Andrew Breitbart had a new target. On the April 18 broadcast of Fox News' Hannity — Breitbart was there to promote his latest book — the conservative provocateur told Sean Hannity that he and his powerful network of websites and supporters had embarked on a nationwide attack on its latest enemy.
"We're going to take on education next, go after the teachers, the union organizers," he said.
A week later, Breitbart fired his first salvo.
In a video released April 25 on Breitbart's website, BigGovernment.com, Judy Ancel, the director of the Institute of Labor Studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, sits at a desk emblazoned with a UMKC logo. She leans forward and tells her class, "Violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when it's appropriate, the appropriate tactic." Just as Ancel takes a breath to begin her next sentence, the video snaps away to a student, who appears to parrot Ancel to his classmates.
"It's a tactic that should be used at an appropriate time," the student says. "I believe in the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and that freedom is found at the barrel of a gun, like Mao said and Marx said."
"Marx didn't say that," Ancel answers.
The video, titled "Thuggery 101," was edited by Insurgent Visuals, a group of political activists. The relatively unknown outfit has at least one member in Kansas City. The nearly seven-minute piece is assembled from clips taken from a labor-studies course that Ancel was teaching with University of Missouri–St. Louis instructor Don Giljum. The teachers led their class via video link, allowing students in both cities to enroll in the course.
"Thuggery" and the two videos that followed are full of similar exchanges. Giljum and Ancel appear, for example, to be lecturing students on how to scare a company CEO into wearing body armor, and how to tell the difference between terrorism and revolution. The three Insurgent Visuals videos total about 20 minutes, culled from 18 hours of raw classroom feed.
In another segment, Ancel tells a story about a union of workers at a utility company in Lima, Peru. The union wasn't allowed to strike. Ancel explains: "They had a lot of cats. And they succeeded in putting cats in powerhouses, and the cats — don't think about the cats, OK? — the cats would run around inside and short out the system and cause blackouts." She adds that the blackouts gave the workers some negotiating leverage. And there was another benefit: "Plus, they got rid of feral cats," she concludes.
Using video to discredit political adversaries isn't a new tactic, especially among young, tech-savvy activists. James O'Keefe became a conservative icon by releasing guerrilla videos of employees at ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now), NPR and Planned Parenthood who appeared to be engaging in unsavory, unethical or illegal behavior. His efforts have yielded results — sometimes very fast results.
O'Keefe's work against ACORN showed how devastating videos could be. Damning undercover videos that he provided to Fox News and Big Government in the fall of 2009 showed ACORN employees appearing to advise O'Keefe (dressed as a pimp) and an accomplice (acting as a prostitute) how to avoid paying taxes. Investigations in the cities where the videos were shot found that ACORN employees hadn't done anything illegal, but the damage was done. Congress voted to halt ACORN's funding, and private donations were scared off. By the following spring, ACORN had all but vanished. The organization filed for bankruptcy in November 2010.
Breitbart's websites used a similar tactic in 2010, releasing a video on Big Government in which Shirley Sherrod, then Georgia's director for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, appears to tell an audience that she had given white farmers less assistance because of their race. By the time the video was shown to have been drastically edited — her story was actually one of overcoming racial bias — Sherrod had resigned.
Ancel says she and Giljum are victims of the same type of smear campaign. And, when viewed in context, the professors' statements are much less unsettling than they seem in the videos.
In a May appearance on the TV and radio show Democracy Now, Ancel showed host Amy Goodman a clip of the full statement she'd made to students regarding violence as a tactic. She was discussing a film that the class had watched, she explained. The full statement, in reference to what somebody in the film said, was: "Yeah, right, right, right. Yeah, but he represented the kind of thinking that went into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then later probably — well, coinciding with the Black Panthers, I'd say. You know, he said violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when it's appropriate — the appropriate tactic."