Better This World, a new PBS documentary, recounts the story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay who set out to attend a protest at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2008 and, after an extraordinary turn of events, were arrested and imprisoned based on charges of terrorism.
It is a story of idealism, mobilization, and political dissent. But it is also one of deceit, incitement to violence, and our government’s involvement in the infiltration of political groups. Bradley Crowder and David McKay, two childhood friends from Midland, Texas, were outraged by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the direction the US was taking after 9/11. After moving to Austin they met Brandon Darby who they knew had extensive experience as an activist and organizer in the post-Katrina relief effort. Darby was older, charismatic, and portrayed himself as a fighter for social justice.
They agreed to work together and Crowder and McKay looked up to Darby for guidance. When Darby suggested traveling as a group to protest at the RNC in Minneapolis, they viewed it as an opportunity to make a difference and voice their disagreement with America’s policies. Over a period of six months, they planned the trip and met at least once every week during which Darby acted as the group’s leader. In preparation for the protest, they built shields that they would carry at the RNC to protect themselves from pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Needless to say, Crowder and McKay had no idea that Darby was secretly working for the FBI as an informant. During the trip, Darby seemed more radical in his political views and gave the impression that he was a militant revolutionary bent on armed struggle against the government. He alluded to the idea that the use of firebombs was sometimes necessary.
In Minneapolis and on the eve of the RNC, their shields were stolen. Darby exploded and insisted that this was unacceptable, that the government was obviously behind the theft. That night, Crowder and McKay made eight Molotov cocktails but did not use them. On the first day of the convention, both Crowder and McKay were arrested for rioting but Crowder was later released. McKay and Darby met at a coffee shop while Darby was wearing a transmitting device that was relaying their conversation to the FBI. Darby asked McKay what he was going to do with the Molotov cocktails, and whether he was willing to conduct other “missions”. McKay hesitated but mentioned a parking lot where unoccupied police cars were stationed, suggesting that he could target one of them. In a conversation with McKay through text messages that night, Darby’s provocation was clear. At 2:38 a.m., he wrote:
All the demonstrating and all the police being cruel can f*** people up. I know you are upset at watching that s***… I suggest dropping any discussion that upsets you.
McKay was arrested that morning and both he and Crowder were charged with terrorism-related offenses. Crowder was sentenced to two years, and McKay four years in prison after they agreed to a plea bargain. An FBI veteran interviewed in the film points out that before 9/11 informants could only look and listen. Obviously, Darby did not merely look and listen. Darby motivated Crowder and McKay to go to the RNC. He acted as the group’s leader in planning the trip and defining the group’s activities and objectives. In his conversations, he incited Crowder and McKay to go much further than they had intended initially. One wonders whether Darby could have been prosecuted for criminal solicitation had he not been working with the FBI. One also wonders whether Darby’s role is one that our government should be playing. Better This World can be watched online until October 7.