There are, in fact, two kinds of people in the world of activism. Assholes and infiltrators. Every single one of us good-intentioned activists is an asshole.
From Lisha Sterling
In the 2003 Battlestar Galactica mini series, the cylons now look like humans. They can blend into the population. When Commander Adama and President Roslin find this out, they have a meeting to discuss the problem. They decide that they can’t let the fleet know. If everyone knew that cylons could look like humans, they’d all be accusing each other of being cylons, and terrible things could happen.
When I first saw that scene, I could understand intellectually why they made that decision. After having spent 6 months in the camps at Standing Rock, I have a visceral understanding of why they made that decision.
In the intense environment of a camp under siege, we knew that there were infiltrators among us, but it was usually hard if not impossible to figure out who those people were. Sometimes the infiltrators were easy to pick out. They didn’t cover their tracks very well, they projected their actions or they asked questions in a way that made them all too obvious. But we knew that there were others who were better at hiding their true intentions, and that did as much to cause division and strife as anything that the infiltrators were doing directly. Any time someone would do something stupid or destructive, any time someone would refuse to follow the instructions of a leader, any time someone lost their cool there was someone who would say of that person, “Do you think they’re an infiltrator?”
It took me over a month to get the Internet connected at camp. I was very stubborn in the fact that I was not going to use satellite internet to solve our problem (it’s too damned expensive) and I wanted the backbone connection to go through the tribally owned Standing Rock Telecom. Unfortunately, I had no idea what political back and forth that goal was going to take or the culturally appropriate path to get the right people on board with my plan. In the meantime, I fielded emails and phone calls from people several times a day telling me how I should set up Internet at the camps. I would listen to each one and then explain to them what was wrong with their plan and what we were doing instead. Towards the end, there were a lot of people who thought that I was intentionally stalling. “Is she an infiltrator?” they asked each other.
The question was asked about Johnny Aseron, the man that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe had assigned to be second in charge at the camp, the one who led the 9 am meetings for months and who was the go-to person for every possible issue at camp. He has his issues, just like all of us do, and when he had a string of unfortunate disagreements I heard a lot of people ask the question, “Do you think HE could be an infiltrator?”
One of the people on the tech team pissed me right off one day while I was away from camp to get supplies in Bismark. He took it upon himself to reorganize the tech team tent, a tent which he did not live in. He didn’t just reorganize the solar and wind power supplies that he worked with. He reorganized everything, including the computer equipment and network gear. He also managed to lose the keys to my van. He did all this by himself without the consent or cooperation of any of the other team members, despite the fact that four of us lived in that tent along with all that equipment. When I got back I was livid. When he left the tent, the other team members asked me, “Do you think he’s an infiltrator?”
No. Not an infiltrator. Just an asshole.
There are, in fact, two kinds of people in the world of activism. Assholes and infiltrators. Every single one of us good-intentioned activists is an asshole. Even those people who you know are absolutely the salt of the earth, sweet, wonderful amazing people. They are assholes, too, at least sometimes. We do stupid things, destructive things even, not because we want to destroy the movement but because we are flawed human beings. We all have personal ideas about how things should be done and personal agendas that may have nothing at all to do with the issue we are are working on that can get in the way of working well with our comrades.
If you traitor jacket someone, or declare a person in the movement to be an infiltrator, and you get it wrong, you will create serious division in the movement you care about and you will cut the movement off from the talents and skills of the person so wrongfully accused. The backlash from such a move can utterly destroy a group. Whatever it was you were planning together can be wiped out by bad blood, and with it whatever effectiveness you would have had.
But there are real infiltrators out there.
In the 2004 season of Battlestar Galactica, the scientist Gaius Baltar invents a cylon detector. It works perfectly. His first beta test is on a volunteer and the results come back positive. As he sits there looking at his screen and then looking at the person who volunteered to be tested, Baltar freaks out.
You can imagine all the things going through his head. If he tells this person that she has tested positive as a cylon, she may turn on him. Does she know she’s a cylon? Why did she volunteer to be the first one? What if she kills him for finding her out? What if she leaves that room and does something that will destroy the ship? It’s just not safe to call her out, even though he knows that she really is a cylon.
In real life, there is no blood test for infiltrators, but the risks of finding one out are still the same. You may have noted all the signs of an infiltrator in one of the members of your cohort, but that doesn’t mean that you want to immediately spread the word of what you’ve found. Depending on how well trained they are and what their mission is, they may pretend that you have falsely accused them. They may go into high gear to assassinate your character, destroying your credibility to save their own. Or, having been found out, they may do something drastic to cause as much damage as possible on their way out.
If you are very certain that you have found an infiltrator in your midst, speak privately with some trusted people before taking any action. Do not announce that you have found an infiltrator. Instead, play the game of “Asshole or Infiltrator”. Compare notes. See if the other people you trust have seen the same signs of an infiltrator that you have. See if you can determine together whether the behavior of this person is just normal human trouble or if it is something more problematic.
The game of “Asshole or Infiltrator” isn’t really a game, as such. It’s just a lighthearted take on the problem of deciding what to do with a person who has done something destructive inside your movement. By calling it a game we take some of the stress out, find room to laugh about the stupid things people do, and that can help us see more clearly when the behaviors we are concerned about constitute more than just a personality conflict.
Once you have determined that a person’s behavior is causing serious detriment to your group and goals, the next step is to decide what to do about that. One option, of course, is to call them out and remove them from your group. Unfortunately, even when you have more than one person on your side agreeing that a person is probably an infiltrator, calling them out can still have all the consequences mentioned above.
This is why it’s important to have some ground rules before you ever get to this point. Those ground rules should include a code of conduct specifically designed to bar the sorts of activities listed in the Media For Justice list of behaviors linked to agents provocateur. If someone is breaking that code of conduct, you do not need to address the person as an infiltrator as such. You simply need to cite the ways in which they have broken the code of conduct in order to bar them from your group. Now, when they try to kick up a fuss, you have your documentation of exactly which rules they broke and the risk to the larger group or movement is reduced.
But what if you just can’t tell what’s going on with a person and need to make sure that they can’t hurt your cause? What if they are just people that haven’t yet gained your trust? What if they are real assholes? Maybe they are assholes with serious mental health issues. You don’t always want to kick possible infiltrators out of your group. Sometimes you can use them to help you instead.
Joel Preston Smith is one of the many people that I met at Standing Rock. Today he is the director of the nonprofit Frontline Wellness United which provides healthcare including mental health support to activists, whistleblowers, and hackers. (The good sort. Like me.) Back in the 80’s, however, Joel was trained by the US Army to be an infiltrator at anti-war rallies. He became a conscientious objector after that, and his insights helped a lot in dealing with some problematic characters at camp.
Joel’s strategy is to give people who have low trust or a history of problematic behavior jobs which will help you but cannot cause significant harm. You want them to be busy, but out of earshot of sensitive discussions and away from sensitive equipment that they might sabotage. He lists tasks like stuffing envelopes or putting up fliers as an example of that kind of activity. Another example might be researching news articles and sending them to your social media manager for posting. In one case at camp, Joel took a particularly problematic character and set him to work building new shelves and a door for a food pantry. It was work that needed to be done, that the person could do alone, and that kept the person away from sensitive equipment and discussions.
In the end, there may well be some people that you never figure out are infiltrators until long after everything is over and you’ve run a FOIA on yourself to see what the FBI has to say about whatever campaign you are working on today. The best solution to the problem of the unknown infiltrator is not to distrust everyone, but rather to maintain strong security culture throughout your group and insist that your code of conduct be followed by all participants no matter who they may be. If you isolate people who refuse to maintain your agreed upon security protocols or who break your code of conduct, then you will have effectively defeated the enemy in your camp.
Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.