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Muzzled Activist in the Age of Terror
O n the afternoon of January 24, 2002, approximately 25 federal agents, guns in hand, stormed the home of Sherman Austin, a Sherman Oaks, California activist who founded www.raisethefist. com, an online site that hosted many political activists’ websites. The federal agents, who had been monitoring Austin’s Internet activities for several months, seized his computers and other personal belongings, including anti-war and anti-globalization literature.
“They showed me a search warrant and I just glanced at it. They searched all the rooms in the house. They knew where my room was. They went back there, looked at all the computers, asked me to come in and tell them what all the computers were for specifically so they knew how to dismantle the network I had been running,” Austin recalled. “They searched the garage, pretty much everywhere with their guns still out and drawn.”
When the agents later left Austin’s home, his room had been ransacked, but they failed to charge him with a crime. Austin, bewildered by the search, still planned on driving to New York City to protest the World Economic Forum in early February 2002.
On arriving in New York, Austin was quickly apprehended by city police. “While I was in jail, they handcuffed me and took me to a backroom where a detective from the FBI and a Secret Service agent interrogated me for about three or four hours,” Austin said. “During this whole time, I kept noticing more and more FBI agents walking in and out of the room. They asked me stupid questions like whether I was a terrorist or involved in any terrorist organizations. I told them, ‘No,’ and one of the agents looked at me like I was seriously a terrorist and that I was lying to him.”
So what was the charge?
“They said I was being arrested for distribution of information related to explosives over the Internet.… [My] site [was linked] to another site, which wasn’t affiliated with raisethefist.com, but which was hosted on the same server because I gave hosting space to different people who wanted some free hosting. I just provided the link to that site. It was called the Reclaim Guide . It was just a general protest guide that went over security culture and stuff like that. A small portion of that guide dealt with explosives information. This information was just pathetic compared to the type of stuff you could find in any library or any other website. There’s so much detailed information out there on explosives and how to use and build explosives that you can find on the Internet. If someone wanted to use explosives for illegal purposes, I don’t think they would rely on raisethefist.com to get their information.
“There’s something on the Internet called the White Resistance Manual . It’s pretty much for white supremacists…to carry out a large-scale guerilla campaign through means of assassination, threats, obtaining funds through fraud, everything from firearms to explosives. I’ve seen, not surprisingly, no action taken against those people, but here I am, an anarchist website, not even close to what that is, not even close to what else you can find on the Internet.
“While they were at my house, interrogating me, they asked me about seven times if I authored the Reclaim Guide . I told them seven times I didn’t author it. In the arrest warrant, it says that I told them I authored the Reclaim Guide . It’s funny how they try to slip it by and build a whole fraudulent case against you with things that you didn’t do.”
was later sentenced for “distribution” of information
about making or using explosives with the “intent” that
such information “be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity
that constitutes a Federal crime of violence.” This vaguely
worded crime is banned under 18 USC 842 (p)(2)(A), successfully
pushed through Congress in the late 1990s after years of effort
by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Consequently, Austin received
and spent one year in a federal prison. Although the worst of his
nightmare in the judicial system is over, Austin will continue to
face new challenges now that he is out of prison.
“It was such a weird charge because it’s almost like thought crime. How do you prove that someone has intent? I can go to tons of other websites that have [information about] explosives—especially white supremacy websites. We obviously know they have intent because they’ve used that type of information before against people. They’re not being prosecuted for it.”
Austin intended to fight the charges, but eventually pled guilty after his federal public defender, Ronald Kaye, advised him to do so, fearing that new “terrorism enhancements” in the federal sentencing guidelines would earn Austin an extra 20 years in prison. The severity of the United States Sentencing Commission guidelines, which was created in the mid-1990s, expanded greatly after passage of President Clinton’s 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the USA PATRIOT Act passed under President Bush in 2001.
The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was signed into law following the Oklahoma City bombing on August 19, 1995. It prompted the worst assaults on civil liberties the United States had seen in decades. “The act was wide-ranging, dealing with everything from the making of plastic explosives to trading in nuclear materials,” writes George- town law professor David Cole and James X. Dempsey in Terrorism and the Constitution .
“Members of Congress immediately felt tremendous pressure to pass antiterrorism legislation,” Cole and Dempsey recall. “It did not matter that the proposals in the President’s initial bill were directed largely against international terrorism, while the Oklahoma bombing was the work of homegrown discontents…. Eager to get the bill on the President’s desk by the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Senate adopted the conference report on April 17 in a 91-8 vote. The next day, the House also adopted the report by a vote of 293-133.” On April 24, President Clinton signed the Act.
“To make the death penalty effective,” explains civil liberties expert Elaine Cassel in The War on Civil Liberties , “meant making it harder to appeal convictions of capital offenses.” Clinton’s law, says Cassel, also “[made] it a crime to support even the lawful activities of an organization labeled as terrorist…[authorized] the FBI to investigate the crime of ‘material support’ for terrorism based solely on activities protected under the First Amendment…[freezes] assets of any U.S. citizen or domestic organization believed to be an agent of a terrorist group, without specifying an ‘agent’…[expanded] the powers of the secret court…[repealed] the law that barred the FBI from opening investigations based solely on activities protected under the First Amendment…[and allowed] the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to deport citizens (mostly Muslims) upon the order of INS officials.”
Of course, these are but a few of the ways in which the Clinton administration infringed on civil liberties. Speaking of the legacy of these breaches in the guarantee of civil liberties, Clinton admitted to making “a number of ill-advised changes in our immigration laws, having nothing to do with fighting terrorism.”
In the wake of September 11, it was not surprising that Bush, along with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, legislated additional infringements on civil liberties in the name of patriotism and national security. Spun as such, the legislation enjoyed overwhelming support—so much so that Democrat Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, one of a handful of Democrats who reached across the aisle to confirm Ashcroft following the tremulous 2000 election, was the only member of the Senate to vote against the legislation. Many Democrats—including John Kerry, who voted for Clinton’s 1996 bill and boasted that he “authored a provision of the PATRIOT Act that added several money laundering crimes as potential predicate offenses”—co- authored parts of the PATRIOT Act.
Fast-forward now to Sherman Austin’s case. In hearings leading up to the eventual one-year sentence, which was three times the length recommended by federal prosecutors, federal judge Stephen Wilson made critical statements about Austin’s political beliefs such as: “Why should someone at 19, who, arguably, has some mis- guidance on some geo-political issues, be given a pass?”
Faced with three years of supervised release and probation, Austin is now subject to having his computer access monitored and his equipment inspected with or without prior notification. He is allowed to associate with activists and political groups—save for those that, in the words of the probation department, “espouse violence or physical force as a means of intimidation or achieving economic, social, or political change.” There is of course one minor problem: how to determine whether groups that, say, employ civil disobedience or street protest fall under such language.
Austin’s troubles, meanwhile, have proven to be quite trying for his family and loved ones, most notably his mother, who lost her job because of her son’s ordeal. “It has depleted my finances,” says Jennifer Martin. “Any money that was donated was used for organizing—and used for his commissary and visiting him. This organizing campaign has been extremely expensive and time consuming. It’s like someone took my life, put the pieces in a bucket, and scattered them in a 20-acre field.”
Given the highly questionable circumstances surrounding Austin’s case, it should come as no surprise that FBI conduct in Austin’s case came under sharp criticism. Affidavits written for judges to authorize the FBI raid and Austin’s subsequent arrest one week later contained many factual errors, including the claim that Austin authored the bomb-making instructions, which the FBI and federal prosecutors continued to make even after speaking to the actual author, a teenage boy from Orange County, California, who confessed authorship to FBI agents. Agents also enlisted the help of a right-wing militia member, who, in emails to Austin, unsuccessfully attempted to provoke him into writing self-incriminating replies.
“I get this email from him saying that he wants to go with me to the Olympics to smash capitalism and do all this radical anti-capitalist stuff,” Austin recalled shortly before he entered prison. “The first thing I thought when I read that email was [that it had to be from the] FBI.”
Later, with the help of grassroots activists, Martin spoke out about her son’s case at public panels throughout 2003 and 2004. “The positive thing about this,” she explained, “is that there’s a passionate community out there that has offered me their undying support. On a spiritual level, I feel I have evolved tremendously. I have met some amazing people, especially young people. I really feel this world has a chance for surviving,” Martin said. “These kids are good people. They are trying so hard to create change in our world.”
Joshua Frank is author of the forthcoming Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press). Merlin Chowkwanyun is a student at Columbia University in New York. He hosts a radio show on WBAR FM.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.