Is Vahid Brown an Agent of the State, or Are Portland Anarchists on a Witch Hunt?
By Daniel Denvir
A link was posted on my Facebook wall a few weeks back warning that a man I knew from Reed College was "an agent of the state."
"Vahid Brown was or is an FBI instructor at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, who has recently been attempting to integrate himself into radical and activist scenes in Portland," according to the dossier posted on the website of the Committee Against Political Repression, an anarchist group in Portland, Oregon.
As such, he is "a threat and should not be tolerated."
Brown, however, has never worked for the FBI. He taught classes on political Islam to FBI agents at West Point while he was a scholar at the university's Combating Terrorism Center think tank.
The post has gone viral amongst radical leftists, and has been shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook. In Portland, this amounts to a lot of people. Brown is now "anxious in public space because of this hostility," he told me recently when I spoke to him in a series of Facebook messages, and then by phone.
A photo of Brown appears at the top of the post. In Portland, his beard and stylish attire fit in. For the Committee, this is a warning sign: "An agent of the state who has the same subcultural interests as you is still an agent of the state."
Brown is a scholar of Islam, the author of Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al-Qa'ida from 1989-2006, which argues that the Iraq War "created a market for [the group's] message."
"I was not training law enforcement on how to do law enforcement," Brown said. "I was trying to educate these folks about these issues and directly address misconceptions and simplistic nonsense about 'dangerous Muslims.'"
Indeed, Brown said that his lessons countered the basic falsehoods upon which the United States' endless and catastrophic War on Terror are premised.
"Two basic conclusions," he said, are that "al Qaeda's size, scope, and influence has been vastly exaggerated" and that "the al Qaeda-Taliban merger, a premise upon which the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan has been based, is false and [refuted] by my research."
Kristian Williams, an anarchist author and member of the Committee Against Political Repression, told me by email that it does not matter what Brown taught; any such interaction with federal law enforcement is condemnation-worthy. (For the record, Williams says that he’s not speaking for the Committee.)
"Political repression has been the FBI's specialty since J. Edgar Hoover helped coordinate the Palmer Raids" against suspected radicals and immigrants after the Russian Revolution, Williams said. "We don't need a better educated, better trained, more sensitive or self-critical FBI. This institution cannot be fixed; it must be destroyed.”
Williams is right about the FBI's history of political repression. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Bureau's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) surveilled and destabilized radical and civil rights groups. Today, a so-called "Green Scare" targets animal rights and environmental activists. And Muslim-American communities, of course, have been the target of aggressive—and civil liberties-violating—spying and infiltration.
Informants are often a key FBI resource. Some are paid, others are offered a break from prosecutors. Perhaps nowhere do radicals feel more besieged than in the Pacific Northwest, where activists were called to testify before a grand jury investigating vandalism at a 2012 May Day march in Seattle, after the windows of a federal courthouse were smashed and someone tried, but failed, to throw a smoke bomb inside.
In response, the FBI raided multiple homes in Portland, searching, according to the newspaper the Oregonian, for "anti-government or anarchist literature or material; black clothing, backpacks, face coverings and shoes; green, red, black, grey or blue/purple paint; sticks and flags carried during the commission of the offenses and material for making flags; computers, cell phones and electronic storage media, and flares or similar incendiaries." Similar raids took place in Olympia and Seattle.
Activists refused to answer grand jury questions and were jailed. Anarchists and supporters describe the episode as a "witch hunt" aimed to silence controversial political viewpoints. Many activists are, to put it mildly, on edge.
"This is a small group of people who feel extremely brutalized and repressed by the state [and] especially [by] the FBI,” Vahid Brown told me, adding that they are “saying I am that enemy, trying to get in there and hurt them more.”
In April, bike activists took to the internet and accused an unfamiliar and unfashionably dressed Asian man who took part in a protest ride of being a Portland Police captain, who is also Asian.
Wrong Asian, it turned out. Oops.
For Brown, the experience has been "traumatic," he said. "Internet fame for being a suspected government infiltrator is nobody's idea of a good time." Especially in Portland, which can feel like a very small town—particularly amongst activists.
He did not move back to Portland full-time until late last year. Before that, he traveled to the city once a month to visit his two daughters, who are ten and 12 years old.
"I took my kids to a lot of the Occupy Portland stuff. An anti-war march. To go to the General Assembly and see the Occupy camp," Brown says.
Brown has frequently attended protests since returning, including against fossil fuel exports and police brutality. He has not taken part in organizing anything, attending only open-to-the-public demonstrations. He volunteered to canvass door-to-door for an environmental group.
"Brown had been showing up in leftist circles for some little while," Williams said. "Clearly something about him made some people uncomfortable, or seemed off, at least enough that they typed his name into Google to see what showed up. What they learned is that he helped to train the FBI in counter-terrorism."
Whoever posted Brown's public denunciation—it's still unclear who made that decision—did not bother to speak to Brown beforehand.
Williams defends the Committee Against Political Repression, saying that Brown’s "role as a [counter-terrorism] trainer isn't in dispute."
Actually, that question is the crux of the dispute.
The politics of Brown's decision can be debated. Can an anti-war scholar make the world a better place by teaching FBI agents about the problematic underpinnings of the War on Terror? Or does any interaction with the National Security State automatically and unequivocally equal complicity with its crimes?
What does seem clear is this: anonymously made public denunciations of semi-private individuals are unsettling and exhibit a face of the radical left that is not exactly welcoming. This is a problem for a sometimes-isolated political movement too often content to make a revolution by itself.
"It's been sort of difficult thinking about how to respond, or to whom to respond," Brown said, describing a scenario much like Kafka's The Trial. He does not know to whom he can appeal his sentence, and what, exactly, he can do to prove that he is not a government agent.
It is "an anonymous claim that is unverifiable and unfalsifiable," he says. "I didn't work for the FBI, and I don't, and I've never worked for any law enforcement agency. I was out at the marches because I care about the issues."
Williams agreed that "the FBI has deliberately sown paranoia within social movements to create rifts" and that "it's vitally important that no one make allegations that they can't support with evidence." The fact that Brown taught the FBI, regardless of what the class was about, is the evidence—period.
Recently, Brown had to explain the situation to his 12-year-old daughter. She offered tips that she has picked up dealing with bullies in middle school.
"This was a big part of their experience with dad," he said. "Going to marches and going to rallies. And talking to them about why we're there and what the issues are, and effecting social change." This "kind of exposure" is "one of the most important things I see in my role as the father."
Repression is a particularly effective strategy when police can depend upon the radicals they target to finish the job. As for Brown, he won't be taking his daughters to another protest any time soon.
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @DanielDenvir