The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the summer of 2020 shook the edifice of US capitalism. At its height, the movement involved over 20 million people in 2,500 cities and towns, making it the largest mobilisation in the nation’s history. There were many factors that contributed to the movement ending up at an impasse, not least the lack of revolutionary leadership. But for years, it was alleged state infiltrators had a hand in undermining BLM. However, there was little irrefutable evidence – until now.
In early 2023, award-winning investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, using secret audio recordings, reports, and video, exposed how the FBI infiltrated and undermined the BLM movement in a 10-part series, constituting season one of the Alphabet Boys podcast, which seeks to expose the nefarious activities of intelligence bodies like the FBI, CIA, DEA, ATF etc.
Incriminating documents were leaked to Aaronson by someone in the FBI who was deeply disturbed by its use of informants to undermine the struggle against racism. These documents paint a dark, shameful, and downright bizarre image of the FBI’s secret operations on behalf of US capitalism.
‘Black Identity Extremism’
Aaronson has long studied secret agencies of the United States, and season one of Alphabet Boys focuses on the surveillance, infiltration, and forcible breakup of Black struggle movements, especially after 9/11 when the FBI gave itself far-reaching powers not seen since the 1960s and 1970s.
According to the podcast, FBI reports referred to BLM demonstrators as “anti-government extremists,” which is one of the ideologies classified as “domestic terrorism” by the FBI. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the Justice Department came up with a new catch-all classification of “Black Identity Extremism” as a rising form of anti-government extremism.
The FBI’s justification for this largely consists of a handful of disconnected crimes over a period of years. A report released a few years before the 2020 protests is cited by ex-FBI agent Michael German, who says the bureau “was assuming that any black activist who was protesting police violence and police racism was part of a violent movement to overthrow the government or to kill police.”
This rhetoric is largely passed over by Aaronson as excessive paranoia. But while on the one hand, it is likely the FBI was playing up the ‘threat’ of “Black Extremism” to justify its activities and powers, it is worth recalling the rise of the Black struggle in the ‘60s, which did develop into a genuine threat to the interests of American capitalism. It is quite logical that they would therefore attempt to nip this latest movement in the bud.
The war on terror transformed the FBI, giving it a vast array of surveillance tools it can and did use against BLM protests. By the time 2020 rolled around, the FBI had recruited a small army of informants and a surveillance network that could monitor digital communications without warrants. It also invented a new form of investigation termed an “assessment,” which simply means an investigation without any reasonable suspicion of a crime being committed. In this way, an FBI agent can spy on just about anyone, for just about any reason.
Tools of the trade
Having laid out the background, Aaronson then brings the investigation to Denver, Colorado. Here, on an unremarkable spring day in 2020, a white, middle-aged man, driving a silver hearse packed with guns, entered the BLM movement as a federal informant.
Any notion that spying is conducted by sophisticated, suave, martini-sipping agents evaporates before this strange character, the convicted felon Mickey Windecker: a brute with a childish obsession with comicbook anti-hero The Punisher, who had previously been arrested for assault, sexual assault, failing to register as a sex offender, menacing, unlawful possession of a weapon, and for impersonating an officer, among other charges.
Windecker would claim, ad nauseum, to be a “badass-motherfucker” who fought ISIS in Syria, as well as being a Kurdish diplomat. While he did go to Syria, the foreign volunteers he served with portrayed him as a useless liability. The FBI routinely uses such criminals and dubious figures as informants, since, in their own words: “if you want to catch the devil, you need to go to hell.”
Windecker would go on to not only participate in BLM protests in Denver, but to lead them, and to entrap activists in federal crimes. The section of the podcast detailing his activities, spanning most of the episodes, lays bare the tactics of FBI informants. Whilst the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTLPRO) used by the FBI against dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s was technically wound up, the tactics developed within it to crush the left are very much in use.
Today, the FBI has more than 15,000 registered informants, participating either for cash payments or for leniency on criminal convictions. Windecker himself received at least $20,000 in the span of a few weeks for his work as an agent provocateur.
When he came onto the scene, he immediately began to gain the trust of local activists, especially in the youth wing of the Democratic Socialists of America. Here, naive teenagers were captivated by his guns, foul language, and militant attitude. This was particularly effective when activists realised peaceful marches and merely asking for reforms were going nowhere, especially with the police ruthlessly beating protesters night after night. Some people involved in the movement were looking for a way out of the impasse, and the agent provocateur tactics of the FBI stooge appeared to be a way forward.
Windecker was vocal about his ability to push the struggle to new heights. One activist who had only just begun political activity was a determined young Black man named Zeb Hall. Hall invited Windecker to his apartment, where the latter said BLM needed to expose the American economic system as fundamentally unfair to Black people and other minorities. This is when Windecker asked Hall if he wanted to learn about “blowing up fucking buildings, and guerilla warfare tactics, and sabotage,” as well as pushing Hall to take terrorist measures to advance the movement. Unbeknownst to Hall, Windecker was recording this discussion, building a case he could then take to the FBI to prove his worth as a paid informant.
When another Black activist, Trey Quinn, became suspicious of Windecker, he called and baited him by proposing they should firebomb a building. Windecker emphatically agreed, and offered to set up a meeting with some criminals he knew. “At this point, I recognise my vague language and his specific language. And so he’s trying to lead me to say specific things. And I just keep it vague,” said Quinn.
At that point, Quinn suspected Windecker of being a snitch. Sensing his cover could soon be blown, Windecker called together a meeting with other local activists, where he went on the offensive, stating that Quinn was planning to unleash a fire bomb, “which is something only a federal agent would do”, basically painting Quinn as the real agent provocateur.
In an instant, Quinn has been ‘snitch-jacketed’. In Jim Vander Wall’s Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party, “snitch-jacketing” is referred to as the practice of “creating suspicion – through the spread of rumours, manufacture of evidence, etc. – that bona fide organisational members, usually in key positions, are FBI informants.” This tactic serves to “isolate and eliminate” organisational leadership.
This has always been a common tactic of the FBI. In one instance, Black Panther leader Fred Bennett was snitch-jacketed by FBI informant Thomas Mosher. In 1969, Bennett was executed by another Panther, Jimmie Carr, as a result. Carr himself would be snitch-jacketed by an FBI informant and assassinated on his own front yard that same year. There is no evidence that either Carr or Bennett were informants.
The method worked against Quinn, who immediately found himself excluded from rallies and communication with other activists, while Windecker’s own prestige rose. By August, Windecker had become a leader within the movement. That’s when he organised a full-on assault against a police station, where protestors violently clashed with cops, meeting with severe repression. Informants routinely commit crimes to gain trust. In 2011 to 2014, the FBI permitted informants to violate the law more than 20,000 times to further their investigations.
It was around this time that Windecker moved ahead and attempted to implicate both Zeb Hall, and another activist, Bryce Shelby, in a plot to assassinate the attorney general. In this way, the FBI could "roll up" multiple activists into a single conspiracy case. This attempt, to put it simply, flopped, but enough voice recordings were made to whip local right-wing news sites into a frenzy over a “foiled terrorist plot”, which would never have existed in the first place had the FBI and its informant not created it themselves!
At this point, the FBI had little in the way of hard evidence to make a case against Hall and Shelby. In instances like this, the FBI will attempt to build a “back-up” charge to at least have something to show for its troubles. Hall would eventually be convinced to purchase a gun for Windecker at a sporting goods store, and since Windecker was a felon, Hall had technically committed a federal crime! In the end, after months of useless investigations, the FBI gave someone with no criminal record government money, to buy a gun, to be given to a government agent, in order to frame them just to save face.
Lessons for the left
The FBI infiltration into the Denver social justice movement had a destabilising, chaotic, and destructive effect. It was inevitable that a powerful, spontaneous protest movement like BLM would face infiltration. As the class struggle intensifies and further struggles on this scale (and greater) erupt, we can expect the same in future.
How can we fight against these tactics? Firstly, we need to understand the character of the enemy we face. The Alphabet Boys provide further evidence that there are no methods too underhanded for the agents of the capitalist state when targeting activist groups, trade unionists and the left.
Many of the activists interviewed in Alphabet Boys were, by their own admission, far too naive. Zeb Hall did not believe the FBI would ever use a convicted felon as an informant and refused to believe it even when evidence pointed to the contrary. In the end, he incriminated himself in a federal crime. Similarly, two young members of the YDSA Denver repeatedly vouched for Windecker and helped him fight off any claims he was a snitch.
However, we should be clear that the BLM did not wind up in a dead end because of FBI infiltration. Rather, this was down to the absence of any party or organisation, with a revolutionary programme, capable of connecting with the anger on the streets and steering the masses towards victory through class struggle methods. The spontaneous and febrile character of BLM was a source of strength on the one hand, but on the other made it easier for a low-life like Windecker to raise himself up to a leadership position within it.
This is a testament to the importance of building a disciplined, well-educated, professional Marxist organisation in advance of powerful eruptions of the masses in order to provide leadership; with democratic internal structures to weed out wrecking elements, combat adventurism, and avoid panicked witch hunts that actually benefit police agents.
That being said, we should not exaggerate the ‘invincible power’ of the state. Alphabet Boys actually exposes the incompetence of the FBI in great (sometimes hilarious) detail. Despite their ruthlessness, the agents of the capitalist state cannot stand against the might of the working class once it is aroused and mobilised to action under the banner of a genuine Bolshevik Party. As Alan Woods writes of the brutal Tsarist regime in his book, Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution:
“A more powerful state (apparently) than Russian tsarism it would be difficult to imagine, with its mighty army, numerous police force, Cossack auxiliaries and vast bureaucracy. One arm of that state – as of any other – was the secret police. Here the art of provocation was developed to heights hitherto unimagined. But in the moment of truth, what did it all matter? The working class, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, just swept it all aside with a brush of its hand.”
This historical example should encourage us in our struggle for socialism, and help us not be cowed by the skulduggery of state agencies. At the same time, we should loudly expose and condemn the criminal behaviour of the capitalist ‘authorities’, who trample all over their own laws and ruin the lives of earnest young class fighters in order to defend the bosses’ rotten, racist, exploitative system. Let us consign these snakes to the dustbin of history, along with capitalism itself!