Talking Surveillance Culture, FBI Informants, and What “Domestic Terrorism” Means with the Directors of Better This World

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09/06/2011 11:35 AM |

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The documentary Better This World concerns concerns two young Austin activists, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were busted on domestic terrorism charges for making Molotov cocktails in Minneapolis during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Following the trial as it develops, filmmakers Kate Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega have access to the defendants’ meetings with their attorneys and wrenching collect calls home, as well as to FBI files supporting their thesis: that a fellow-activist turned informant acted as an agent provocateur. The film will be broadcast tonight on PBS’s POV series, and will be available to stream via the POV website starting tomorrow and continuing through October 6. The filmmakers answered some questions over email this weekend.

The Austin Chronicle and This American Life had previously produced long features on the informant—what did you learn that was new about the story by coming at it from the perspective of Bradley Crowder and David McKay?
Kelly Duane de la Vega: Those were both really interesting and revelatory pieces, but they had very little from the perspectives of the so-called terrorists, nor from the government that was investigating them. Our story depended on hearing from several key players on both sides, but also on getting deep inside the heads of McKay and Crowder. By following their stories closely and for some time we were able to grapple with their choices, while also bringing into focus several issues related to the government’s domestic counterterrorism program: the growing surveillance culture, the criminalization of protest and dissent and the erosion of civil liberties in the post-9/11 era.

Can you speak at all to the changes in Austin’s activist community in the years following the arrest?
Kate Galloway: The realization that an informant had been watching Brad, David and others over more than 6 months leading up to the convention was at first unbelievable, and then devastating, to many. My sense is that there has been a painful but cathartic consciousness-raising about the likelihood that informants might be working in activist circles in Austin.

I understand that you had a lot of access to materials disclosed as part of the discovery process of the federal trial—did you encounter any friction in trying to get access to materials you wanted while putting together the film?
KDdlv: We were very fortunate that so many materials were a part of discovery at trial: intimate jailhouse phone calls, audio of FBI interrogations, surveillance photos and video of street battles between protestors and police. We also learned that the Department of Homeland Security had granted $1.2 million to the twin cities for surveillance cameras at the convention—and that we could access that footage. We cherry-picked from thousands of hours, capturing everything from the FBI following our characters as they arrived in town to McKay and Crowder shopping for bomb making materials to video from handheld cameras at the protests. Very little came through Freedom of Information requests. It was instead culled from a variety of sources and required an enormous amount of research.

When I saw the film at SXSW you two said you were hoping to work with Frontline on a more wide-ranging study of coercive informants in post-9/11 America, especially within the Islamic community. Any updates on that front? Hell, anything we should know in the meantime?
KG: For complicated reasons we didn’t wind up doing the Frontline piece, but Trevor Aronson, the print reporter we planned to partner with, went on to do a terrific cover story in the current issue of Mother Jones called “The Informants” about the scope of the FBI’s informant network and the question of whether and to what degree informants are driving crimes in domestic terror cases. It is a must-read, as is Petra Bartosiewicz’s article in the current issue of Harper’s: “To Catch a Terrorist.”

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