The timely new documentary Better This World tells a provocative and cautionary story about the shifting fault lines of civil liberties, protest and government vigilance. Two boyhood friends from the heart of Texas, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, find themselves increasingly out of step with their neighbors as they react against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After moving to Austin, they go to a presentation at a local bookstore about protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Minneapolis-St. Paul. There they are approached by a charismatic older activist, who suggests that they work together to prepare for the demonstrations.
Six months later, on the eve of the convention, the two young friends make eight Molotov cocktails but then decide not to use them. The matter might have ended there -- but not everything was as it seemed. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies had been engaged in a two-year, multimillion-dollar counterterrorism effort leading up to the convention. The young men's mentor, it turns out, was a government informant and had been long before meeting them; Crowder and McKay were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism.
David McKay calls home for the first time from jail. Credit: Mike Nicholson.
Growing up in Midland, Texas, Crowder and McKay had little political education beyond their parents' encouragement to "stand up for the oppressed" and to "stand up for what you believe in." Somewhere along the way, partly in late-night walks through the town's deserted streets, the friends began to form their own interpretation of their parents' words. It was Crowder who made the first public statement of his political beliefs in 2003 when the United States declared war on Iraq. He drew an upside-down American flag with the words "No War" on a T-shirt and wore it to his high school the next day -- a move that, he recounts, "became a pretty dramatic event."
Seeking "something else," Crowder and McKay moved to more progressive Austin, where they met Brandon Darby, who had gained prominence as the co-founder of Common Ground, a grassroots relief organization that fed and housed thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina. Crowder and McKay were flattered when the larger-than-life activist approached them at a bookstore in Austin about organizing together.
Two years prior to the 2008 RNC, Minneapolis-St. Paul was designated a "homeland security site" and the FBI began "preventative" intelligence operations nationwide, including sending informants into many activist circles. As FBI Special Agent Christopher Langert says, "We . . . knew that there were . . . some people [coming] to St. Paul to do more than just demonstrate. . . . They were going to try to block delegates, cause destruction." So the FBI tasked Darby with infiltrating Austin-based activist groups.
Police unleash pepper spray at protesters during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Credit: Courtesy of Better This World.
As several people in the film who knew Darby, Crowder and McKay recount, Darby urged the young men to become more radical -- to take more extreme actions. According to Larra Elliott, one of the activists who accompanied the three to the RNC, "Brandon . . . said something that caught my attention, like, 'Don't you feel that firebombs and armed militias . . . that kind of . . . action is necessary sometimes?' And Brad was like, 'No, I don't feel that way.' Brandon would not leave it alone."
Darby echoes some of this sentiment in letters to his FBI handler about meetings with McKay and Crowder. "I told them that direct action is intense, and we could all expect to have violence used against us. I told them I was ready to deal with that, and if they weren't, then they shouldn't work with me."
On Aug. 28, 2008, Crowder and McKay joined Darby and several other activists Darby had brought together for the long van ride up to the RNC, where they would join thousands of other protestors. Within days Crowder and McKay were under arrest. The "Texas Two" faced multiple domestic terrorism charges, agonizing legal decisions and decades in prison. Darby, until then their mentor, would be the government's star witness against them.
Better This World reconstructs the story of the relationship between these three men and the subsequent twists and turns of their legal cases through interviews with Crowder, McKay and their family members; FBI agents and attorneys; and a wealth of intriguing surveillance and archival footage -- presenting an extraordinarily well-documented account and untangling a web of questions: Why did Darby, a committed activist, become a government informant? What led these young men to build eight homemade bombs? Did Darby and law enforcement save innocent victims from domestic terrorists bent on violence and destruction? Or were Crowder and McKay impressionable disciples set up by overzealous agents and a dangerous provocateur? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between?
Better This World probes these questions and more as it paints a gripping portrait of the strange and intriguing odyssey of these men -- poignantly describing not only the problems of power and authority, but also the ultimate power of friendship, forgiveness and love.
- Winner, 2012 Writers Guild Award for Best Documentary Screenplay
- Winner, Best Documentary Feature, San Francisco International Film Festival, 2011
- Winner, Audience Award, DocuWest Film Festival, Golden CO, 2011
- Winner, 2011 Sarasota Film Festival, Best Documentary Feature
- Nominee, Best Documentary, Outstanding Investigative Journalism - Long Form, and Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Editing - Documentary and Long Form, 2012 News and Documentary Emmy Awards
- Nominee, Gotham Best Documentary Award
- Nominee, Grierson Award
- Nominee, Cinema Eye Award
- Nominee, IDA Best Documentary Award