By Linc Leifeste | September 12, 2013
Director: Jamie Meltzer
It’s good to be reminded every now and then that if the truth exists, you’ll probably never know for sure if you’ve found it. Take the story of Brandon Darby, the once-upon-a-time Austin anarchist activist turned FBI informant and Andrew Breitbart-endorsed Tea Party darling. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a traitor or a hero, either a good guy gone bad or a bad guy who finally saw the light. But the truth is, he’s all of that and much less. The beauty of Informant, a well crafted and evenhanded telling of Darby’s “story,” is that it doesn’t purport to solve the riddle of who he is so much as just let him and his contemporaries tell you their stories. You can decide what the truth is. Or not.
Darby grew up in Pasadena, TX, an oil town not too far from Houston and evidently had an unhappy childhood. His parents divorced when he was twelve and soon after he ran away from home. He eventually wound up in Austin in 2002 and became a part of the far left activist scene. Gifted with movie-star-good-looks and a charismatic presence, he became a polarizing figure, getting a reputation as an aggressive provocateur and something of a gigolo. But his relocation to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and lead role in forming the Common Ground Collective elevated his status and also, probably, his confidence. In the film, as Darby narrates (and partially reenacts) his trip to New Orleans to find former Black Panther Robert King Wilkerson, I began to have doubts about his credibility. I couldn’t ever shake the feeling throughout his narration, right or wrong, that he exudes a certain sense of self-aggrandizement and embellishment. He seems to be one of those guys who is a dangerous mix of “damaged goods” and “confidence man.”
It’s hard to not be impressed by Darby’s gritty determination in helping the residents of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, standing up to white racists, aggressive police and displeased Federal agents in an effort to allow impoverished residents reclaim and repair their homes. It’s clear from both his own words and the words of those who worked alongside him that he was a force for change during his time in New Orleans. But it’s also clear that his narcissistic ways were already on display as he chafed against the group decision making model that was in place in the organization. He wanted to be the heroic, dashing man of action leading the charge against the forces of oppression, New Orleans’ Che Guevara. So when the opportunity to travel to Venezuela to ostensibly solicit funds to assist the Katrina recovery efforts presented itself, Darby jumped at the chance. If that whole scenario sounds odd, it is, and by all accounts what exactly happened there is unknown. But it seems to have been a turning point in the Darby story in some way.
At some point in New Orleans, Darby became acquainted with Major John Bryson, the police chief in charge of the Ninth Ward. Initially, Bryson was skeptical of Darby’s intentions but eventually became a supporter and ally of Darby and Common Ground. And whether the film implies it or it was just my perception, my sense is that Darby took great satisfaction in receiving the support and admiration of Bryson. This might help explain why, after returning to Austin and focusing his attention on the Lebanese conflict, he reached out to Bryson to report on the alleged money laundering schemes of Lebanese-born schoolteacher Riad Hamad. As with everything else in Darby’s story, it’s hard to know what’s true but supposedly Hamad had confided his plans to Darby, who eventually talked to the FBI. Hamad’s home was searched but no incriminating evidence was discovered. Soon after, Hamad was found dead in Town Lake, an apparent suicide.
It’s impossible to say when, or why, Darby started working with the FBI, but when it became public knowledge was after the arrest of two young Austin-based far-left activists at the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, Bradley Crowder and David McKay. The two men were arrested after buying materials at Wal-Mart (of all places) and assembling Molotov cocktails. Darby’s role in the whole affair, observer or instigator, is a matter of contention, but there’s no doubt that he was involved in the planning of disrupting the convention with these much younger men and was in communication with the FBI throughout the planning stages and once they were actually in St. Paul. Both men were convicted and have served their jail sentences. Darby’s punishment for his radical act of betrayal and snitchery was to be completely ostracized by his former compatriots. Death threats poured in. But in Andrew Breitbart and the Tea Party crowd he found a new set of people who were willing to buy in to his self-aggrandizing claims of noble intention, much like the FBI and the radical left before them. It seems there is always a market for confidence men among the far fringes of the political spectrum, “truth” be damned.