police were breaking the law left and right. They broke the law when they searched the trailer. They broke the law when they searched us at gunpoint. The atmosphere is like a military siege. And Brandon Darby has been providing us with his influence, encouraging us to step up our game. So it was confluence of forces and our particular rage and frustration that led us to make a bad decision. We thought, the [police] want to go to the walls; we don’t have to stand for this. We’re going to stand up for ourselves right now. It was an emotional feeling we went through.”
The two got Molotov supplies from a Walmart and a gas station. Within a few hours they were in the bathroom pouring fuel into wine bottles. Crowder says making the Molotovs was thrilling because of their potent symbolism as a revolutionary tool. “It’s a categorical break with official society,” he says. “With the shields, it was illegal, but still in scope of nonviolent resistance. With Molotov cocktails, that’s a flaming middle finger to official society.
“There is no middle ground to Molotov cocktail,” he says. “It’s raw. No good. It’s like with David and Goliath. Molotov cocktails are the proverbial stone. It was all we knew to go to in those times, the first thing in our swirling heads that we stumbled upon.”
They soon calmed down, Crowder says. “The next morning, David and I had slept on it. And we were in a different place. And we knew as heated as it was, it wasn’t the right time. It’s not Egypt. Not Libya. And we decided not to use them.”
When the rest of the group found out about the Molotovs, they confronted Crowder and McKay and told them they had made a terrible decision. One of the group told Darby what was going on and asked him to help stop it. Crowder and McKay left the firebombs in the basement and went to the protest, where they dragged dumpsters into the street and otherwise made a ruckus to stop delegates from reaching the convention. Crowder was arrested and jailed on a misdemeanor.
During that time, Darby and the FBI closed in on McKay. Darby wore a wire and asked McKay about his plans. The conversation wasn’t recorded, but the FBI took notes that state McKay said he planned to throw the Molotovs at a parking lot full of cop cars. McKay now says he was just posturing for Darby. “I didn’t want him to think that I was scared, scared of what was going to happen or afraid of him,” says McKay.
Crowder, who hasn’t spoken to McKay since the day he was arrested, believes that’s the only explanation that makes sense. “David had plenty of opportunity to use those things and never did,” Crowder says. “You got to separate macho talk from actual actions. At end of day, he’s not that guy. He wanted to man up for Brandon.”
McKay and Darby agreed to meet at 2 a.m. to use the Molotovs, but when the time rolled around, McKay blew it off and stopped responding to Darby’s calls and texts. At 4:30 a.m., McKay was awakened by a police officer pointing a rifle at him. He was asleep next to a girl he’d met in St. Paul. In about an hour, he was planning to leave for the airport to fly back to Austin.
McKay took his case to trial, arguing that he’d been entrapped. The trial ended in a hung jury. He added a story that he was eventually forced to admit was a lie, that Darby had directed them to make the Molotovs. McKay eventually pled guilty to making the Molotovs and to perjury. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Crowder pled guilty to possessing the Molotovs and received two years.
Darby and the FBI were cleared of entrapping the two activists, but the agency’s role took a beating in the press. When the New York Times covered the DPS announcement, they stated that Darby had “encouraged” the plot to build the Molotovs, even though both McKay and Crowder say he didn’t know about it until after they were made. While this story was going to press, Darby sued the Times for libel and, on March 16, the Times ran a correction.
Ask Brad Crowder now what he thinks of his decision to build Molotov cocktails, and he doesn’t mince words. “It was a stupid fucking decision,” he says. “It was bad politics. It was bad strategy. It was bad everything. There was nothing good about the decision. Our heart was in the right spot. But it was clearly irresponsible.
“It was hard to reconcile, especially being in prison on a political crime,” he says. “You wanna take that shit to the boards—I’m not sorry! I’ll do it again! But the truth is we had already decided it was stupid. So here we are in prison on some stupid shit with no way to justify or defend it.”
Crowder is back in Austin after serving two years. He’s not shy about talking about his experience and hoping people learn from it. He and McKay are the focus of a probing documentary, Better This World, that premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and will air nationally on PBS/POV in September. (Watch a preview of the film at Loteria Films.) The film follows Crowder and Mckay over two years—through their arrest, trials and Crowder’s eventual release—and sheds light on how the FBI’s involvement influenced Crowder and McKay’s decision to make Molotovs.
Crowder’s life has less drama now. He’s working at a sandwich shop, going to Austin Community College and helping an activist group at the University of Austin, Ella Pelea, that is protesting education budget cuts. “They do great organizing,” he says. “Actual on-the-ground organizing. If I had met people like that before going to prison, the RNC stuff would never have happened. It’s a way to channel your anger into really productive ways, going out and talking to people. If you had more people like that, then you’d have fewer people trying to substitute their will in place of a movement.”
I met Crowder at the Dominican Joe coffee shop in Austin. He looks different now than he does in his mug shot. His once-wild blond hair is trimmed close. He says he doesn’t drink anymore or smoke pot. He tells me life was busy with work and school when the Texas Rangers knocked on his door a few weeks ago and told him they wanted to talk to him at his parole officer’s office the
next day. “I was t
ippin’,” he says. “I was worried someone I knew had done something.”
When he got to the office the next day, the Rangers were waiting. At first, Crowder says he refused to talk. “Finally, one of the police officers said, ‘It’s about the mansion fire.’ And when he said that, I was like, ‘Why the fuck am I even here for?’ We’re wasting everybody’s time. I don’t know anyone who did that. Not even three acquaintances down do I know anything.”
He says the police told him he wasn’t even a person of interest. But a few days later, his name being linked in the news to the arson. “It’s frustrating. They put me on blast as being an anarchist,” he says. “I want to get on the record that I am not an anarchist. Just the word anarchist has connotations out of Mad Max, like shotgun-wielding highwaymen. The idea being promoted in the media is, these anarchists are knocking down our doors, burning our government buildings and here’s their picture. More at six. The DPS is pimping David and me to push an agenda and hide their incompetence. Saying, these people had to have done it. And we didn’t do it! I certainly didn’t do it. And 99.9 percent sure David didn’t do it. I’d say 100 percent sure, because he would have told me, and he never said shit.”
While he’s willing to consider that some leftist radical could have set the fire, Crowder doesn’t believe it was anyone in Austin. “There are traveler kids in the anarchist scene,” he says. “People come in on train or bus or hitchhike, sleep on couches for a couple days, eat all the food, piss everyone off and leave. So someone out of state might have come in, thrown a UT cap on ironically and did that … is that conceivable? Yeah. But I would have to see a lot more evidence to believe that anyone in the Austin scene would do that, or even know about it.”
Crowder says the Austin anarchist scene is mostly into building cooperatively run businesses and homes. He says the term “anarchist” means different things to different people. “When you get down to it, anarchism when is about self-activity of the people organizing from bottom up in a federated system,” he says.
Crowder doesn’t like being called an anarchist or terrorist, but there’s one label he’s willing to own: revolutionary. “I’ve never backed away from that,” he says. “I’ve changed what I think are the means to get there. I’ve broken with the adventurism and the violence. But a grassroots movement of working-class people? I totally stand behind that.”
David McKay, reached by phone from federal prison in California, is the emotional opposite of Crowder. Crowder is strident. McKay is subdued. He says he didn’t have anything to do with the mansion fire. He tells me he’s spending his days doing college work and getting an art portfolio together. He hasn’t seen friends or family for over a year. “That’s the hardest part,” he says, “the loss of relationships, and the resentment and regret that lingers in the air everywhere you go.” McKay says he hopes to be released in eight months.
McKay says he’s not interested in returning to activism. “I learned what I wasn’t willing to spend time and energy on,” he says. “After talking to law enforcement, I couldn’t villainize the cops, because they weren’t all assholes. And I couldn’t see the protesters as heroes, because some of them were just acting like dicks. I saw a bit of both sides. Mostly, I saw the pointlessness of it all.
“There’s a time and a place for actions of that nature,” he says. “But our society isn’t ready for that. It takes social disorder like we see in Egypt and Libya for enough people to be upset and angry. Otherwise it’s just war games. It’s a parody compared to what real protest is about. We were just playing roles.”