When words are weapons
Sherman Austin first gained national attention in 2002 when the FBI ransacked his home and eventually held him in 24 hour lockdown in connection with internet activity. After a maze of interrogations and court proceedings from LA to New York, Sherman served one year in Federal Detention, mostly in Arizona. He completed a three year probation this year, and recently released a new record titled "Silence is Defeat: The Album the FBI Doesn't Want You to Hear." I spoke with Sherman Austin about his music, his resistance, and the initial FBI raid on his home:
Sherman: I was 18 years old, and I was asleep, it was about four in the afternoon, I was taking a nap. My sister came in my room, woke me up, said that FBI-looking cars were all parked up and down the street, all around the block, and everyone was focused on the house. So I got up, went to the door, I was basically pulled outside. At that time they already had the whole house surrounded with guns; submachine guns, shotguns, bullet-proof vests. They came into the house, and went straight to my room, where I had a computer network that was running the website raisethefist.com, which was an anarchist independent media type site where people could publish their own articles to a newswire automatically, and it featured information that covered everything from police brutality, environmental racism, corporate globalization, [to] a variety of political issues. And so they came straight to the room, they dismantled the entire computer network, all the servers, downloaded everything to their own remote equipment, and then loaded everything onto a white truck. During that whole time, I was also being interrogated by the two special agents who were conducting the raid, [and] a secret service agent. And I was asked questions, like if I'd like to see the president killed, and I asked them [if it] was even legal for them to come in my house; come in and take all this computer equipment, and have a whole search warrant; how [was] all of this even legal, just because I had a website. And the head agent responded "Well it's now legal under the USA PATRIOT Act." This happened three months after that act was passed, only four months after 9/11. So, this is one of their first attempts to exercise the new act against someone who was an activist/anarchist/organizer or whatever, in the community. And so they basically spent about four or five hours at the house, boxed everything up, they also seized political literature, books, protest signs, they took everything and put it into a big white truck that was waiting outside. And then before they left, they said that I had crossed over a line and [that] as long as I got back on the other side of that line, everything would be all right. Basically what he was saying was that as long as I stayed quiet and shut up, everything would be cool, everything would be fine. So after that happened, I did the opposite. I wrote up an article about what had happened, and I went to New York about a week and half later to participate in the World Economic Forum protest in New York. I was waiting in Columbus Circle in New York when about 10, 15 different New York police officers blitzed the crowd and scooped up 26 demonstrators, one of which was me. [I found out later] that the Secret Service notified the New York Police Chief of my presence at the rally, so the New York Police Chief gave orders to just start sweeping up random demonstrators, and to basically see if they could find me somewhere in the crowd. So I was taken to a Brooklyn Navy yard jail, where everyone was processed and booked. Then, everyone was starting to get released, and I was taken into a back room in handcuffs, where I met an FBI agent and a Secret Service agent, and I was interrogated again, for about three hours. And they asked me questions such as: if I was a terrorist, if I was involved in any terrorist organizations, if I knew of any plans of violence that were going to happen at the demonstration, how I got to New York, where my car was parked, what train I took to get into Manhattan. And they basically said I wasn't going to be able to leave New York until my car was searched. At this point I was tired, I basically wanted to go home, and said, "I've got nothing to hide, there's nothing in my car that could possibly incriminate me; nothing that you're looking for", and so I signed over the keys. And then they left. And there were about six or seven different FBI agents coming into the room, in and out of the room this whole time I was being interrogated, messing with files, getting information, and they kept asking me questions over and over about the raid that happened in California; questions about raisethefist.com; what it was about. I refused to talk about any of that, because during that time, I still didn't have any sort of legal representation, I still didn't have any type of lawyer.
Aura: Did you ask for [a lawyer]?
Sherman: Yeah, I asked for a lawyer, and they just kept asking me the same questions over and over again. They were really persistent. And so, I just got fed up and I signed over the keys to my car, and I said, "I want to go home". And then they left and five minutes later I was taken to a courthouse, and basically released. I just waited there for a half-hour, for someone to come and pick me up. And then, about three or four FBI agents came into the building, and then two New York Police officers came over to me and said "These guys want to talk to you.", walked me over, and they said I was under arrest for putting information on the internet about explosives. And they basically cuffed me, grabbed me by my neck and hurried me out of the courtroom into a black SUV waiting outside, and took me to a Federal Building, processed me, and then took me to Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Center. [They] put me into a 24 hour lockdown, maximum security federal prison cell. I was actually in the same cell block as the people who were convicted of the USS Cole bombing, and [the] people who were convicted for bombing the US Embassy in Kenya. I was 18 years old, put into an orange jumpsuit, put into a cold dark cell, and I wasn't allowed out at any time except for legal visits. And so I spent, I believe it was 12 or 13 days in custody before Federal prosecutors said they didn't want to file an indictment just yet, so just like that I was released, after 13 days. There were articles in mainstream newspapers, like the New York Post, that read, "Teen Terrorist"; headlines reading "Baby Bomb Bust", I was made out to look like this terrorist person. U.S. Marshals were calling me names like "terror boy"; I was [thinking]: this new teenage terrorist that was caught, [and was] then all of a sudden just let go. And I was able to fly back to California by myself, without being extradited back by the U.S. Marshals, which was the original plan, because I was denied bail, and I was deemed a threat to the community. And if I was to be let back out on my own recognizance, I was going to blow up the Olympics, according to them. But now, all of a sudden, since the prosecutors decided not to file any charges, I was able to just go back by myself.
Aura: I want to go back to this 24 hour lockdown. Because I think a lot of people have been to demonstrations, I think a lot of people, especially people of color, have had negative interactions, with authority, particularly police. You're 18 years old in 2002, you've been arrested and/or interrogated for the third time in a week, and all of a sudden you're placed in a 24 hour lockdown facility. I don't think most of us have been inside a 24 hour lockdown facility. Can you describe physically what that place was like?
Sherman: Basically, it's almost like being in the hole, but it's a little more extreme. [For example], you can't be escorted just by one guard. I was escorted by at least three or four U.S. Marshals, one in front of you, one in back of you, and one on each side of you. Your ankles are handcuffed to each other, and your wrists are in handcuffs. And from there, your wrists are then handcuffed to your waist. And you wear an orange jumpsuit so they can know exactly who you are, so in case you try to run or escape or anything like that. Where I was at, in the cellblock, there's one main big cage gate that opens up the cellblock and then from there you have the other cells. Each cell usually holds two inmates, but I was put in by myself; a single cell that actually held two inmates, but they kept me alone for some reason. It was just a dark, dark, small cell, maybe about the size of your bathroom. And you don't do anything but stay in there 24 hours a day and just try to make use of your time; try to work out, read, write, whatever you can. There's a small, long, slit in the wall which is sort of a window. It's maybe about a foot long, ¾ of a foot wide, actually, and maybe about four feet tall. It was kind of dark inside most of the time. There's a window on the cell door where the Marshals or the [correction officers] can pass by and see you inside. Any time you're fed, they stick the food through a little slot in the door, and you come and pick it up and they close up the slot again. Anytime you come out of the cell you have to walk backwards. If you walk forwards, it's considered an assault and they can put you down physically, any way they want to. If you have to take a shower, you actually have to take a shower in handcuffs. You walk backwards out of your cell, they cuff you, put you into another cell-like room which is [the actual] shower, and then they cuff you again, with your hands in front of you, and you have to take a shower in handcuffs. So, it's pretty secure. There are cameras everywhere; there are cameras in the cell block; there are cameras in the general room, where the [correction officers] sit, where the Marshals sit, with all the video monitoring screens and [so forth]. I mean, I was the youngest person there. Everyone looked at me like "What the hell are you doing here? You're a kid."
Aura: You were a kid. You were 18.
Sherman: Exactly. And I was like, "I just had a website..."
Aura: So you spent almost two weeks in complete isolation, having to take showers with handcuffs on, having to walk backwards, doing completely humiliating things; what did it mean to you to have to spend that much time in there?
Sherman: I don't know, it was pretty crazy, because I didn't know exactly how much time I was even going to be spending in there, because I had seen what was being said in the newspapers about this crazy terrorist being caught.
Aura: So you were able to see the newspapers?
Sherman: Yeah, because fortunately, I did have a lawyer when I was actually locked up, and I was able to get legal visits, and she would give me clippings of the newspaper articles in my legal file. I was able to read through some of the articles and see what was being said, and it looked like it was pretty crazy. It looked like I wasn't going to get out anytime soon. When I was inside the cell, I kind of had to make myself used to the fact that I might be here for a while, maybe a year, two years, five years, ten years, I don't know if I'll be here even twenty years. I mean, it was just crazy. Words can't really describe it. I don't know, I don't know what to think. I just thought about how I was going get out, if I was going get out, when I was going get out, and if I was even going to go to court, because I was denied bail. They didn't even give me a chance to have bail, so I thought that I might even be there for at least, five years, before maybe getting some type of fair court hearing or something like that. Because, I was so young, and I had never been through something that extreme before; I just didn't know what to think, except for the fact that I would probably be spending a lot of time there.
Aura: How did it make you feel every time you were let out of your cell, knowing that you had to go back into that cell?
Sherman: It's a bad feeling, it's just like when you get out, it's almost like a moment of relief; it's a moment that breaks the daily routine of just being inside the cell. When you get let out it's like a new feeling, it's almost refreshing, even though you might just go down the cell block to take a shower or just upstairs, escorted by Marshals, to get a legal visit. It's such a refreshing moment even to just get a legal visit, because you can just sit in a different room, with different lights over you, and sit and talk to an actual person, face to face, and maybe fumble with some papers, and I mean, it's a good feeling compared to just like being back in the cell. And then when you're escorted back into the cell, it's like "All right, here I go again. I've got to get back into this other mindset of being in the cell 24 hours a day." I don't know how to describe it, it's pretty bad. You imagine people who spend years and years in there; what kind of people they come to be when they're actually let out. It's a bad feeling. I think I had moments of hope because I was trying to remain optimistic; I knew that a lot of people did know about the case, and they knew about the website too, so I knew that people had to have been talking about it while I was inside, and my lawyer told me that people were talking about it on the outside, so I felt that as long as people knew on the outside there could at least be some hope that I might get out, some hope that people were trying to get me out, and some hope that people weren't giving up on the outside for my release. I couldn't really communicate with people on the outside; I don't think I ever got a phone call. Any type of message that was passed on was usually just passed on through my lawyer. And so, I just tried to remain optimistic. As long as I thought I might be getting out, as long as I though that there was like a slim, slim, even one percent chance that I might get out, that was enough hope for me.
Aura: Let's move on and focus on what happened after you spent so much time in this lockdown facility. You came back to LA; what happened here?
Sherman: I came back to LA, and I got all the back-ups that were for the site, raisethefist.com, and I got [it] back together, and at that point the site was getting even more hits, like four or five thousand hits a day, from all the publicity it was getting from the newspaper articles and [press], and the FBI raid and everything. And so I just got the website back online and continued what I was doing, I continued my work in the community; tried to get Copwatch started up in Long Beach, started up different programs; free clothing programs, free food programs, just basically continued the political work I was doing in the community, and with that came a lot of harassment, not just by the FBI, but also by the local police. I mean, I couldn't ride my bike down the street without being stopped and police all knowing my name, three cop cars showing up, asking me what I was doing, where I was going, questioning me about raisethefist.com. I couldn't go to other people's court hearings without literally being followed and swarmed on by four or five different police cars when I came within a couple of blocks of the courthouse, asking me what was going on that day, why I was there, what was happening; basic harassment and intimidation. My phones were tapped, my internet lines were tapped, I'd be receiving countless death threats from white supremacist organizations: the Aryan Brotherhood, [and] Neo-Nazis would constantly email me, post racist comments on the website. My instant messenger accounts were being hacked into; I received threats such as "You're going to jail." Friends would receive threats such as "You're next." All this continued for about six months. During that period of six months, we heard nothing back from the FBI or from prosecutors until the prosecutors called my lawyer and said they didn't find anything on the computers they could prosecute me for; nothing was illegal that I had even done - but they didn't want to let me off the hook. They wanted me to admit guilt to distributing information related to explosives or weapons of mass destruction with the intent that it be used in a Federal crime of violence, namely arson. They wanted me to admit guilt to writing information that was actually on a different website, which I had no part in authoring or implementing in any way.
Aura: This is something that I want to address specifically, because I think there's a lot of confusion about what it is that you were charged with. So I'd like you to explain exactly what it was that they went after you for.
Sherman: It was basically another kid's website. This kid had a website called The Reclaim Guide. And a page on his website contained information on how to make homemade explosives, which he had copied I guess from The Anarchist Cookbook, and he put it all on his website and put it online. And so, I had links on my website to a bunch of different websites, and one of the links was to his website. They basically accused me of writing this other website. They knew I was the author of raisethefist.com, [and] they knew I didn't author this other website that this other kid created, but they still accused me of writing it. Two weeks before the federal prosecutors called my lawyer, they actually visited this kid in Orange County, and basically confirmed he was the one who authored, implemented, and created this entire website with the information about how to create explosives and manufacture these homemade bombs. And he had put it online so that people could use it in upcoming protests against the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C. And they basically confirmed he wrote it, and all that information is there in the FBI case discovery, where they went to his house, questioned him, and he admitted to writing all the information. [Then] the FBI left. Then they put documents together, fabricating statements, saying that I admitted to writing the information, saying that I admitted to implementing, creating, and authoring all the websites that this other kid had written; specifically the page with the information about how to build bombs and explosives. And then, all those documents were then submitted to the prosecutors, which were then submitted to the judge, which were then submitted to the probation officer assigned to the case for pre-sentencing. These documents with all these lies and all fabricated statements were basically used to create this false case against me and basically used to convict me for something that I had never even done in the first place.
Aura: What happened to the kid in Orange County who was actually the one who posted this information on his website?
Sherman: Nothing ever happened to him. I don't even know what happened to him - if he even left town after that, but the FBI never came after him ever. This kid was a white kid from Orange County, he had wealthy Republican parents, and they obviously would have no trouble coming up with the right amount of money to find the right lawyer to defend him if indeed the FBI had decided to go after him. It would have been a lot easier, obviously, for the FBI to come after me, a black anarchist who didn't have the financial resources to afford private legal defense; enough legal defense to actually go to trial and fight the case. It was just them [figuring out] who the easier target was. And, this type of railroading goes on all the time in the legal system. If you look at the prison population, the majority of the population is black; the least of the population is white. People get railroaded in this system all the time, and I think this case is just another example of how people continuously get railroaded in this injustice system, where they can't afford a lawyer, therefore they can't afford a fair trial, therefore there's no justice whatsoever. With this case, with them not going after that white kid, obviously just reinforces that fact. It's just another example of what type of system we're living under.
Aura: We're talking about railroading, and one of the ways in which people often have to respond to this type of railroading is by taking plea agreements. I want to talk to you about why you felt compelled to have to take one, and under what conditions that happened.
Sherman: I wanted to go to trial when my lawyer first told me about what the prosecutors wanted to do and wanted to have me sign. And I was like, "There's no way, I didn't do any of this, they know I didn't do any of this, so I want to go to trial." And we had gone back and forth to court, the prosecutors kept trying to get me to take the plea deal, they kept leaving it on the table even though they said they were going to withdraw it if I rejected it. And my lawyer said "Well, you're looking at three to four years in prison, and most likely, you'll be convicted, considering the current political climate in this country right now." Because it wasn't even that long after 9/11, and a lot of people were still gung-ho about looking for the terrorists. And so I said, "That's fine, let's go to trial; three or four years, whatever, I can appeal it later on." So, as I kept resisting, the FBI made a phone call to somebody, and the probation officer assigned to the case for pre-sentencing decided to re-assess the case, and find out if indeed a "Terrorism enhancement" was applicable to my case. And the second time she decided to re-assess the case, all of a sudden, this 'terrorism enhancement' was applicable to my case, which meant that I was no longer looking at three or four years in federal prison, I was now looking at 23 or 24 years in federal prison. At that point, my lawyer was almost begging me to not go to trial because it wasn't the type of case that he could even take on at that point. And I had to make a choice: if I have to get a new lawyer, I have to have about $50,000 to afford the right type of legal team that I would need to take this thing to trial. And so I had no other choice but to sign a plea agreement for something that I didn't even do, or go to trial with an inadequate defense and most likely get 20 years in federal prison.
Aura: Let's talk about this enhancement; explain what an enhancement is and who created this enhancement because of course, this is happening in the post 9/11 climate, yet this enhancement was created under Clinton, so tell us a little more about it.
Sherman: Yeah, this "terrorism enhancement" was actually created under Clinton's  Anti-Terrorism Act. Basically, say you go to trial and you're convicted by the jury, and you're sentenced to three or four years of prison. If the judge doesn't like you, if he decides you're lying, if he just has a bad feeling about you; say the enhancement is up to twenty years in prison, the judge can then say, "Okay, you're sentenced to three or four years... I'm going to add on an additional ten years, or an additional twenty years onto your sentence, because that's my decision. That's my decision under this enhancement." That decision doesn't come from the jury. But actually, the law was recently changed. When I was doing the time in Tucson [Federal Correction Institute], the law had recently changed, where now that enhancement has to be decided by the actual jury. So, now if you're convicted and sentenced to three to four years, now it's up to the jury's discretion to decide whether or not you then face that enhancement, rather than it just being the judge.
Aura: So you're looking at an enhancement, you take a plea deal. What's next? Where do they send you?
Sherman: I take a plea deal, I go to court, and I'm sentenced to a year in federal prison, with three years supervised release, [during which time] I can't touch a computer or knowingly associate with anyone who espouses violence for political change. I'm given thirty days to self-surrender to the U.S. Marshals in downtown L.A. A month later I go and surrender, and I'm taken into a holding tank, to the Downtown [Metropolitan Correction Center]. And since that place is overpopulated, I'm then taken to San Bernardino Detention Center, put into the general population. I do about a week and a half there, and I was put into protective custody, because I later learned that there were a lot of death threats against me from a lot of the white supremacist organizations.
Aura: And that San Bernardino prison is known as the headquarters of the Aryan [Brotherhood] within prisons in California...
Aura: And so they put a black anarchist in San Bernardino?
Sherman: Yeah, they put a black anarchist in San Bernardino, knowing that he had death threats against him from these white supremacist organizations, knowing he had these threats being posted against him on his website for the past two years. They then go ahead and purposefully put him in this San Bernardino detention center, which has the largest population of Aryan Brotherhood and white supremacist organizations. That was questioned a lot by people, especially my mom. And so, when people found out [I was placed there], they just flooded the prison with phone calls, every single day. And they told them to get me out of there right away.
Aura: And you ended up in Arizona?
Sherman: Yeah, that's where I did the majority of my time at Tucson, Arizona; it's a federal correctional institution, a medium security federal prison. And when I got there, I was put in the hole again. The lieutenant told me it was because of the threats I was receiving. Interestingly enough, they didn't put me in the hole right away when I was in San Bernardino, until people told them to get me out of there, but when I got to Tucson, the lieutenant immediately put me in the hole because he told me nothing was going to jeopardize my safety out on the yard, and that I could be let out in general population without them having to be worried about anything. I was put in the hole for about another week, and then I was finally let out into general population, where I did the majority of my time. On the yard, I talked to people, and just got into a daily routine; working out, reading, writing, and just did my time.
Aura: You were released three years ago, and I remember a very joyous day at the airport on the day you came home; I was actually invited to go with your family. As a journalist, it was really one of the highlights of anything I've ever done. I felt really honored to be there and to be able to speak with you as you were literally coming into a new freedom. And I remember being in the car with you on the way to the halfway house, and somebody gets a phone call, and they're about to hand you the phone, and everyone stops and says "No! Sherman you can't touch that cell phone!" You had some very interesting probation terms, including not being able to use a cell phone, [and] not being able to use the computer - I remember that very recently, I just got my first email from you. Talk about the terms of your probation and how you were able to navigate through that for the last three years.
Sherman: It was crazy. It was really hard, because they wouldn't even let me use a computer for work. I called the probation office maybe ten, fifteen different times asking them "Can I use the computer for work? When can I use the computer for work?" And they would just give me the run-around, and eventually, it was just like "No, you can't use the computer at all, for three years." And so, that was hard, because using the computer was what I had always done for work. So, not only did I have to find a job where I wasn't doing computer work, but I had to find a job that didn't even require a computer. And that was really hard, because I had found a few jobs, but they required me to use a computer, so I immediately had to leave them. And then if I had found a job where I didn't have to use a computer, then they saw my record, and saw this thing that said "weapons of mass destruction" on it, and I was a convicted felon, and I was fired [because of it]. I had these two big things against me, and I was like, "What do I do?" That's just how crazy it was, and I would tell people, "Yeah, I can't even use a computer", and people wouldn't even believe me, they'd be like "What? Are you serious? You can't use a computer?" People were just amazed by it, they had never heard anything like it.
Aura: So let's talk a little bit about your record, "Silence is Defeat: The album that the FBI doesn't want you to hear". Tell us a little more about this record, and the ways in which you've found to express yourself, particularly after your release [from prison].
Sherman: It was actually something that I started working on when I was locked up in Tucson. I actually just started writing different lyrics down, coming up with different ideas for songs, and I decided that if I couldn't use a computer when I got out, that I would just use the next best thing to try and get a message out, which was music. So when I got out, I started doing whatever I could to start recording the CD. I had first recorded [a] mixtape with the limited resources I had, because I couldn't use a computer. And so I just pieced together different pieces of equipment, and I finally started to record the actual album. The whole album took about three years to record, mainly because I couldn't use a computer, and I had to figure out ways to record and mix without having to use a laptop or computer workstation. The idea of the album was mainly to try and articulate the whole experience with the FBI, articulate the whole experience being locked up in maximum security federal prison, in a 24-hour lockdown federal prison cell. To try and articulate what it was like being railroaded, what it was like to have almost no hope, knowing that you're probably going to be in there for a long, long time. Knowing that you were set up, you were put into prison for something you didn't even actually do. A lot of times we can talk about these things, we can talk about these things in articles, when we're being interviewed, but still, it's almost as if there are no words that can describe the actual experience, there's no words that can describe the feeling; I think another step up from that is music. The best way I can articulate it is through music, specifically hip hop, because I feel that it's not just the lyrics that you hear, it's not just the vocals that you hear, but it's the tone of the music that can also articulate what it's like going through all that. That's mainly why I even put the album together, is because it's talking about something that's real. I wasn't just talking about "Silence is Defeat" because it sounds cool. I wasn't just talking about police brutality or police repression or the FBI or COINTELPRO or the PATRIOT Act because it's a catchy phrase; I was talking about it because it was something I lived through. It was something that was in the flesh and blood that was real to me and I just had to put it out there and had to articulate it because that type of rage is just too hard to articulate through words, it has to be articulated through something more than that.
Aura: Sherman Austin, you were 18 when the FBI raided your house and changed your life forever, and they sat you down and they told you, "Either you shape up, or we're going to go after you." I want to ask you what it is, what it was inside of you, [that made you] say "I'm going to continue being who I am", especially in this that world we live in, in this world that seems to get crazier by the minute, under this administration, the same administration under which you were originally railroaded. What was that?
Sherman: I don't know. I think it was the fact that when they came to my house with guns, loaded guns and bullet-proof vests, had me surrounded, when I didn't even know they had me surrounded because I was asleep, and I just thought "Wow, if my sister wasn't home, they would have just broken down the door and who knows what would have happened..." And the fact that all of this had happened because of a website made me want to resist even more because it was that crazy, it was that ridiculous. I mean, they come to your house with loaded weapons and surround you because you have a website. I didn't hurt anybody; I was no physical threat to anybody. I hadn't broken any laws. If there was any threat I posed, it was because of the information I had put out there. If there was any threat I posed, it was because I was trying to exercise my so-called First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and to see them react in that way just made me want to continue doing what I was doing, to not give in and not be silent, because that's exactly what they wanted.
Aura Bogado is a writer and radio producer. She blogs at ToTheCurb.wordpress.com .
Transcribed by Matt Espinoza Watson