The Upside of Paranoia

On the orange-alert eve of the convention, anti-Republican activists might agree with Henry Kissinger on at least one—well, only one—thing: “Even paranoids have enemies.” Lately, the shrill conspiracy theories of last fall are beginning to sound like sober predictions.

“With any protest, there’s always a sort of folklore that precedes the organizing,” says Jennifer Flynn, a 33-year-old activist and leader of the New York City AIDS Housing Network. She’s been working with groups like ACT UP and Housing Works as part of the coalition Still We Rise to stage an August 30 march protesting Bush’s policies on issues like housing, health care, and immigration. “Last year, when we first looked into a permit, the NYCLU told us we should expect 100 percent surveillance: our phones tapped, our e-mails looked at, our offices watched.”Though “it freaked me out,” says Flynn, she didn’t know quite how to take it.

After all, police-state tales are as common in activist circles as moneymaking schemes are in M.B.A. programs. Flynn had heard about the cointelpro teams that infiltrated civil-rights groups in the fifties, sixties, and seventies—and the stories about the 1968 Chicago convention, where as many as one in six rioters were revealed to be infiltrators. “But that seemed like Jim Crow laws or something,” Flynn says. Even in the mid-nineties, when Flynn joined ACT UP and heard old stories about police officers knocking on activists’ doors, she says, “I hate to sound like a jerk, but I wonder sometimes if I really believed them either.” And Flynn recalls rolling her eyes at other activists who were so paranoid they used pseudonyms in meetings: “I’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Jennifer Flynn,’ and the next person would say, ‘Hi, I’m Monster.’ ”

But now, thanks largely to the NYPD and the FBI, Flynn is a full-blown paranoid: Earlier this summer, the FBI interviewed an estimated 40 to 50 activists in at least six states—many about their political affiliations and protest plans—defining its targets broadly as “people that we identified that could reasonably be expected to have knowledge of [disruptive] plans and plots if they existed.” Then last week, WABC-TV reported that the NYPD—which has not denied charges of infiltrating activist groups—has compiled a list of 56 “dangerous” activists and assigned teams of agents to monitor each of them 24 hours a day until the end of the convention. According to the report, the security details are composed largely of undercover narcotics officers and are concentrated locally, but they’ll venture as far as Boston, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and California, tailing protesters from their hometowns to the city.

“On one hand, I think, Phew, I’m not crazy,” Flynn says. On the other hand, she adds, “I’ve been waking up at three in the morning with cold sweats, worried about how I’m definitely going to get arrested. Every morning when I wake up, I say, ‘No, that’s crazy. We’re just having an old-school, old-fashioned march.’ ” She pauses. “But now nobody knows. Lately, I wonder, why are my interns so helpful? Are they informants?”

A kind of paranoid pragmatism has emerged as the unofficial theme of the convention—for protesters, city officials, and police, who are all promising the best but half-expecting and preparing for the worst.

And while the city, the Republicans, and the protesters all decry the hysteria—over terrorist violence, a police-state crackdown, or anarchic mayhem—they must also admit that paranoia has its upside. In short, paranoia is the only reason most people are paying attention. For the Republicans, their rote endorsement of a sitting president has zero news value; all they can hope for is a dynamic backdrop that plays in their favor. For the NYPD, this convention has opened up an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate to the world—and to Boston, which attempted to cage protesters at the DNC—its Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect. Most dramatically, press-hungry protesters, who might have expected to march in front of cameras for just a few days, have instead inhabited the news for months. So far, paranoia has been a media bonanza.

“Lately, I wonder, why are my interns so helpful?” says an anti-RNC activist. “Are they informants?”

It’s an absurdist moment. Activists are promising large, peaceful protests and dramatic, nonviolent acts of civil disobedience—while predicting mass preemptive arrests and the incursion of agent provocateurs who will cause violence in order to frame activists. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly promises calm—while preparing for what the government calls Al Qaeda’s plan “to attack the U.S. on a scale as big or larger than 9/11.” Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg promises that most New Yorkers “won’t even know that there’s a convention in town”—while a 10,000-officer police contingent prepares for bizarre scenarios. An alarmist NYPD memo, leaked to the tabloids, warns that activists might dress up in uniform and beat up friends to fake police brutality.

The dominant pre-convention story—activist group United for Peace and Justice’s fight to wangle a permit for a 250,000-strong march in Central Park—is best understood as a paranoid drama. Most protesters agree with UFPJ’s spokesman Bill Dobbs, who argues that the city is acting deliberately to depress turnout, frustrate their movement, and banish activism to a less iconic locale (the West Side Highway). So on July 21, when his group reluctantly agreed to a march past Madison Square Garden that would terminate on the highway, many protesters were outraged, convinced that the Republican mayor was refusing their permit not for the stated reasons of safety or horticulture (the city professes great concern for the Great Lawn’s sod). Twenty days later, and less than three weeks before the march, UFPJ brazenly backed out of the permit, announcing “The deal is off!,” apparently because it was the only way to hold onto the paranoid wing of the protest movement, which is to say the majority.

Bloomberg, of course, has prolonged these increasingly strange and often petty negotiations (the city once suggested an alternate site in Flushing; the protesters once demanded shuttle buses, sound systems, and cash). Surely aware of Quinnipiac University poll numbers showing that 75 percent of New Yorkers support UFPJ, Bloomberg has tried some damage control. One day after describing protest as a “privilege” that might be revoked, he launched a “Peaceful Political Activists” tourism incentive package, a program of shopping and entertainment bargains similar to those offered to GOP delegates. No, United for Peace and Justice’s marchers would not be allowed in Central Park, and yes, protesters would be closely monitored, but Zapatistas could order discounted “Nachos Nuevos” at Applebee’s.

Bloomberg’s spin seemed directed squarely at defusing protesters’ fears, and was an inadvertent admission of how smartly groups like United for Peace and Justice had used the permit struggle in the media. The UFPJ effectively turned its one-day march into a yearlong soap opera. “Once UFPJ took the permit for the West Side Highway, there were no news stories,” says Flynn. But on the days UFPJ reneged, threatened a lawsuit, or filed a lawsuit, the press dutifully kicked in with dozens of stories.

For other protest groups, another kind of fear has taken hold—fear of being ignored. “Initially, as each one of us said we were going to protest, we each got a bit of a press bump, but lately everything’s been lost in the whole thing over Central Park and UFPJ,” says Joan Malin, head of Planned Parenthood of New York City. Malin says she had “a very good experience with the city” in obtaining her permit for an August 28 march across the Brooklyn Bridge, which was nice except that it also left her lost in the news cycle. “It’s very frustrating that some of this stuff won’t be covered,” she says, “but conflict is always sexier than cooperation.”

Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, worries that organized labor will be forgotten as well. “Everyone’s talking about the cat in the tree instead of the hundreds in the street,” he says, referring to his 375 unions and 1.5 million members. “The Bush administration would love the focus to be one-dimensional—to make it look like there are just war protesters out on the street, instead of working people opposed to Bush’s values.”

Here, of course, McLaughlin is hinting at the ultimate fear among all those who oppose the president: that anarchists or prankster activists or provocateurs will create a spectacle that the Republicans will turn into a law-and-order campaign’s talking point. Republicans are already planning how to connect disorder to the Democratic Party, but most direct-action activists believe they have to take the risk regardless, largely because they’re half-paranoid that the “corporate media” will completely ignore them unless they do something dramatic.

“Look, we’re facing this Red Guard of Robocops,” says Jamie Moran, a nonviolent-direct-action advocate in the RNC Not Welcome collective. “All we’ve got is the element of surprise.”

Jennifer Flynn is also pragmatic. If it turns out that the protest ranks are riddled with infiltrators, she says she’ll deal with it: “If they want to make a flyer, or do some outreach to homeless people,” she says, “well, I guess that’s just one more person who will be at our march.”

The Upside of Paranoia