The FBI affidavit paints a far more sinister picture, with testimony from “Karen” alleging that members of the FRSO—teachers and trade unionists with long-standing ties to their communities; people whose homes she visited and whose newborn children she cradled in her arms—were actively plotting to take over government buildings in an armed revolution, all while aiding terrorist organizations in Colombia and Palestine.
Tom Burke was driving through a sleepy part of Grand Rapids, Michigan—an empty neighborhood full of abandoned warehouses—when he first noticed the vehicle tailing him. “I was like, Why is this car turning left whenever I turn left?” he recalled. “I figured out I was being followed.”
Tom, a 49-year-old who has been active in antiwar and labor circles for decades, had been monitored for months by the FBI, and that morning, September 24, 2010, the Bureau was moving against him and his fellow activists. Agents had raided the homes of some of Tom’s friends, seizing computers and tearing apart rooms as part of an investigation into whether they were planning an armed revolution and providing aid to terrorist organizations. In response, Tom was on his way to an internet café to issue a press release telling the world what was happening, which was about all he could do given the circumstances.
That same morning, he and his wife were served with subpoenas demanding they testify before a grand jury. By December, 23 activists across the Midwest were subpoenaed and asked to answer for their activism. Among other things, they were accused of providing “material support” for terrorism, a charge that can mean anything from providing guns to a terrorist group to providing any sort of “advice or assistance” to members of such a group, even if that advice is “lay down your arms.” (Former president Jimmy Carter warned a few months before the raids that the threat of a “material support” charge “inhibits the work of human-rights and conflict-resolution groups.”)
Nearly four years later no one has been charged with a crime, and an unsealed affidavit, which the FBI used to get a federal judge to sign off on the 2010 raids, even notes that this group of mostly middle-aged peace activists explicitly rejected the idea of providing arms to anyone. The document, released by court order last month in response to requests from the activists, shows that an undercover special agent was intent on luring people into saying ominous things about “revolution” and, sometimes, some of these people indulged her, which provided the pretext for legally harassing a group known to oppose US policy at home and abroad.
The FBI first became interested in Tom and his fellow travelers on the eve of the 2008 Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when the bureau that purports to keep America safe sent an undercover agent who went by the name “Karen Sullivan” to infiltrate the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, one of the most prominent groups organizing protests outside the convention. The agent couldn’t uncover any wrongdoing whatsoever, but soon she made her way to another left-wing organization in the Midwest, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), a group that includes Tom and a number of other activists who received subpoenas.
Her cover was fashioned to appeal to the bleeding-heart leftists she sought to entrap and imprison—“Karen’s” identity was practically a caricature of a socialist activist.
“She presented herself as a lesbian with a teenage daughter,” Jess Sundin, a founding member of the Anti-War Committee who also belongs to the FRSO, said in a 2011 interview with Nick Pinto of the Minneapolis City Pages. The agent told activists she had a rough childhood and spent years on the streets after first her parents and then the military kicked her out for being gay. She laid it on thick, in other words.
“I remember a woman who was really eager,” Tom told me. “She kept bringing up how eager she was about revolution. And you know, on the one hand, people think it’s good because we really need to change society, so it’s a fine thing to talk about. On the other hand, she was trying to find people she could manipulate into [committing] a crime.”
Her excesses, her going on about revolution a bit too much, were shrugged off as the zeal of a recent convert, but they didn’t go without notice. These were experienced activists who knew that government surveillance of dissident groups had a long, ongoing history—but they were also aware that paranoia can also scare off the genuinely eager and slowly kill an organization. Being a little too green and a little too willing to help out doesn’t always mean someone’s a cop. And why worry if you have nothing to hide?
“We had discussions about her,” Tom said. “The mistake we made is that we believed, well, we’re not breaking any laws, so what is she going to report? The raids shook us.”
“Karen Sullivan” along with another undercover FBI agent, who went by the name of “Daniela Cardenas”
Most of the activists targeted by the FBI wouldn’t deny they are revolutionaries, but they aren’t naïve either. They are radical enough to not rule out that some future revolutionary period could entail a gun going off somewhere, but they aren’t about to stockpile weapons—they know America is not revolutionary Russia. As a result, the day-to-day activities of the self-described “Marxist-Leninists who believe that capitalism… is inherently a system of inequality, injustice, and war” are pretty mundane. After the 2008 Republican convention, they engaged in routine organizing efforts, attempting to mobilize support for health-care reform and opposition to police brutality. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, they put together rallies protesting the verdict.
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The FBI affidavit paints a far more sinister picture, with testimony from “Karen” alleging that members of the FRSO—teachers and trade unionists with long-standing ties to their communities; people whose homes she visited and whose newborn children she cradled in her arms—were actively plotting to take over government buildings in an armed revolution, all while aiding terrorist organizations in Colombia and Palestine. But after two years of undercover work, there was never any hard evidence for any of this; the affidavit is based almost entirely on the undercover agent’s testimony—testimony that, at worst, makes her former comrades sound like a couple of leftists after a few beers.
“Commies fighting for national liberation in other countries? We love those guys,” Jess Sundin, who was later subpoenaed, allegedly told the agent in 2009. Another activist allegedly talked about being a “big fan” of terrorist groups, though the affidavit concedes that statement came amid laughter and joking. Those off-the-cuff remarks, however, were presented as damning evidence that these community organizers—eight of whom are women with young children at home—were serious threats to “national security.”