In Saturday Night Live‘s parody of Citizen Kane, on a slow news day Charles Foster Kane says, “if there’s not any news, we’ll make some,” and begins randomly shooting people out the newspaper office window. That’s the first thing I thought of on reading reports that two plainclothes California Highway Patrol cops found themselves outed — in the process of attempting to instigate looting by protesters! — during a march through Oakland and Berkeley against two recent grand jury decisions not to indict cops who had killed unarmed black men.
That’s right, attempting to instigate looting — you didn’t misread. According to eyewitnesses livetweeting from the demonstration, the two officers — posing as demonstrators — were would-be “instigators of looting” (Courtney Harrop, “Undercover Cops Outed and Pulled Guns on Crowd,” Storify, December 11, 2013). Protesters in the group they were attempting to infiltrate spotted them as fakes and outed them to the rest of the crowd. One of the panicked cops, captured in a photograph that immediately went viral, pulled his gun and began threatening the surrounding marchers.
Police provocateurs as instigators of crime is an old narrative. As Earth First! organizer Judi Bari famously said, “the person that offers to get the dynamite is always the FBI agent.” From the December 1999 Seattle protests on, the anti-globalization movement was rife with rumors of undercover cops always being the first to suggest smashing store windows. Nearly every “terror cell” busted by the FBI since 9/11 turned out to have been organized every step of the way by federal agents. Indeed the “terrorists” were usually so incompetent they could barely function even with FBI guidance.
Just as Charles Foster Kane manufactured news where there was none, the state manufactures crime where none would otherwise exist.
It does this, in the first instance, to create a pretext for using violence to suppress its immediate critics — the protesters against corporate globalization, the Occupiers, marchers outraged by racial injustice. The state always attempts to tarnish any movement circulating the message that “Another World is Possible” or casting doubt on the legitimacy of the existing system of power. It has done this by dismissing them as “reds,” “anarchists” and “outside agitators” — as in the post-Haymarket repression and the post-WWI Red Scare — and if necessary by simply fabricating crime.
But beyond that, the state needs us afraid so we’ll be willing to grant it power. A society made up of people who trust rather than fear each other, confident in their own ability to keep themselves safe through peaceful cooperation with their neighbors, is an inhospitable breeding ground for state power. The state needs crime — even if it has to invent it.