A History of Grand Jury Repression:
Learn about and challenge Federal Grand Investigation
Talk on Grand Jury Repression!
September 7th, 2012 at Traditions Café, Olympia, WA
by Peter Bohmer
We are living in a period of increased surveillance, especially electronic, and the use of police at the local, State, and national level to limit protest and resistance to an economic and social system that is broken and needs to be revolutionized, transformed. In the Republican and Democratic Party conventions of the last 10 days, no meaningful explanations or solutions were proposed to over 20 million people officially unemployed when we count those who have given up looking or who cannot find full-time work, 1/3 of the population who is at or near the official poverty line, a country that is the most unequal that it has been in income and wealth distribution since the 1920’s, student debt at over 1 trillion dollars as tuitions continue to rise at 10% per year while wages are not growing, 50 million people without health insurance, over 2 million people in prison including many political prisoners, a planet that is threatened by extreme climate and other environmental crises, massive global hunger and poverty, and the U.S. involved in wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
Those who challenge the Republican or Democratic Party fairy tales, their misinformation and scapegoating are marginalized and/or repressed. Repression has always been a tool of those in power in the United States. It is up to us to build mass movements that organize, explain, educate, resist and create a society where poverty is ended and there is real equality, economic and social justice, and people’s power, where capitalism is overthrown and we create a system where we can live in harmony with each other, other people around the world, and the planet.
Grand Juries, especially Federal Grand Juries, have been continually used as tools of political repression and increasingly to jail those who refuse to cooperate with government investigations of radical movements. Right after World War II, grand juries were used most commonly against those the government called Communists or Communist sympathizers, which often meant being against the Cold War and working for racial equality at home. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, federal grand juries were most commonly used against the Black liberation movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the American Indian Movement, and against the more militant parts of the anti Vietnam war movement. With regards to the Puerto Rican independence movement many leading activists advocating for independence of Puerto Rico by any means necessary were subpoenaed to grand juries in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. When they refused to testify they were given what is called use immunity which means their testimony cannot be used against them. Because they refused to answer any questions, they were given civil contempt which meant they could be imprisoned for the entire tem of the grand jury, up to 18 months. Because of the large support for these grand jury resisters by the Puerto Rican community and many other supporters, some did not go to prison for civil contempt. However some of this group was later charged with criminal contempt which is even more serious even though there is a trial.
An example from this period of the type of question asked were the ones addressed to Leslie Bacon, an anti-war activist not part of the Weather underground,. at a Federal Grand Jury in Seattle that was investigating the bombing of the U.S. Capitol by the Weather Underground in March, 2001. “Tell us about every anti-war meeting you have been to in the last two years, who attended, what was their ideology, what you and others said”. When she refused to answer she was given immunity and then sent to jail for contempt of court, when she continued to refuse to testify. Clearly attempts of these grand juries are to learn more about movements, to divide and weaken and destroy them, to get us not to trust each other, and to scare and intimidate and make us afraid to speak up and act for fear we will be called in front of a grand jury.
A personal note, I was involved but not in the leadership of a May 1972 protest against a train with war supplies going to Vietnam that was en route from Los Angles to San Diego County. There was police brutality—a grand jury convened we thought to investigate misconduct by the sheriffs. However, the only people indicted were anti-war activists-- me for “Aiding and Abetting the obstruction of a railroad”—all who testified against us were undercover agents who said I was the leader and instigator of the protest. Grand Juries are only one method, although an important one to get information about movements, to sow distrust among people, to cause divisions among us.
More recently, in the last 15 years, grand juries have been often used to investigate and often indict environmental and animal rights activists; pro Palestinian and Palestinians and Arab and Muslim groups, and anarchist groups and individuals. For example, Portland resident Craig Rosebraugh, was subpoenaed by federal grand juries in 1997 and 1998 who were investigating the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. Craig’s so-called misdeed was publicizing and sharing press releases from actions of these groups, which should be protected by the first amendment. He bravely refused to give the Grand Jury any information that wasn’t already public and was threatened with but has not served time in prison.
Activists for Palestinian self-determination have also been targeted. Abdahaleem Ashquar a Palestinian and former professor at Howard University after spending eight months in prison for civil contempt for refusing to name names after being given limited immunity. In a horrible injustice in November, 2007, Abdahaleem Ashquar was given 11 years for criminal contempt and obstruction of justice because a terrorism enhancement was added to his conviction for his support for Hamas. He is not the only Palestinian imprisoned for remaining silent in front of a grand jury. . .
In the 1960’s repression, conspiracy was often added to make charges more serious, like in the case of the Chicago 8, who were indicted by a federal grand jury for organizing protests at the Democratic Convention in the Summer of 1968 in Chicago. Today, terrorism are added to charges such as against many environmental activists. We need to challenge how conspiracy is used as a tool of repression—to make felonies out of misdemeanors.
In fall, 2010, 23 activists, mainly from the Freedom Road Socialist Organization were subpoenaed by Grand Juries in Minneapolis and Chicago. Computers, leaflets, other informational material were seized for an investigation of supposed material aid to supposed terrorist organization, Columbian and Palestinian. Material aid has been redefined and redefined to include verbal support for revolutionary groups with the word terrorist often meaning little more than militant opposition to U.S. foreign and domestic policies. Don’t let the language fool you. Those subpoenaed have refused to testify and have not served time in prison. Let us support them!
The most recent case and the focus of tonight’s meeting is the Federal Grand Jury that convened in Seattle in July, 2012. This Grand Jury is investigating the May Day demonstration in Seattle on May 1st of this year which I attended. During an anti-capitalist march of about 800 at about midday, there was a contingent of the marchers, maybe 50 or a few more, who were dressed in black and wore masks. A few of them broke windows of five corporations, the Federal Court house, and two or three cars. The damage was minimal and the march was short-lived. I was surprised to read in the Seattle Times and the Olympian of May 2nd that a major riot had taken place the previous day. For tactical and strategic reasons, I didn’t support the breaking of a few windows, although I didn’t think it was a big deal, but thought the news accounts totally exaggerated what happened to create fear in the population. I was shocked and angered to hear about the Federal Grand Jury convening to investigate, subpoena, possibly imprison and indict those who took part in this May Day action from Seattle to Portland. It is important that we support those under attack whether we agree with all of their politics or not. Let us make criticisms internally but not let state divide us further which is one of their aims. Make no mistake about it. This grand jury is an attempt by the Federal Government to further restrict and criminalize all form of protest and resistance and to see what they can get away with. Of course, they will attack first those who are least popular in the public arena such as anarchists who throw rocks or break a few windows. It will not stop there. If they succeed with this Grand Jury, repression will escalate. It is an attack on all of us who believe another world is necessary and possible. I will rephrase the Bishop Niemoller poem he made in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.
First they came for the anarchists and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t an anarchist
Then they came for the Muslims and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a Muslim
Then they came for the Arabs and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t an Arab
Then they came for the immigrants and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t an immigrant
Then they came for the other economic and social justice and environmental activists and reproductive rights and LGBT activists and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t one of them.
Then they came for the student activists and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a student activist.
Then they came for me and there wasn’t anyone left to protect me.
Terrorist and anarchist and environmental terrorists are replacing “communist and communist organizations” as what we are supposed to fear and jail and repress, nationally and globally. Let us not fall for this 1984 language and instead explain, non-rhetorically and clearly to others the meaning of for example, anarchism—that it means participatory democracy and autonomy and for the most part, doesn’t mean chaos and violence. It is fitting and more than a little bit ironic that May Day’s origin was because eight organizers of the movement for a eight hour day in May, 1886 were put on trial for the Haymarket Square where a bomb was placed that killed seven policemen. Four of those charged were put to death after being indicted by a grand jury although no evidence connected those charged to the bomb. As Staughton Lynd points out in the book, Wobblies and Zapatistas, anarchists, socialists, and Marxists worked together in organizing in Chicago, a lesson we should apply to the present. So May Day has a proud tradition of international worker’s day and is celebrated around the world. In the United States, since 2006, May 1st has also became a day to rally for immigrant rights and dignity. So grand juries have a long and sordid history of furthering the goals of a repressive state, e.g. their use against abolitionists in the 1850’s. Grand Juries do not protect us.
In order to make meaningful change we must support in words and actions those who under attack by the state, such as those subpoenaed by the Federal Grand Jury in Seattle. Let us support in our daily actions political prisoners. Supporting those under attack whether they are in prison, have lost their job, are on trial, or have been subpoenaed by the grand jury is the right thing to do. If we know we are not alone if we are under attack, we are more likely to act and take risks. Building mass support can also lead the government deciding it is better to drop charges, not put people in prison who refuse to testify at a grand jury, led people out on parole, not bring charges against someone. By building support and community people are less likely to talk at grand jury hearings or inform on others to reduce their sentences. Speaking up, writing letters to the editor, organizing events and inviting your neighbors, giving money to defense funds are all important. If we are afraid to speak up to defend our sisters and brothers, those in power achieve their goals. By building support, I do not mean only among people who are radical, on the left, young, it means building a bloc, a coalition of all of those who oppose government surveillance, who believe in civil liberties and the first amend, in the right to protest, to speak up, to not be spied upon and surveilled, which I think is the majority of this country.
In building support for grand jury resisters, political prisoner and those indicted for political reasons, let us not stop from building and connecting movements outside of the Democratic Party such as Occupy, economic and social and environmental justice, and anti-capitalist ones as these movements are so needed today. As part of their activities, and for moral and strategic reasons, these movements should actively support those under attack.
To the grand jury resisters, I salute and praise for your courage. Thank YOU.
I believe your best defense is a good offense, and suggest you expose the grand jury and repression and speak up not only by your actions but also openly about the illegitimacy of grand juries and work to isolate the repressive apparatus of the state by working openly with others against repression and for liberation.
Let us learn more about grand juries. (Add here what the first speaker, Lauren Regan didn’t include, only needed 12 to indict out of up to 23 grand jurors; no lawyer present during testimony; no judge, limits of immunity, coerced testimony, —also threat of criminal contempt which is more serious than civil contempt.)
Let me return to the right to remain silent. As Lauren Regan, the previous speaker, explained, these Grand Jury investigations coerce testimony by granting limited immunity. The Supreme Court has ruled this to be constitutional. This forcing of people to testify, inform on others in these inquisitions, totally violates the spirit of free speech, of protecting human dignity, of protecting individual rights and the right to be silent and not inform on others. You are called in front of a grand Jury, in the federal case to further an FBI, or Justice Department or a joint local police-FBI investigation. You do not have the right to have a lawyer with you although you can occasionally consult with a lawyer outside the proceeding. The government can issue a subpoena or anyone they want to and force you to testify by giving you limited immunity. They can then sentence you for civil contempt and prison of the length of the grand jury with no trial when you refuse to answer questions about your friends and comrades. Similar to government attempts to turn people into informers and to use informers, the reason is to break solidarity to cause divisions and mistrust, to create paranoia among us so we decide it is not worth it or possible to challenge injustice, poverty, war, unemployment, capitalism.
So working to quash these subpoenas, to support the right not to testify and to remain silent is one small but important step in building social movements and building solidarity in practice.; . Let us also expose the secrecy of the Grand Juries. Also, do not talk to the FBI if they question us even if they threaten us with a grand jury subpoena. Lying to the FBI is a felony but we do not have to talk to them. Instead talk to a good lawyer like Lauren Regan or someone from the National Lawyers Guild.
When I first heard about these subpoenas by the FBI in Portland, Seattle and Olympia, and the raid by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, I thought the reasons the FBI were giving must be more than May Day. In the United States, those in power always claim prosecution is criminal not political. B.S. Clearly this repression is for much more than a few windows being broken. Think of what happens after many UW, Washington State football games. The Democrats and Republicans and their corporate sponsors fear a growing movement for liberation and global justice. So this is the real reason for this incredible waste of government resources.
When I first heard about these raids, I was also and am still worried about the paranoia they would cause among us; using these raids and the grand jury repression as an excuse by us for not fighting the power. They provided an excuse but let us not use it. The repression of this Seattle Grand Jury is real and wrong—but let us not exaggerate it or see the state as all powerful. Many activists in various radical movements have been subpoenaed by grand juries, refused to testify, built large support networks and didn’t go to jail or were released before the Grand Jury completed its convening. If we stop struggling for justice, those in power win. The risks are real but we need to take them and the more support we can build the less the risks. Even though there are aspects of fascism in the United States, it is not a fascist society at home. Let us not allow those who are under attack to be isolated but let us also rebuild Occupy, and other movements to join the world wide struggle for meaningful work, for a sustainable environment, for the end to structural violence and hunger, for a non-capitalist world.
Stop the Grand Jury, support the Grand Jury Resisters, Power to the People! Thank You!
Statement I previously made, August 29, 2012
I am writing in strong support of the grand jury resistors who have recently been subpoenaed by the Federal Grand Jury in Seattle and to demand that the subpoenas be withdrawn, that all materials taken in the related raids be returned to their owners, and that the Grand Jury end. I thank the resistors for their courage in refusing to testify. This defeats one of the goals of politically-motivated Grand Juries which is to get us to inform and testify against each other—to show that solidarity can easily be broken.
This Grand Jury is a major and serious attack on the civil liberties of all of us. There was minor property destruction at the May Day, 2012 anti-capitalist march. The Seattle and other police departments, the FBI, Homeland Security, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Justice Department are using what happened on May Day, 2012 to launch a witch hunt against activists, particularly anarchists and anti-capitalists. All who are working for economic and social justice and for the transformation of this country are at risk. Our support and solidarity for those who are the target of this Grand Jury and those subpoenaed are important for all. It should not require that we support the ideology and tactics of those who are now under attack. If those in power can get away with this repression, police state behavior will continue to grow.
Grand Juries were used in the 1970’s against many movements including the Puerto Rican independence movement, anti-Vietnam war and anti-imperialist movements. The vast majority of those subpoenaed refused to testify thereby weakening the federal government’s strategy of getting people to reveal who knew whom and who did what although many brave individuals went to prison because of their refusal to collaborate. Let us learn more and share with others how grand juries have been used in attempts to break social movements, to gain information on those who are active in these movements, and to intimidate others from participating. By our active support for those currently subpoenaed and exposing the repressive use of grand juries, let us turn this attack by the government into a defeat for them.
For more information check out: http://nopoliticalrepression.wordpress.com