Police provocateurs, real and imaginary

Police provocateurs, real and imaginary

Radicals need to know the difference between actual efforts at police infiltration and made up stories about police disrupting "peaceful" protests.

There are ongoing efforts by law enforcement agencies to infiltrate, disorganize and destroy social movements. This creates a challenge for anybody who attempts to confront the state’s ability to carry out austerity and repression. To deal with this, we need to develop anti-repression strategies based on actual efforts and tactics by the police and not based on fantasies. It is challenging enough to deal with the efforts of genuine infiltrators, it does us no good to chase after phantoms or, worse, point the finger at somebody who is actually on our side.

Most radicals would agree, and yet for some there is often rampant speculation with no evidence for one type of supposed police provocation. Specifically, this is the occurrence when somebody at a protest throws a rock at the police, or breaks a window, or takes some other provocative action, which leads to uniformed police cracking down. “It must have been an undercover cop who threw that rock,” is the common refrain, even when there is no basis whatsoever for believing this. The idea, apparently, is that only a poorly planned rock-throwing would cause this or, from the liberal perspective, that the perfectly planned peaceful protest was ruined by the efforts of the state to make it look bad.

This assumption is made so often, with so little evidence, that it keeps being made because so many people are led to believe that it must happen all the time, because so many people say that it does, even though it probably never occurs the way many people claim that it does.

A case in point is a recent article at SocialistWorker.org by three people reporting on the rebellion in Baltimore who noted: “As we began to move back away from the police, a bucket of ice was thrown from behind us. While we can’t know for sure who threw the bucket, given the peaceful nature of the day’s protests and the presence of several recognized undercover police officers in the crowd, we believe there is a strong possibility that this was the work of state agent provocateurs.”

Other than the existence of undercover police in the crowd–and there certainly must have been–no evidence is given for this statement. In other words, it is wild speculation.

I wrote a response to this statement, noting that it is irresponsible to make up these stories out of thin air, in part because it encourages people to keep making up these stories even though there is hardly ever any evidence to back them up, but also in part because there are actual consequences to these statements. That is, some people actually believe this stuff and they go after the person who threw that rock. Of all the possible conclusions one could draw, the idea that it was an undercover cop, or informant, or paid police provocateur, or whatever, is the least likely conclusion.

This is Baltimore in May 2015. There are Black people all over the city throwing rocks at the police. We do not need to make up reasons why somebody would do this. The very concern that “peaceful protest” is being ruined by people throwing things is a completely backward approach to social struggles, usually pushed by liberals who really do want to keep protests symbolic for good media coverage and to appeal to the good nature of those in power.

For raising these issues, I was accused of “sectarian bloodsport” by the three authors of the original statement. Perhaps they think I am denying the existence of undercover infiltrators in social movements? Of course, I readily admit to their existence, including in Baltimore, I just deny that they are using this specific tactic. As far as I can tell, the only serious rebuttal to my argument is that there is, apparently, plenty of evidence that these incidents happen all the time so the suspicion is not unfounded.

They offer evidence to back this up, or attempt to, but I wish they spent as much time looking at their evidence as they did coming up with clever insults. I am not sure they actually read the articles they linked to. All of the evidence proves my point–that this claim is made all the time with nothing to back it up beyond pure speculation.

The three authors of the original statement, for example, insist that I must surely know that “one could cite any number of cases” showing just this tactic from undercover police. And yet, they fail to provide even one. They provide two links documenting genuinely nefarious activity where undercovers masked up and infiltrate a march on the one hand, and chased after black bloc actions on the other. But neither of these articles even allege that these undercovers instigated a crackdown from uniformed police during a protest.

Another response is provided by Paul D’Amato who argues that “it defies basic logic to conclude from this that there are no provocateurs in Baltimore, or that every bottle and rock thrown comes from the hand of a genuine protester.” According to D’Amato there must have been police provocateurs throwing rocks and bottles. It is assumed from the beginning, to assume otherwise is foolish. He also offers evidence, some of which (though not all) actually does suggest this tactic occurring. Most significantly, he points to a recent incident in Oakland where undercover California Highway Patrol officers wore masks and infiltrated a march. When they were unmasked, one waved a gun at the crowd while the other arrested somebody. It was a terrifying and outrageous incident. Unfortunately, when this incident erupted on social media, rumors of their participating in window smashing erupted as well.


Shortly after this incident, as people who were actually on the scene talked about what happened, these rumors disappeared. For example, the primary piece of evidence from the article D’Amato linked to is a tweet by Dave Id, the well-known activist behind Indybay.org. That tweet has since been deleted. The article offers another tweet by “Morpheus Ravenna.” I have no idea who this person is, but they do not even claim to have seen the incident and instead refer vaguely to “witnesses.” Nonetheless, these rumors have been documented on web sites and the rumors will remain, possibly indefinitely.

This is unfortunate, because this incident led to a wide ranging discussion among many radical activists in Oakland in which it became very clear how these oft told stories inevitably fall down for lack of any evidence, and how little sense they make in the first place. What happened in Oakland was outrageous enough and we do not need to spread unfounded rumors that only confuse the situation. Some people even went to great lengths to clarify what actually happened with independent journalists so they would not print these unfounded and confusing rumors, but that is no easy task when such a sensational story provides instant clickbait. Nonetheless, these efforts were important because the next thing you know, people across the country point to these rumors as evidence of this type of thing happening all the time simply because they do not know better.

D’Amato provides another link which seems to document several cases where this tactic occurred–until we actually read them. Just as above, we often have to click one or more links to understand the real story. I wonder if Paul actually read through these examples. Some of them are absurdly hilarious.

For example, one of them mentions a person leaving behind a box of bricks at Occupy Minnesota labeled “Riot equipment.” The peace-loving Occupy activists distanced themselves from this person in the media and turned him into the cops, who let him go, probably because he had done nothing illegal. In other words, this is a radical with a sense of humor confronted by humorless liberals cooperating with the cops.

Another refers to Canadian union leaders at a protest accosting masked young men with rocks and accusing them of being provocateurs–with no evidence. The article quotes a former cop saying he did not think they were “legitimate protesters” and “If they weren’t police, I think they might well have been working in the best interests of the police.” Another refers to a Liberal Democrat MP at a London G20 protest doing essentially the same thing. In other words, these are mainstream liberal officials attempting to keep things “peaceful” by making accusations, with no evidence even to the identities of these people.

Another story refers to a right-winger who infiltrates a march for his own amusement–he is a bit more bold than the others, but that is about it. Another involves “undercover Denver detectives [who] staged a struggle with a police commander in order to get out of the crowd undetected.” Instead they are unwittingly pepper-sprayed by the uniformed police. This is about as close as we will get to this tactic occurring, though it appears to have been instigated on accident.

Finally, there is an incident where “demonstrators said” it was undercover police that began throwing stones at a protest in the West Bank. Maybe this actually is a tactic used by Israeli undercovers, but I have heard “demonstrators say” a lot of things with no evidence so you must excuse my skepticism.

This is D’Amato’s evidence for this tactic occurring. It all falls entirely flat. It actually proves my two points, which is that these claims are made all the time with no evidence to back them up and often to justify a liberal narrative that discredits the idea that somebody just might be angry enough to throw a rock.

There is a mountain of documentation from law enforcement agencies admitting to all sorts of horrible tactics, including death threats, rape and murder. It is not hard to find examples of them encouraging suggestible people to create devices that will kill people–they admit it to the media and in court. And yet real evidence of undercovers in a crowd instigating uniformed police responses always seems thin to nonexistent. It is more often a convenient story told by liberals who want to isolate themselves from people being “too radical,” alleging that cops trying to destroy their peaceful protest.

Which is not to say that police do not infiltrate movements, mask up and join black blocks, entrap people into making bombs and molotov cocktails, and do all sorts of other horrible things. One reason they get away with it is because people speculate wildly and irresponsibly about the existence of feds–but in all the wrong places. It does not help our cause to do this. It not only distracts us and threatens to put ordinary people at risk from scurrilous accusations.

So to the litany of unfounded speculation about this tactic, we can add this incident in Baltimore, which almost certainly did not happen as described by the witnesses, who saw nothing more than a bucket. If anybody bothers to scratch the surface on the allegation, they will quickly see how thin it really is. Hopefully, the next time somebody raises this unfounded suspicion–and have no doubt, they will do so time and again–I hope people do not say “Yeah, just like I read about in Baltimore.” But that will require them reading through the lines of the original article and not accepting it at face value.


Joseph Kay
May 14 2015 07:09

This has been coming up a lot over here too. So for example at a recent anti-gentrification demo in Brixton, an estate agent's windows got put in. Prominent activists immediately claimed on twitter that it was done by undercover cops, who furthermore had been citizens arrested up the road and identified as police. Aside from the improbability of pacifists managing to stop and search a cop before the cop can put them on their arse and run, this turned out to be total fantasy. Similar claims were made again when a war memorial was graffitied.

The stupid thing is, the police don't need an excuse to intervene. If they want a pretext they'll make it up after the fact, and it will be duly reported as fact by the press. So for instance there's a video going round (I can't find a link right now) of a TSG snatch squad rushing into a peaceful crowd on Whitehall last Saturday. The crowd pushed back, and before long it was a riot. Of course the unchallenged media narrative is 'violent mob attacks brave police'. One cop's on trial at the moment for beating up a student at the tuition fees protests 5 years ago, and he accidentally recorded himself confessing and framing his victim after the fact. Standard procedure.

In fact, it may be the other way round. Cops are reluctant to send snatch squads into aggressive crowds. If bricks are flying, they'll typically adopt a defensive posture with long shields (and/or drive armoured vehicles at high speed into the crowd). Whereas if a crowd is peaceful, and going to great lengths to convince the cops it's peaceful, they're much more confident wading in and cracking heads ime. That's not an argument for permanent violence, but probably is an argument against chanting how pacifist you are at the cops.

May 17 2015 08:36

Hello my friend. Thank you so much for writing this. Everything you wrote was brilliant, and I'm glad someone finally wrote something like this. We have definitely had way too many problems with this false liberal over entitled and privileged narrative that has been working against so many good people for so long. The police do not provoke protesters to be violent. If they did then we would have seen society change by now because the only way to change a violent system is through violence.

Also this sentence is the only incorrect thing in the whole brilliant piece you wrote: "Another refers to Canadian union leaders at a protest accosting masked young men with rocks and accusing them of being provocateurs–with no evidence. "

From the cbc news site http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/quebec-police-admit-they-went-undercover-at-montebello-protest-1.656171

"Quebec provincial police admitted Thursday that three of their officers disguised themselves as demonstrators during the protest at the North American leaders summit in Montebello, Que.
However, the police force denied allegations its undercover officers were there on Monday to provoke the crowd and instigate violence."

They were police officers, but they in no way were provoking people into violence. They were simply holding rocks in their hands making a failed attempt to fit in with the crowd.

Even if we look at the pure logic behind it, the state would never encourage people to commit violence against it because it stands to lose a lot if people decide that the state is not an all invincible god.

Thank you so much for your work comrade. Keep it up!

May 15 2015 11:59

Yep those were undercovers in Ontario, I wrote some notes up on it around the time at http://anarchism.pageabode.com/andrewnflood/summit-protests-police-violence-canada

For a New Formulary
May 15 2015 13:32

@Joseph Kay

I agree mostly with this article - but I see no reason to out of hand dismiss the idea that the "Fuck Tory Scum" graffiti was not done by someone with some kind of ulterior motive. It was pretty fucking stupid to spray a memorial, and I can't help but think that even the most unthinking member of a block would recognise that.

That said, what happened in Brixton was pretty crap, and I hope the left in the UK can learn not to ascribe any random instance to "agent provocateurs".

gram negative
May 15 2015 13:41

good article, and that attitude has been prevalent in the protests in Baltimore. with people even being singled out and turned over to the police

Joseph Kay
May 15 2015 13:58

@ For a New Formulary - after many years in anarchist circles, I've learned never to assume conspiracy when stupidity will suffice! (I mean yes, it's obviously possible that it was an undercover cop, or an EDL member or something, but in the absence of clear evidence I don't think it's helpful to speculate).

Paddy Black
May 15 2015 14:46

I was going to say what laaddict said above.

The inclusion of the infamous Montebello incident does a disservice to your demonstration.

That's the one incident assorted liberal nutters are always going back to as evidence of their hare-brained theories, too.

To this day, the standard issue boots these men were wearing are often used as a smoking gun evidence that anyone wearing them in a protest are de facto cops. (Boots you can find in any army surplus in North America).

Funny how the brain works, innit. Looking for simple explanations, at the risk of falling for simplistic logic.

May 15 2015 15:13

Absolutely spot on - thank you so much for writing some sense on this subject! In the UK I've seen a fair bit of disorder, and a lot of protest, but have never encountered any convincing evidence of police acting as agents provocateurs in public order situations. Yet it is constantly the refrain - somebody smashed a window, threw a bottle, kicked it off in some way that gave the police justification to wade in batons flying. So they must have been a cop.

This backwards rhetoric is as damaging as it is wrong. Articles like yours take us a big step forward in being able to challenge it. I hope it gets shared extensively.

May 15 2015 19:27

This article reads like it was written by the Oakland Police Chief. I have been to protests when police initiated violence against peaceful protesters on public property, and the subsequent hearings where the chief cited anonymous written claims from alleged officers that rocks were thrown at them. Which was a lie. I have been to a nonviolent self-defense training, where I was paired with an undercover officer who I later saw on the street at a protest. I also have seen video of the events pictured in the above photo, in which a woman from the neighborhood called this guy (with the gun) out for leading people to property destruction. The article states that "radicals" make up stories, without offering any kind of proof; polemic crap. Know who goes to protests? People who give a shit about other people, and the future. Young, old, all ethnicities, poor or not, educated or not. We are mostly nonviolent and truthful. Some are middle-aged white housewives like me. But media pawns and undercover officers paid by the oligarchy lie because they don't want you to know that.

May 15 2015 20:02
tristen wrote:
The article states that "radicals" make up stories, without offering any kind of proof; polemic crap.

It's funny: you say that, yet you don't actually offer any kind of proof that it isn't true, just 'polemic crap' about how protestors are good and non-violent and would never hurt a poor window unless they were undercover cops.

Literally every single time there is property destruction at a protest somebody suggests that it's done by undercover cops. Are you gonna straight up tell me that no protester has ever broken a window? Are you gonna tell me that every single radical who has advocated property destruction has been a cop? Do you think I'm a cop?

May 15 2015 20:08

Allen Bullock is unlikely to be a cop.

Chilli Sauce
May 16 2015 09:34
I have been to protests when police initiated violence against peaceful protesters on public property, and the subsequent hearings where the chief cited anonymous written claims from alleged officers that rocks were thrown at them.

That's not the same thing, though. This is far more in line with what JK posted in that first response: police don't need to throw rocks. They're more than happy to attack a peaceful crowd and then lie about rocks being thrown at them after the fact.

May 16 2015 09:53
Chilli Sauce wrote:
They're more than happy to attack a peaceful crowd and then lie about rocks being thrown at them after the fact.

This! Recently happened at an anti-fascist demo in Malmö where police on horses rode down protesters. Fantastic claims after by the police of bottles, rocks and balloons filled with ammonia (physically impossible as immonia would break them down) being thrown which thankfully journalists and activists in place could and did dismiss.

May 16 2015 15:16

I've long felt that first hand experience was always better than what some bloke in the pub said... and my First hand experience relates to the 1999 Euston demo .. the UK version of the battle for Seattle. As one of the demonstrators who was present from 7:30am to way past my bed time I saw FIRST hand who set the police van on fire... and it wasn't the demonstrators... this is my blog post about the event.. n30-the Euston deceit

May 16 2015 21:06

This whole article undermines the efforts of exposing police tactics, it's pointless to say don't point fingers at police provacators when they've been to blame for escalating riots......I smell bacon.

Juan Conatz
May 16 2015 21:13

Yeah, I've always thought the 'undercover cop throwing rocks' has been more of a myth than reality. While, of course, the state infiltrates groups, maintains an undercover precense in crowds, etc., the assumption that protesters that fight back, do property damage, looting etc are "probably" cops is a poisonous one. As someone who actually has been in a group with an FBI informant, I don't think people should just throw out accusations without proof.

Juan Conatz
May 16 2015 21:14
TurkeyGeneral wrote:
when they've been to blame for escalating riots


Also, TurkeyGeneral, please take a look at our posting guidelines. Insinuating that a poster or author might be a cop is not appropriate. If you disagree with this article, please explain why, rather than 'snitch-jacketing' someone.

May 17 2015 22:33

I think it's great that he mentioned the Quebecois union incident. But his comments on the incident were incorrect. He should have said:

Those undercover cops were not agitating people to be violent. They were there to keep track of protesters, as all undercovers do. The undercovers job is to single out people agitating others to riot, and help the police in carrying out snatch and grabs, as well as collecting evidence. The whole point of having undercovers is to provide the police with more information so they can better control the crowd to most importantly avoid it from becoming a riot, and then if it won't become a riot to disrupt the event and shut it down as soon as possible, and the disruptions do not involve throwing rocks at their fellow officers. They involve starting fights between protesters and confusing people about where they are headed.
The police will never agitate people to violence because even the low level cops know that the people are a bomb, and if a cop lights the fuse then a revolution will follow.


Anyways. After having read through the comments I'm dissapointed, and it seems like people did not fully grasp the importance. It seems that there is a polarization, and liberal's posts that say "The author is wrong, there are undercovers." get voted down (which they should), but people seem to be on the fence for voting up the more informative articles that say "yes the author is right, but there is more information that needs to be added."

It looks like the left (which is strictly anti authoritarian) has been dumbed down to the point that if there isn't group think involved then people are not brave enough to stand up and use their voice.

Chilli Sauce
May 17 2015 10:28

I think we should extend Godwin's law to include the words "group think".

Anyway, I think it's a really useful, timely article and here's why. The day or so after the Tories were elected, there was a demonstration of a couple thousand people outside Downing street that got really rowdy and, as a result, actually got picked up in the media. Now, I don't actually think the media are ever going to give us a fair cop, but I've been on marches that had tens of thousands of people that barely got a mention on page 14.

The point here is that if was want to have demos that have any chance of being effective parts of movement-building, they're going to have to be actually disruptive and actually confrontational. And, in that context, it's worth countering the liberal narrative that only "peaceful" demonstrations are somehow legitimate and, therefore, any rock-throwing must be the result of police provocateurs, troublemakers, "anarchists" or whatever.

Do cops infiltrate activist groups and demos? Of course they do, but we're not seeing a strategy of tension here and by turning on rock-throwers, we're only doing the pigs' jobs for them.

Biffard Misqueegan
Jun 1 2015 21:43

Even the most rational left-liberals, social democrats and "progressives" turn into Alex Jones when it comes to concocting conspiracy theories explaining "violence" at protests. In my experience, agent provocateurs is actually the second place conspiracy compared to 'out of town hooligans' (ie. ppl who come from outside the area and/or have no interest in the issues of the protest but show up just to cause trouble).

Jun 2 2015 11:35

It seems often that accusations referring to agent provocateurs cause confusion, and I too wonder what a police provocateur would hope to gain if they did incite a riot? Having said that, I recall the police van abandoned in the centre of a kettle at the student demo riots in London in 2011 (or was it 2010)? Was it purposely abandoned in the knowledge it would get trashed? If so, why? What would the state hope to achieve by this? All I can think of is simple 'containing public anger' tactics rather than anything more convoluted or sinister... ie the police wanted people to be able to vent their fury against something that could be sacrificed rather than wider, more dangerous (for the forces of law and order) targets.

Have to say this article, while warranted, doesn't really clear anything up for me.

Feb 6 2017 01:36

The biggest mistake I see is that people assume the provocateur is the police. That's another completely fallacious assumption. They are also commonly:

1) If labor is involved then strike breakers may be the provocateurs, that's also well documented at various protests. It doesn't even need to be a labor-focused protest if someone from labor is helping organize, those who make their money off antagonizing labor or the various "intelligence services" that sell industries information on protest movements may be involved.

2) Not everyone that shows up at protests is a supporter. Some are just there to antagonize because they have a personal beef with protestor's cause or just enjoy "the lulz" from trolling the "damn hippies."

3) Sometimes people trying to gain jobs in law enforcement and the private or public intelligence services show up at demonstrations as "free-agent provocateurs," with the idea that they can clinch a job at the interview by offering that they can plug right into the job description by exploiting their participation.

4) Some YouTubers are there to provoke just to bring up their site views. For example, I know of at least a half-dozen "Alex Jones wannabes" who are so annoying that Alex Jones knows them by name and even he avoids them. They go to protests with their shills who provoke confrontations just so they can savage them on their shows, which let's face it you would need to do if the other half your show is the same rants about the Bilderberg group, Bohemian Grove, and vapor trails.

5) There are still fringe throwback protest groups that show up at demonstrations just to stir the pot. I'm thinking of the Discordians here, and random is their MO. They troll the right wing as much as the left wing. For example, I know of one incident at one of the right wing anti-immigrant rallies where they almost got someone shot. Fortunately, there are few of them left; they're graying and probably will be on social security soon and will leave everyone else alone.

6) Anonymous is anonymous, so you don't know who or what they represent when some of them show up at a protest. Because they are loosely affiliated, but have a lot of skills to disrupt online communications and social engineering skills, they've been known to stir the pot. Since a lot of protest is organized through social media, you often don't know who they are going to rile up and why. Maybe they are just pissed because someone called them something they didn't like.

7) There are always, at pretty much any protest, people who show up because they have a cause and there are cameras around and people to talk with (or at or over). People are pretty quick to point them out as provocateurs when they are just disruptive because they don't fit in with anything that's going on around them.