BY AMANDA ZIVCIC
When the US-based anarchist web site Raise the Fist (<http://www.raisethefist.com>) was first shut down, there was an outpouring of support for its creator, Sherman Austin. And since Austin's sentencing on August 4 to a year in federal prison, with three years' probation, this support has grown into an international movement. It was one of the most important US court cases affecting free speech and democratic rights in recent years, and one of the most disturbing in the post-9/11 political climate.
On August 16, Austin was interviewed by investigative journalist and Columbia University student Merlin Chowkwanyun. Austin explained that it all began on January 24, 2002, at about 4pm, when his Californian home was raided by a small army of federal agents. "There were about 25 of them, surrounding the house with loaded weapons, machine guns, shotguns... They had been monitoring the site for a very long time, so I wasn't the slightest bit surprised."
Austin's computer equipment, which he used to run the site, was seized, along with political literature. Austin was not arrested or charged with an offence at that time. "You're in trouble", the FBI agents informed Austin, "but you're not going to be arrested."
Despite this intimidation, less than two weeks later, Austin drove to the World Economic Forum protest in New York in early February 2002. Upon arrival, about 20 police singled out the group of protesters he was with and arrested 26 people, including Austin. He was handcuffed and isolated from the other protesters and interrogated. "I kept noticing more and more FBI agents walking in and out of the room. They asked me stupid questions like if I was a terrorist or involved in any terrorist organisations. I told them 'No'... [an agent] looked at me like I was seriously a terrorist and [said] that I was lying to him. There's just no way to describe it."
Austin was released from prison and was waiting in court to be picked up by a friend. All of a sudden, five or six FBI agents walked into the courthouse and Austin was arrested "for distribution of information related to explosives over the Internet", Austin told Chowkwanyun. This is apparently what the agents found after they confiscated Austin's computer equipment.
"They grabbed my neck and hurled me out of the courtroom, put me in a black SUV and drove me to be processed. I was in a maximum-security federal jail facility in downtown Manhattan for 11 days, and in Oklahoma for two days."
What was it that the FBI found that was so alarming that Austin needed to be detained without trial in a maximum-security jail? It was a hyperlink on his web site to another site — a site unaffiliated with Raise the Fist and one that Austin did not author. "It was just a general protest guide that went over security culture and stuff like that. A small portion dealt with explosives information", Austin explained.
However, Austin was not charged in relation to the distribution of that information. Distribution of information related to explosives is not illegal. "What's illegal is the 'intent' [to use the information to commit cause crimes of violence]", Austin pointed out. "It's such a weird charge because it's almost like thought crime. How do you prove that someone has intent? ... Bush made it pretty obvious when he said 'You're either with us or against us'."
Austin noted the double standards: "Some white supremacy web sites are basically manuals to carry out large-scale guerrilla campaigns through assassination, threats, obtaining funds through fraud, everything from firearms to explosives... Not surprisingly, no action [is] taken against those people."
Back in Los Angeles (without his car, wallet, money or the clothes he took with him to New York), and after months of being harassed by local law enforcement, Austin's lawyer informed him that there was nothing found on his computers that could be used against him, but "they didn't want to let him off the hook".
"At first I wanted to go to trial on principle", Austin said, "because all I was going to risk was three or four years in prison. We learnt that a terrorist enhancement was applicable to what I was being charged with ... It is at the judge's discretion to add on up to 20 years to the sentence, so if I had of gone to trial, I would have risked anywhere from 20 to 24 years in jail."
Austin decided to enter a plea.
Judge Steven Wilson (an appointee of US President Ronald Reagan) was unhappy with the plea agreement that Austin's defence successfully offered to the prosecutors — a sentence of between eight and 14 months in detention. "The judge turned pretty defiant, it seemed like he already had different plans made up", Austin said. Wilson said the sentence should be more of a deterrent to "future 'revolutionaries' wanting to act in a similar manner. It was completely obvious that it was nothing but a political case."
Even head FBI director Robert Mueller, when asked by Wilson for his opinion, agreed to the plea bargain, as did the Justice Department. In fact, both went further and concurred with the court-appointed psychologist that a four-month jail term, followed by four months in a community correction facility, would have been more appropriate. "All of this was pretty much irrelevant to the judge", Austin recounted to Chowkwanyun. "He just announced that he wanted to give me 12 months in prison."
The probationary provisions are anti-democratic. Austin is not allowed to associate with any group or persons who advocate violence or political, social or economic change, including anarchists or anarchist associations. He is not even allowed to use a computer, unless fully supervised, and then only for employment purposes.
On September 3, Austin was sent to California's San Bernardino Central Detention Centre. He has since received death threats form white supremacists inside the prison and has had to be confined in isolation.
As Austin told Chowkwanyun: "This government has been persecuting people for their political beliefs, the colour of their skin, ever since the day it was founded ... in the 1960s and early 1970s, they completely annihilated political organisations, by infiltration and assassination, jailing and framing of organisers... Some people just disappeared. It's not surprising to see what they're doing. It's going to be the nature of this system unless we continue to fight back and do whatever we have to do that's necessary to put an end to it."
"If we all stand up, and we all take the initiative to take an active role in challenging the system, they won't be able to do anything about it. They don't have the capacity to silence us all."
[Most of the information from this article was taken from "An Interview with Sherman Austin" by Merlin Chowkwanyun. For more information and updates, see <http://la.indymedia.org> and <http://www.raisethefist.com>. A full transcript of Chowkwanyun's interview with Austin is available at <http://www.counterpunch.org> and <http://www.dissidentvoice.org>.]
From Green Left Weekly, October 29, 2003.
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