A little more than a year ago, well-known conservative political commentator Andrew Breitbart called Brandon Darby and thanked him for saving his life during the 2008 Republican National Convention. “You have an ally for life in me,” Breitbart told him.
Darby, once a leftist radical who by 2008 was an informant for the FBI, had notified authorities of an anarchist plot to hurl Molotov cocktails at the conservative gathering. Federal agents arrested two young radicals before the attack could be carried out.
When Darby's role as an informant was revealed, he was instantly reviled by his radical friends, so Breitbart's gratitude was a welcome surprise.
“It was the first time I’d heard that,” Darby said in a recent interview as he lit up one in a constant stream of cigarettes at a favorite spot of his, a smoky hookah lounge near the Texas State University campus in San Marcos. He doesn't want the bar's name revealed — he doesn't want to have to find a new hangout if his former friends come calling.
Breitbart's phone call launched the latest incarnation of the handsome, brooding, ever controversial and always voluble Darby. He’s a central figure in the documentary film “Better This World,” which premiered last month at the South By Southwest Film Festival and details events that led to the conviction of the two young anarchists. At 34, Darby has transformed from liberal social justice organizer to much-maligned FBI informant to now right-of-center conservative hero of a sort.
Living on a farm outside of Austin, Darby still sees himself as a community organizer, but his disillusionment with left-wing groups who shunned him propelled him into the arms of the right. And thanks in no small part to continued public attacks from radicals who used to be his friends, Darby said he has an even larger platform to espouse the causes he champions.
Those who remain close to Darby, though, say his transformation hasn’t been as dramatic as it might appear. He still is focused on social justice issues and his ideology is not aligned with the far right. It’s just that conservatives are the only group now who will give him a voice. And for Darby, they said, what matters is not ideology but results. “It’s not so much an ideological shift as he’s changing his tactics,” said Darby’s longtime friend Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of political science at Occidental University. “His end goal is still the same.”
Heldman met Darby in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, where they worked together at Common Ground Relief, a group of anarchists and radicals who helped clean storm ravaged homes and start a women’s shelter. “I find him to be incredibly charismatic and effective, and leaders like that do have pretty strong critics,” Heldman said.
During that time in New Orleans, Darby said his view of leftist radicals began to change. When he came to the project, Darby despised law enforcement, and he regularly defied and protested against them. But he met officers who helped in New Orleans. And at one protest, he said, he saw fear in an officer’s face as the group became increasingly threatening. He began, he said, to see the officers as men. “They were scared,” Darby said.
It wasn’t just a newfound appreciation for law enforcement that changed his perspective. The leadership at Common Ground began to fracture and fight, Heldman said. Darby became frustrated with what he saw as inaction. “He’s not one to kind of sit back and wait for bureaucratic procedures,” she said. Disagreements bred resentment and eventually, in 2007, Darby left Common Ground. “Brandon is definitely my way or the highway,” Heldman said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
He came to Austin and immersed himself in the local radical anarchist community, becoming a kind of elder in a rag-tag group of young protesters. In 2008, he drove them to Minneapolis to rally against the Republican National Convention. But Darby had a secret: he was there as an informant for the FBI. His reconnaissance led to the conviction of two young Texas men on charges they hatched a plot to attack the convention with Molotov cocktails. Both men have argued that without Darby’s influence they would not have made the firebombs. Darby denies inciting them.
When Darby published an open letter in December 2008 revealing himself as an informant, the community of radicals and anarchists whom he had long considered friends were outraged.
“Being an informant is inherently an extremely controversial act that is going to alienate a lot of people,” said Michael May, managing editor of the Texas Observer. He spent six months working on a story about the RNC incident for This American Life and is now writing a book about Darby. “That is breaking a social contract in a sense that most people find repulsive.”
Many who had worked with Darby at Common Ground in New Orleans and as activists in Austin felt betrayed. One activist from Darby’s days at Common Ground described him on a blog as “a master of manipulation” given to aggression. She and another Common Ground leader and Austin activist described him in media reports as hungry both for power and the limelight. Fliers with Darby’s photo and the headline “Beware: Brandon Darby, FBI informant rat on the loose!” showed up in coffee shops around Austin.
“I don’t think that he was prepared for how hurt and betrayed people were going to feel,” May said. “Some people could just have said, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ But Brandon’s not that person.”
Abhorred as a traitor by the community that had given him a voice to bring awareness to the social issues he championed, and feeling abandoned by the FBI, which could not defend his work, Darby said he became depressed. If it weren’t for his young daughter, he said, he might not have had the strength to carry on. He still believed working with the FBI was the right choice. “On behalf of law enforcement I did use deception. That’s true," he said. "But my concern is the fact that [the] movement spawned such disgusting things.”
He said he was disappointed at the immensely negative reaction, even threats, from the activist community. “I live like an Israeli,” he said. “I’m always watching out.” Heldman said Darby’s farm is populated with plenty of animals, in part, because he believes activists who might want to hurt him would think twice about an attack that could also hurt animals.
Darby supports himself doing odd jobs, including manual labor, he said, but hopes one day to make a living through his work as a community organizer. He is working with groups to prevent and bring awareness to human trafficking. He said he has worked to get the FBI to treat its non-criminal informants better. And he's trying to bring attention to what he sees as unacceptable mistreatment of rape victims. “I’m still functional, and I still have a voice,” he said. He uses the organizing skills he learned working with Common Ground and other groups, but now, he said, his tactics are less radical. It helps, too, he said, that he has more experience working with law enforcement and a larger pool of contacts in the media because of the national coverage of his FBI involvement and his work in New Orleans. “I can use all those relationships,” he said, “and I try to.”
When Breitbart called offering to let Darby write for his popular conservative “Big Government” blog, Darby said he found the new venue empowering. He took aim in his first post at some of his former friends who had turned against him. In another he called the left a “ticking time bomb,” and wrote “the anti-American culture of the extreme left has been largely ignored. Like a cancer running through the body politic, the culture of hating America has metastasized.” He has written about child trafficking and combating waste and corruption in school districts.
Having Darby write for the blog adds a view that Breitbart said conservative readers want. “He provides to my audience a perspective into how leftist community organizers and agitators and far-left activists think and what they do in order to affect quote-unquote social justice,” he said. But Breitbart said his new friend is not right of center. And he’s OK with that. “Just because people on the right are nice to him doesn’t mean he’s on the right,” Breitbart said. “He is a man without an ideology. He is a work in progress.”
Darby seems to agree at least that his life is a work in progress. He said he’s still learning how to better advocate for the causes he champions, how to more effectively use the platforms available to him and produce results quicker. As for the future, Darby said he sees himself doing just what he always has: organizing to support the causes in which he believes, holding government officials accountable and finding solutions for social ills. “If a girl is raped,” he said, “I’d like my presence to be bad for the people who did her wrong.”
May said labels don’t really apply when it comes to Darby. He’s not the hero many on the right would make him it out to be, nor is he the villainous snitch those on the left paint. He’s not a far-left or a far-right political ideologue. His aim now is the same as it was back in New Orleans, to use the tools available to him to fix the problems he identifies. The difference now, is that the only tools at Darby’s disposal after the fallout from his FBI informing are on the right, May said. “Brandon is a well-meaning, resourceful and flawed human being.”