Lucy in Disguise

Three years ago, an undercover agent in Maryland spied on activists. Scott McLemee finds her description in a sociologist's article from 1974.

July 30, 2008

An auto worker in Detroit during the 1940s and ‘50s, Martin Glaberman later became a professor emeritus in interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University, in part on the strength of his book Wartime Strikes: The Struggles Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW during World War Two. He had also gained some pedagogical experience teaching Das Kapital in small Marxist groups that crystallized around the Caribbean historian and political thinker C.L.R. James. It was through an interest in James that I first got to know Glaberman during the final dozen years of his life. (He died in late 2001.) But it did not take long to become very fond of Glaberman himself, who was a living embodiment of the phrase “gruff but lovable.”

One day, we were talking about C.L. R. James’s problems with American immigration officials during the 1950s. (Being even a staunchly anti-Stalinist radical was enough to make life difficult then. James ended up imprisoned on Ellis Island for a while, as if that were not laying the irony on a little thick.) As a digression, Marty told me about getting his own surveillance file from the local police. Detroit had a “red squad” until at least the 1970s, as did many other cities. In some cases, police departments spent more resources gathering political intelligence than keeping track of organized crime.

The portion of his red-squad file Glaberman saw mentioned that a group called the Third World Liberation Army met in his basement during the late 1960s to receive paramilitary training. Marty said he was surprised to read this. For one thing, it was the first he’d heard of the Third World Liberation Army. And, possibly more to the point, the house he lived in during the late 1960s did not have a basement.

Marty told the story with amusement, and I listened in the same spirit. When people in authority make themselves ridiculous, you can’t help responding accordingly. But the joking mood also had an element of retroactive nervousness to it. The delusions or fabrications of the undercover agent could well have led to real consequences. It was easy to picture Marty being beaten to a pulp by some overzealous SWAT team member who demanded to know where the (nonexistent) arms cache was kept.

That discussion came back to mind a couple of weeks ago when I read the 43 pages of documents that the American Civil Liberties Union recently obtained from the Maryland State Police concerning surveillance of pacifist and anti-death penalty activists between 2005 and 2006. The material is startling and disconcerting -- if not quite filled with the excitement of paramilitary maneuvers in an imaginary basement.

As it happens, two of the individuals named in those documents are people I know. The record shows that they did knowingly assemble with others to incite public opinion against the death penalty through such means as distributing leaflets, circulating petitions, and holding vigils and nonviolent protests. “The group discussed soliciting donations for signs, flyers, and other administrative expenses,” we learn from one top-secret report. “A table will be set up at the Sunday Takoma Park Farmer’s Market to promote the events and their cause. No other pertinent intelligence information was obtained.”

All this sensitive and alarming information was gathered by a woman in her early 20s who identified herself as “Lucy.” When not attending public meetings -- cleverly disguised as somebody who gave a damn -- the agent was busy monitoring the group’s listserv. Her reports mention that she "set up a covert email account" for this purpose.

I will say this much for her: Lucy took good notes. In fact, if you want to see what it looks like when a bunch of citizens take seriously “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (as it says somewhere) -- well, the surveillance logs of the Maryland State Police would be a good place to start.

Such activity was once regarded as evidence of a healthy constitutional democracy -- perhaps even its prerequisite. Thanks to the efforts of Lucy and her colleagues, we now know better. Democracy means you have nothing to complain about, so shut up already.

Actually, my two friends are not shutting up at all. Each wrote an excellent article in the wake of the revelations (available here and here). They, along with others named in the surveillance reports, will also be taking suitable steps. So far, they are being discreet about what that might entail, but one hopes it involves suing the hell out of everybody responsible.

Judged as anything but a symptom of Patriot Act sensibilities at their most deranged, the Maryland surveillance case seems puzzling. It involved using surreptitious means to gather information about activities that were as public as they could possibly be. The meetings were open to anyone who wanted to attend. You could read material about what the groups were doing online. Not one word in the reports suggests any potential for violence, vandalism, foul language, or the involuntary exposure of the public to works of performance art transgressing bourgeois norms. The Maryland State Police appear to have wasted quite a bit of the taxpayers' money.

But a classic article from The American Journal of Sociology -- first published in 1974, not so long after my friend Marty was being surveilled in Detroit -- suggests that there may be a method to the madness.

In “Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant,” Gary T. Marx (now professor emeritus of sociology at MIT) analyzed dozens of examples of police infiltration of dissident groups. A number of such operations had been revealed in the early 1970s, whether through raids on FBI offices by radicals who hauled off documents or testimony by former undercover agents who went public with their experiences. Marx could also draw on the record of earlier generations of surveillance of left-wing and labor organizations, whether by the government or by private agencies.

It is a rich paper, defying quick summary. But when I reread it last week, the yellow highlighter found some passages that seemed like comments on the news from Maryland.

For one thing, the sociologist may well describe “Lucy” -- no small trick, given that she hadn’t been born when the article was written.

“When regular police are used as agents,” writes Marx, “it is often those who have recently joined the force, sometimes having purposely not undergone academy training. Their youthfulness not only makes their access easier, but it also makes them less recognizable as police officers and eliminates the need for elaborate cover stories.... With increased emphasis on college-educated police and programs to facilitate going to school while serving on the force, this seems a natural arrangement.”

Earlier generations of activists had created tight, hierarchical organizations. A spy could penetrate such a group with a reasonable chance of learning things about it not available to outsiders. But by the 1960s, undercover agents were facing a new phenomenon. The protest organizations coming to the fore then consisted, writes Gary Marx, “not of highly centralized, formally organized, tightly knit groups of experienced revolutionaries;” they were instead “decentralized, with fluid leadership and task assignments, shifting memberships, and an emphasis on participation. Members were generally not carefully screened, and requirements for activism were minimal.”

On the one hand, they tended to be naive about infiltration and surveillance. On the other hand, Marx writes, “Most groups had nothing to hide.” More than 30 years later, the description and evaluation still seem apt. Certainly they apply to the groups infiltrated by the Maryland State Police.
So why would agents monitor such groups? It is tempting to answer, “Because they can.” But sociological analysis suggests another reason. Gary Marx notes the principle that “the amount of deviance ‘found’ in a society bears some relationship to the number of officials whose job it is to find it. Thus, as facilities for dealing with the crime of ‘witchcraft’ in early America increased, so did the number of ‘witches’ discovered.” (See also Marty Glaberman’s basement.)

When surveillance becomes a field of professional competence, those so certified must find something to infiltrate -- even if it’s just a group handing out literature at the Farmers Market.


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