The Intercept: A Short History of Police Provocateurs



WHEN Harry, George, Tom, and Joe showed up at a warehouse outside Philadelphia rented by protesters, organizers were immediately suspicious. The men claimed to be “union carpenters” from the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area who built stages — just the kind of help the protesters needed. They were preparing for the Republican National Convention in 2000, where the party would be nominating George W. Bush. Across the country, allied organizers were planning similar protests for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

One of the hallmarks of the social justice movement at the time was its puppets. Organizers were coming off successful protests in Seattle in November 1999 against the World Trade Organization, and in Washington, D.C., in April 2000, against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and had managed to reshape the politics of globalization. Soaring papier-mache puppets, rolled through the streets on individually constructed floats, projected a festive air, capturing sympathetic media coverage and countering the authorities’ narrative that the protesters were nihilists simply relishing in property destruction.

The four carpenters were good with a hammer, but much about them had protesters wary they were in fact infiltrators. In conversation, “they were not very political or well informed,” recalled Kris Hermes, an organizer, in “Crashing the Party,” his memoir of the affair. They were older and more muscular than most protesters, he wrote, and they insisted on drinking beer while working, despite the organizers’ ban on drinking in the warehouse. In discussions and meetings, they asserted the right of protesters to destroy property and to physically resist arrest. The movement’s intentional lack of hierarchy left organizers with little ability to act on their suspicions of infiltration, even as they were becoming more deft at sussing out such provocateurs.

On August 1, the first full day of the Republican convention, police surrounded the warehouse, known as the “Ministry of Puppetganda,” executed mass arrests, and confiscated the puppets, floats, signs, and other materials to be used in upcoming marches. The police lied, publicly saying that organizers had been planning violent demonstrations and hinting darkly at bomb-making materials being hidden in the warehouse. That roundup presaged other mass arrests of protest leaders throughout the week, followed by beatings inside the jail and even a $1 million bond.

When the warrant for the warehouse raid was unsealed, it finally confirmed that Harry, George, Tom, and Joe had been state troopers assigned to infiltrate the group and produce a pretext for a raid. All of the charges against the puppeteers were eventually dropped, and the saga would eventually cost the city millions in lawsuit settlements (with much of the legal work led by radical attorney Larry Krasner, who is now Philadelphia district attorney).


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Kazkar: A teller of Yarns and Verisimilitudes.

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