Bradley Crowder was twenty-three years old when he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for possessing an unauthorised firearm. That firearm was a Molotov cocktail, which he and his childhood friend David McKay made from ingredients they purchased at a Minnesota supermarket. The occasion was the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, where John McCain and Sarah Palin were nominated as the party’s candidates for the upcoming Presidential election. Although Crowder and McKay never used the firebombs, they were labelled domestic terrorists. McKay is still serving his four-year sentence.
How do you reach the point where you make a Molotov cocktail?
Crowder and McKay were raised as Republicans in Texas. Crowder says he grew up in a farming community outside of a town, basically on a dirt road – hardly breeding ground for activism. Although there wasn’t any sort of Leftist milieu in the area, Crowder claims he didn’t need to be victimised himself to become indignant at the racism he saw growing up. “There wasn’t really one trigger where it was like, ‘OK, well now I’m political’,” he says. “It was just over time I became really conscious of a lot of really horrible things that are going on in our world, and what’s the point of learning about things if you’re not going to try to change them?”
Crowder and McKay became involved in the Austin chapter of an activist group called the RNC Welcoming Committee. The name was ironic: the group’s purpose was to cause havoc at the upcoming Republican Convention. It was in the Welcoming Committee that they met Brandon Darby, a well-known Texas activist who had been heavily involved in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Darby was somewhat of a hero in activist circles: tall and undeniably handsome with a deep voice, he even had a chiselled Superman-esque cleft in his chin. Darby was a good decade older than the other Welcoming Committee members, including McKay and Crowder, and he had by far the most organising experience and theoretical knowledge. He became a mentor figure for the younger activists.
The Austin group made dozens of shields out of old garbage bins in preparation for the Convention and headed off to Minnesota. There were over 10 000 protesters in St Paul and a strong police presence. After spending the first day marching on the streets, the group returned to their van to find the police had broken into it and all of their shields had been taken. On the way, the police had searched the activists at gunpoint. Frustrated, Crowder and McKay went to Walmart and made the Molotov cocktails. When the other members of the group found out, they objected, and asked Darby to help stop them. Meanwhile, Crowder and McKay had decided not to use the cocktails and left them in the basement as they went off to protest in the evening.
Brandon Darby, it turns out, was an FBI informant. Like hundreds of other protesters that week, Crowder and McKay were arrested. Unlike most of those arrested, they were sentenced and imprisoned. All of this is the subject of the documentary Better This World, which recently screened at the Sydney Underground Film Festival. The film makes it clear that even though Crowder and McKay were really, really dumb for making firebombs in the first place, neither of them intended to use them and they both regret it immensely.
According to Crowder, it’s possible to get to the point where you make a firebomb when you “get really frustrated and feel really hopeless and desperate. And then once you start to feel that you start to lose grasp on what’s at stake, ideas that a few hours ago you would have thought were ridiculous and outrageous suddenly seem not so ridiculous. When the world seems crazy, crazy ideas seem a little bit more sane.”
Crowder is articulate and intelligent. Two years in jail weren’t enough to put him off activism, either: he still calls himself an activist and an organiser. But what is activism in 2011? For him, the problem with the Republican National Convention was that it was devoid of mass content. The protesters largely came from the professional Left, people who were already into activism and did it as a hobby. Crowder describes the Convention as a “spectacle devoid of substance”. The activist model is something like the Arab Spring: the protesters in Tahrir Square weren’t just people who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or communist and socialist parties. They were regular workers and families who weren’t already ‘political’. “If we build mass movements in our communities, we can mobilise to give those mass protests legitimate mass content where it actually makes a difference,” Crowder explains.
I’m sceptical. It sounds easier to politicise apolitical people in a country which is under the decades-long rule of an authoritarian President. Compared to Egypt, the United States does look like the paragon of freedom it claims to be. “I’d like to say it’s not hard but it seems to be actually really, really hard – otherwise we would have just done it. But I don’t think it’s that hard to imagine.” Crowder talks enthusiastically about a number of fringe groups which have revolutionary potential: the unemployed, veterans, immigrants, people getting kicked out of their homes. “So even though you don’t see it, there’s this powder keg that is the United States that all of the glitter and gold is built upon,” he explains. The problem is just trying to organise that power.
I ask Crowder where he sees himself in relation to capitalism – does he have a practical aim to overthrow it? “Inside but oppositional to,” he responds. “I’m inside capitalism, you can’t escape it, but I’m in opposition to the dynamics and structure of capital: the social relationships and phenomena that result from it.” The aim is to transform capitalism, and that’s why Crowder objects to being called an anarchist. “You can have rebellions against capitalism in the process of constructing anarchism or in the process of constructing communism.” Instead, he considers himself a left libertarian, libertarian socialist, or libertarian communist.
Crowder currently studies economics in Austin. He sees the subject as a weapon: he was to use that knowledge “to combat exploitation and capitalism.” In a strange twist, Brandon Darby is now a right-wing blogger. Crowder is dismissive: “That’s what happens when you don’t have any principles. You can just move around between any ideology that suits you personally.” Not only has he not spoken to Darby, but he hasn’t spoken to McKay in three years either. He is not legally allowed to talk to his friend until 2015 as a term of his release.
Brad Crowder is infamous as a domestic terrorist. But he’s not everything that highly political word entails. He’s a young guy who made one huge mistake in an earnest quest to revolutionise the world for the better.