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COINTELPRO 2.0: How the FBI Infiltrated BLM Protests After Police Murder of George Floyd

StoryFebruary 07, 2023
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A new podcast out today called “Alphabet Boys” documents how the FBI disrupted racial justice organizing after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, including paying an informant at least $20,000 to infiltrate and spy on activist groups in Denver, Colorado. The informant also encouraged activists to purchase guns and commit violence, echoing the FBI’s use of the COINTELPRO program to sabotage left-wing activist groups in the 1960s. For more, we’re joined by three guests: journalist and creator of the “Alphabet Boys” podcast Trevor Aaronson, Denver-based activist Zebbodios Hall, who was one of many activists targeted by the FBI’s infiltration, and former FBI special agent and whistleblower Mike German, who left the agency after reporting misconduct and mismanagement in its counterterrorism efforts.

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StoryJul 24, 2023“Chaos & Violence”: NYC to Pay $13M to Those Attacked by Police in 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Evidence has emerged that the FBI played a direct role in infiltrating racial justice protests after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. A new podcast, out today, called Alphabet Boys documents how the FBI paid an informant at least $20,000 to infiltrate and spy on activist groups in Denver, Colorado. The informant also encouraged activists to purchase guns and commit violence. This is the trailer to Alphabet Boys.

PROTESTERS: Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!

TREVOR AARONSON: The summer of 2020.

PROTESTER 1: It’s about to get bad.

PROTESTER 2: I know. I’m going to go get my gas mask.

TREVOR AARONSON: Millions protested for racial justice across the country, with some of these protests turning violent.

PROTESTER 3: Over the heads of the shields!

TREVOR AARONSON: That summer, it felt like history in the making. Big changes were coming. And then, the protests just stopped. There were these rumors that government agents had infiltrated the movement, pushing it toward collapse. It sounded paranoid, right? But you know what?

SCOTT DAHLSTROM: OK. It is August 28th, 2020, at approximately 4:02 p.m.

TREVOR AARONSON: It wasn’t. I’m Trevor Aaronson, and I’m a journalist covering federal law enforcement, the alphabet agencies.

FBI AGENT 1: As the FBI, sometimes you’ve got to grab the little guy to go after the big guy.

TREVOR AARONSON: This is Alphabet Boys, a new series from Western Sound and iHeartPodcasts. Each season, we’ll take you deep inside an undercover investigation. In season one, we’re headed to Denver —

FBI AGENT 2: UC 7775 in Denver, Colorado. Today is August 25th.

TREVOR AARONSON: — where FBI agents are investigating political activists following the murder of George Floyd.

PROTESTERS: If we don’t get no justice, then they don’t get no peace!

TREVOR AARONSON: A mysterious man rolls into town. He’s wearing military fatigues, and he has a cigar dangling from his lips. The car he drives is unmistakable: a silver hearse.

ZEBBODIOS HALL: He was very convincing, but he did explain, you know, he was for this BLM movement. And inside his hearse was like a lot of guns.

TREVOR AARONSON: Was this the guy the movement needed to take things to the next level?

MICKEY WINDECKER: At the end of the day, you can come to me. I’ve got something for you. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

TREVOR AARONSON: Or did he have a secret agenda?

UNIDENTIFIED: He was just waiting for me to set the date, the time, a meeting spot. And then, for sure, he was trying to get it to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED: He’s a bad guy. And bad guys attract bad guys. And I feel like he’s going to keep doing this forever.

UNIDENTIFIED: They want to cover up the fact that local, state and federal law enforcement caused violence here.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer to the new podcast Alphabet Boys, out today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any other podcast platform. The podcast centers on an FBI informant named Mickey Windecker, a convicted felon, who once fought, he said, with the Kurdish Peshmerga. This clip from Alphabet Boys begins with a Denver racial justice activist named Zebbodios Hall, who will be joining us, talking about Mickey Windecker.

ZEBBODIOS HALL: I didn’t know much about him, but he drove a hearse. And inside his hearse was like a lot of guns, you know, like AR-15s and all other kind of [bleep]. I had never held one of those before in my life. And I held it, and I was like, “Oh [bleep]!” And I’m pro-gun and everything, but I never held anything like that. Yeah, it was just this badass dude, you know, talking about he worked in a foreign military and he was for the Black Lives Matter movement. And, you know, it just seemed interesting, you know.

TREVOR AARONSON: In August 2020, with millions of Americans protesting across the country, activist Zebb Hall invites a guy he’s met at one of the demonstrations to his apartment in Denver to talk about plans for the future.

MICKEY WINDECKER: The way I look at it is like, if [bleep] has to happen, it has to happen. But it’s like you said. I mean, how extreme do you expect it, would you want it to go?

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the podcast Alphabet Boys. The FBI informant, Mickey Windecker, played a key role in organizing the protests in Denver. He would also go on to give the activist Zebbodios Hall $1,500 to buy a gun for him, which led to Zebb Hall being arrested for transferring a firearm to a felon. Some of the FBI’s actions have been compared to the agency’s covert COINTELPRO program — that’s Counterintelligence Program — which targeted civil rights groups and other activist movements in the 1960s and ’70s.

In a moment, Zebbodios Hall will join us from Denver. We’ll also be joined by former FBI agent Mike German, who now works at the Brennan Center. But first, let’s turn to Trevor Aaronson, who created the Alphabet Boys podcast. Trevor is an award-winning investigative journalist, contributing writer for The Intercept. He’s author of the book The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.

I mean, this is an astounding podcast series, Trevor. You’ve got the undercover recordings of, for example, the Black activist, Zebb, speaking to this man, Mickey Windecker, who would travel around in a silver hearse. First, if you can tell us where you got these recordings, if you can? But just lay out the story for us.

TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. I can’t talk about sourcing for the recordings or the records, but what I can say is that what’s significant about this show is that it’s the first behind-the-scenes look at how the FBI infiltrated and investigated racial justice groups and the racial justice movement during the summer of 2020, which for two years now has always been an open question, which is: How did the FBI respond to the racial justice movement, given the context that the FBI had previously designated Black political activists as so-called Black identity extremists or anti-government extremists?

And what’s significant about this is that the FBI in Denver, according to internal FBI recordings — or, internal FBI reports and undercover recordings, hired a convicted felon with a history of sexual assault and menacing with a weapon to infiltrate these groups, while being paid thousands of dollars.

And the shades of COINTELPRO that are part of this rise from the fact that Mickey Windecker, the informant, ended up becoming a leader in the protest movement, just as we saw informants in the 1960s and 1970s during COINTELPRO become leaders in those movements, and then accuse other leaders or the real leaders of these groups of being informants, a practice called snitch-jacketing, that was used to devastating effect against Black political groups in the 1960s. And that’s exactly what happened in Denver. Mickey became a leader of the racial justice movement there, accused real leaders of being informants when they were not, and then, once he was in a position of leadership, attempted to entrap local activists in crimes, in some cases violent crimes. In fact, Mickey and the FBI went so far as to try to stitch together a supposed plot to assassinate Colorado’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, which ultimately went nowhere, but shows you the scale that the FBI had in trying to manufacture a plot that activists could get behind, that would then reveal these activists as being violent.

And I think it’s important to understand the context in which this happened. In 2020, the Trump administration at the time was really beating the drum on this idea that antifa and Black Lives Matter activists were potentially violent. This was a narrative that was being reinforced and echoed by right-wing media at the time. And what you’re seeing in these undercover recordings is the FBI essentially trying to make that possible and happen. Ultimately, that does not happen. Obviously, there was no assassination plot or attempt against Phil Weiser, the Colorado attorney general. But the FBI, using this paid informant, went to extreme lengths to try to make that happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Trevor, as you mentioned, this was a tactic used often during COINTELPRO in the '60s and the ’70s, but it's become standard practice for the FBI and law enforcement. I think back to during the Seattle World Trade Organization protests. There were undercover agents then trying to spur extreme action among the protesters. During the period after the 9/11 attacks, there were undercover FBI agents who tried to infiltrate Muslim groups around the country, trying to get them to participate in violent acts. So this has been a regular feature of the FBI. Have you been able to see whether they were doing this to the same extent among the right-wing groups that were actually involved in major terrorist attacks across the country?

TREVOR AARONSON: Absolutely. So, this is a tactic that became commonplace in the post-9/11 era, which was that the FBI used undercover agents or informants to, in the case of counterterrorism investigations, go in the Muslim communities, find someone who might be interested in violence, and make everything possible, providing the means, the opportunity and, in most cases, the bomb or the weapon that ultimately would be used, then arrest that person and announce to the public a terrorism plot foiled.

And so, what’s significant here is that we’re seeing a lot of the powers and tactics used against would-be terrorists or supposed terrorists in the post-9/11 era being applied against political activists in Denver in the summer of 2020. And the reason that is significant is that the internal FBI records show, in the case in Denver, that the FBI launched its investigation based on nothing more than First Amendment-protected activities, which were, essentially, things that Zebbodios Hall and other activists had said, which in some cases were quite incendiary, but ultimately were First Amendment-protected activities. And yet they launched this investigation based solely on that, without any reason to believe that any of these activists were moving toward a plot of violence or anything of the like.

And as for the question of whether this happens on the right, it does. You know, obviously, there have been other plots that have targeted right-wing activists. The most well known right now is the plot that targeted a group of men in Michigan in a supposed plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. And so, I think what’s important about this story now is that we are entering this phase when Jim Jordan and the Congress are about to launch this committee that is specifically looking to establish this narrative that the FBI is solely focused on this type of tactic against right-wing groups and right-wing political activists, when that isn’t true. What ultimately is true is that the FBI has an enormous amount of power that deserves a lot more oversight than it currently receives. And all sorts of groups, from left to right, are subjected to this kind of activity by the FBI. And so, this narrative that the right wing is attempting to establish, that the FBI is prejudiced against right-wing groups and we’re only seeing this activity among right-wing groups — there is evidence of that, and no doubt Jim Jordan will find it, but the truth is that this is far more extensive. It involves many groups. And in most cases, I would argue, if you look at the history of prosecutions in the post-9/11 era, these types of tactics are used far more against left-wing activists and left-wing political groups than they are against right-wing groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though the intelligence committees have found that it is domestic terrorism, far-right-wing, that is the greatest threat to the United States right now. And you’re talking about the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, chaired by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, that’s meeting on Thursday. But let’s turn to a video capturing when FBI informant Mickey Windecker met with his FBI handlers — by the way, he’s denying he’s an FBI informant — met with his FBI handlers, before he met with the Denver activist Zebb Hall.

SCOTT DAHLSTROM: It is August, August 28th, 2020, at approximately 4:02 p.m. Special agent Scott Dahlstrom with special agent Byron Mitchell, CHS, for meet with Zebbodios Hall.

MICKEY WINDECKER: Thank you. You can do this if I put it in my front pocket, right?

SCOTT DAHLSTROM: Yeah.

MICKEY WINDECKER: OK, got it. See? Got my [inaudible] there. Video look good?

SCOTT DAHLSTROM: Yeah.

MICKEY WINDECKER: Yeah? Look handsome?

SCOTT DAHLSTROM: Mm-hmm.

MICKEY WINDECKER: Not as handsome as that kid.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mickey Windecker talking to his handlers, going out to meet the guest we’re joined by right now, Zebbodios Hall, or Zebb Hall, a Denver activist targeted by the FBI featured in the Alphabet Boys podcast, joining us from Denver.

I mean, Zebb, this is such an amazing story, because you’d think if the FBI wanted to infiltrate a group, like a Black Lives Matter group, they wouldn’t have someone who just appears so different in every way, this white guy who is blatantly driving this silver hearse filled with automatic weapons. I mean, it is amazing. So, talk about how you met up with him, your involvement in BLM, Black Lives Matter, and why you came to believe that he was, you know, a fellow traveler, if you will.

ZEBBODIOS HALL: I first met — well, thanks for having me. I first met Mickey at one of the earlier protests. Either it had been July, early July, or late June. He was around a lot of folks, you know, taking information, phone numbers and whatnot. It was quite odd. You know, we were all confused. We didn’t know what to expect. And it was very terrifying down the line when found out more about him. You know, it’s a very dangerous history this gentleman had. And I think it’s very terrifying, especially the fact that, you know, he was sent to our BLM movement in the hopes of tarnishing it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Zebb Hall, what led you to begin to think that he might not be on the up and up? And why did — what were some of the examples of ways he tried to get people to do things they normally would not do?

ZEBBODIOS HALL: Yeah, it’s towards — I would probably say towards — you know, there was a march on the headquarters of the police department. And people were just starting to get, you know, more — how would I say — rowdy than usual. And, you know, he’s yelling at people, you know, ordering — making orders and whatnot. And sometime down the line, you know, it was really evident when the Colorado Springs antifa released an article explaining more about this gentleman. It was very heinous and scary.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, until that article came out, you had no suspicion that he might be an agent provocateur or undercover informant?

ZEBBODIOS HALL: It was very confusing. You know, we were — there was so much going on that summer, we didn’t know what to expect, but we never would have thought that the FBI would have sent a gentleman like that to our movement. Everything was really confusing. You know, it’s so hard to put things together looking back now, but I would say, at the end of the day, that I think most of the things that happened, either it be violent or confusion, wouldn’t have happened without the FBI and their informant, Michael Windecker.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to hear the FBI informant, Mickey Windecker, in a recording he made after he was accused of being an informant. He spoke in front of a flag for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and an AR-15-style assault rifle. That was his background.

MICKEY WINDECKER: So, there’s a group that — or, a individual that’s claiming that they are antifa Colorado Springs. And, in fact, that I believe that they are actually not antifa Colorado Springs, because I believe they are actually a cop. This individual has posted stuff discrediting other individuals that are fighting against the fascists in Denver, Colorado, such as Cutting the Plastic and other communist groups and other individuals. I, for one, am not amused or pleased about the [bleep] that’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mickey Windecker accusing antifa of being the informants. Zebb Hall, talk about how you were entrapped then, how he gave you money to buy a gun for him, and what happened next.

ZEBBODIOS HALL: Yeah. I’ll start off saying, you know, I was scared, but, you know, I’ve got to own the fact that I purchased the firearm. You know, it was just quite odd. And, you know, then the way in which he had me — he explained it to me, I just didn’t understand. I never purchased a gun before. And I get this gun for this gentleman, and, you know, shortly after, the information comes out about his criminal history and who he is. And, you know, I’m terrified at this point. And come around January, an article comes out, you know, with Mr. Shelby, who will be mentioned later on. And at that point, I was absolutely terrified. You know, it’s — I was just afraid. You know, I own what I did. And, you know, I never thought I’d be in situation like this, but, you know, here we are. It was just a terrifying experience. We were all afraid.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in former FBI special agent Mike German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. He’s written a book titled Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy. Mike German, talk to us about these efforts by the FBI to especially target movements, social movements on the left.

MIKE GERMAN: Thanks for having me. You know, Trevor has spent a large part of his career covering this change in the FBI’s undercover tactic, where they have aggressively used informants, had informant-driven operations targeting mostly Muslim Americans in terrorism investigations, with a tactic that wasn’t designed to uncover criminal activity that was ongoing, but rather to manufacture criminal activity, to create a case where no case had existed before.

And what I think is really critical about the reporting on Alphabet Boys is that in many of those cases, Trevor had to rely on court documents or Freedom of Information Act records and statements of the defendants. And defenders of these tactics, at the FBI and elsewhere, would often say, “Well, the FBI probably had some other kind of information that justified the use of these tactics, that couldn’t be released in court or discussed openly,” where, here, Trevor has the entire investigative file, and we can see that the FBI here chose somebody with a serious criminal record to infiltrate a social movement and target people who were much less involved in any criminal activity, and actually to stoke violence at these protests. And that’s a tactic that, you know, as discussed, is straight out of the COINTELPRO playbook, where the tactics were meant to disrupt and divide the social movements rather than to uncover serious crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Zebb, you were sentenced to three years’ probation. I’m wondering, with the police killing of Tyre Nichols, and also you were dealing not only with George Floyd but, in Aurora, Colorado, at the time, the horrific police killing of Elijah McClain, with the massive crackdown on protesters after that as they would engage in violin vigils, because he played violins for cats and dogs at the local shelter injected with this massive dose of ketamine, has this changed your approach to the world? Are you afraid to be an activist?

ZEBBODIOS HALL: No, I’m more committed. You know, it was a terrifying experience, but I know what I signed up for. This is a lifelong thing. You know, even though it does affect us as Black people more, I do understand this is a situation that all people in America have to deal with. So, no, I’m more committed than I was before. This is going to be a lifelong thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Trevor Aaronson, in the last 30 seconds we have, what you want people to take away from this podcast series dropping today, Alphabet Boys?

TREVOR AARONSON: So, I think it’s important to recognize that not only did Mickey Windecker try to set up activists like Zebb in specific crimes, but that he played a large role in turning what were otherwise demonstrations and protests into what became full-out assaults on police stations in Denver. Some of the most violent incidents that we saw in Denver that summer had Mickey’s fingerprints all over them. He was hyping them up. He was encouraging people to attend. He was encouraging people to become more and more violent. And so, at least in Denver, we have evidence that the government — a government agent was behind many of these protests that ultimately turned violent.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is a truly astounding podcast series. Trevor Aaronson, the host of the new Alphabet Boys podcast, award-winning investigative journalist, contributing writer for The Intercept. Zebbodios Hall, thanks so much for joining us from Denver, an activist targeted by the FBI, featured in the podcast, and Mike German, for joining us, as well, former FBI agent, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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