On August 4th, U.S. District Court Judge Steven V. Wilson, a Reagan appointee, sentenced 20-year-old Southern California anarchist Sherman Austin to a year in federal prison, three years of probation and a $2,000 fine. Austin is the webmaster of the anarchist website www.raisethefist.com. Nearly two years ago on January 24, 2002, federal law enforcement agents raided Austin’s Sherman Oaks, CA home and seized all his computers and other possessions. In late 2002, after months of legal limbo and harassment in between, federal prosecutors formally accused Austin of distributing information on explosives with the knowledge that some readers would use such info to commit a federal violent crime. That became a federal ‘crime’ in 1997, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein attached a blatantly unconstitutional amendment to a defense spending bill. The offending web material on his raisethefist.com was part of an Internet tract called the “Reclaim Guide” that Austin didn’t even author — but for which he had offered free hosting on his site.
Although Austin initially planned to fight the charge and go to trial, he later learned this could have entailed risking up to 20 years in prison under penalty clauses in the 1997 federal law. Additionally, there existed terrorism sentencing enhancements first enacted in 1995 that saw their reach broaden under subsequent legislation, including the notorious 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a Patriot Act antecedent signed with much fanfare by Bill Clinton. Austin thus accepted a plea bargain under which he was sentence.
His case has major implications for civil liberties and cyberlaw. It also is a case study in post-9/11 judicial railroading, the dereliction of duty by the establishment left (Mother Jones et. al) to cover it adequately, and the escalating clamp-down on dissent towards which many socially and politically disconnected Americans seem (sometimes cheerfully) oblivious. And the case demonstrates that Ashcroft Justice existed long before spineless Democrats abdicated the executive office.
Much discussion about Austin has come from inaccurate secondhand information. The interview below, derived from a series of lengthy conversations the author had with Austin, allows Austin to narrate, in his own words, all the (sometimes farcical) twists leading up to his sentencing.
THE RAID, LEGAL BACKGROUND
MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN: Let’s start from Point A. What happened? How did this all begin? You were living in Sherman Oaks, CA on January 24, 2002.
SHERMAN AUSTIN: It was around 4 p.m. in the afternoon. I was just taking a nap. Luckily, my sister was home. She went out with her friend, and when she was leaving, when she was walking to her car, she noticed a lot of FBI-looking cars and agents with those earpieces, parked all up and down the street. She knew something wasn’t right. She ran back into the house and told me what was up, so I got up and went to the front door. Two special agents at the front door pulled me outside. By that time, they had already had the house surrounded with loaded weapons, machine guns, shotguns…about 25 federal agents.
MC: What was your first reaction? Did you know what they were coming for?
SA: Yeah, I wasn’t really surprised. Right when my sister told me, when I woke up, I pretty much knew why they were there. They had been monitoring the site for a very long time, and at times, I received over 100 hits from the Department of Defense on the website, so I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised.
MC: What did the agents proceed to do?
SA: They showed me a search warrant, and I just glanced at it. I was half-awake. I was just kind of taking it easy, not really putting up a fuss.
They just went into the house. 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. They searched the garage, pretty much everywhere with their guns still out and drawn. They still had people surrounding the house with their weapons drawn.
MC: In addition to seizing the computer equipment, they also seized political literature. Is that correct?
SA: Yeah, I had a big stack of political literature, everything from just newspapers to basic literature, books, bios. They just took that entire stack and put it in a big box as well as a bunch of protest signs I had.
MC: The warrant refers to documents and materials with keywords like, “International Monetary Fund,” “IMF,” “WEF,” anything anyone involved with the anti-globalization movement would read. After they seized this, then what happened?
SA: They came into my room, took out all the computers, and mirrored each hard drive. When they were done downloading all the information off each hard drive, they took all the computers, all the literature, and loaded everything into a big white truck and left.
My room was ransacked. After that, I just took pictures of my room, the way they left it, and wrote an article about what happened and posted it around. I was still planning to go to the World Economic Forum (WEF) protest in New York [in early February 2002], even despite what happened. I drove to New York in my car. When I got there, I didn’t get a chance to march really. I was just standing in Columbus Circle, and then about 15-20 police officers just rushed us. They completely broke through this line of media people. They arrested about 26 of us. I was in jail for about 30 hours. I think mostly everyone else was in there for about 20 to 25 hours.
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 were, and they interrogated me for about three or four hours. 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 if I was a terrorist or involved in any terrorist organizations. I told them, “No,” and it’s funny, he [an agent] looked at me like I was seriously a terrorist and that I was lying to him.
You know how they use those interrogation tactics on you? It’s just unbelievable. There’s no way to describe it.
MC: They knew you were coming to New York?
SA: What I had later learned was that the FBI knew I was going to New York a couple days after the raid. The Secret Service notified the Chief of Police to pick me up and arrest me. I guess they just wanted to scoop a bunch of people up, hoping they got me, and unfortunately they did.
MC: After your arrest and the 30 hours, what happened?
SA: I was released and waiting in the court for someone to pick me up for about 30 minutes. About five, six FBI agents walked into the courthouse and arrested me. They said I was being arrested for distribution of information related to explosives over the Internet. I asked, “Why didn’t you arrest me in California?” When I was raided in California, they said, “You’re in trouble, but you’re free to go right now. You’re not going to be arrested. You can leave right now.”
They grabbed my neck and hurled me out of the courtroom, put me in this black SUV and then drove me to a federal building, where they processed me. They put me in a maximum-security federal jail facility in downtown Manhattan, where I was at for about 11 days until I was taken to Oklahoma.
MC: How long were you in Oklahoma?
SA: I was in Oklahoma federal jail for about two days, so it was a total of 13 days in custody. We were going to try and see if I could get bail, but at the bail hearing, the judge denied me bail because the FBI had said I was a “man on the mission” and that I was coming to “carry out” plans of action. When they searched my car, they said that they found a gasoline canister and I think duct tape. Who wouldn’t have a gasoline canister on them when driving 3,000 miles across country?
MC: What exactly was on the website that they found so alarming or that they claimed to find so alarming?
SA: There was a link posted on my site 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 because there’s so much information out there readily available.
There’s something on the Internet called the White Resistance Manual. It’s pretty much for white supremacists. It’s a manual 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 that they had written after the raid when they arrested me in New York, 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.
MC: Now what was the exact charge? Its not just that information about explosives was on the server, but there was also this clause on intent…
SA: From what I’ve heard, it’s not illegal to distribute information on explosives. What’s illegal is the intent part. It’s such a weird charge because it’s almost like thought crime. How do you prove that someone has intent? I can go on to tons of other websites that have explosives information on them, especially white supremacy web sites. We obviously know they have intent because they’ve used that type of information before against people. They’re not being prosecuted for it.
To me, it makes it better for them because that way they can use that as a form of selective enforcement on whom they want to bring charges against with that type of charge and whom they just want to let by and let off the hook.
It’s almost like how they prove intent is if maybe you’re an anarchist or a socialist or a communist or just anyone who doesn’t agree with the way things are currently going in this political climate right now. It’s interesting because…I’d said this before…how do they prove intent? Bush made that pretty obvious when he said, “You’re either with us or against us.” If you disagree, you have intent, right then and there.
MC: I’ve read one affidavit in which the FBI still claims that you wrote the Reclaim Guide, even though it’s fairly obvious that you didn’t. If you go to archive.org, you can actually see the old site, and it’s very obvious that the site’s structure links, as you said, to a bunch of different sites. From what I understand, the FBI knew that you didn’t author it, and they still persisted in claiming that you did. Is that correct?
SA: Yeah. We went through a number of different plea agreements because things were always getting changed, and every time they presented us with a new and different plea agreement, the prosecutors or the FBI always put back in that I authored the explosives information. The FBI even interviewed the person who authored the explosives information on that site that I was hosting. They knew, even before the raid, that I did not author that information, but they still tried to say I did in the search warrant and everything.
MC: So after the WEF protest, the arrest in New York and the two days spent in Oklahoma in Feb. 2002, what happened?
SA: After that, I was pretty much released because the prosecutors decided they didn’t want to file an indictment. I’m assuming they wanted to go through all my computers first. My lawyer had a court order put in to send me back on a plane to Los Angeles by myself, so I was flown back to Los Angeles. I didn’t have anything. All my clothes I took with me, my car, my wallet, my money, everything I had with me was still in New York. All I had with me was my belt. I received my wallet about two weeks later from my lawyer in New York.
MC: How much time elapsed before you heard again from a prosecutor or authority figure?
SA: It was about six months until we heard again from the prosecutor, but in between that time, there was a lot of harassment from authority figures and local police…being followed by detectives, being followed by FBI agents at protests. It was funny because the first protest I went to after I got out was in Irvine. It was against Taco Bell because of the way they exploit their farm workers, tomato pickers in Florida. When I went there, they had an FBI agent there, and they had another FBI agent there in the crowd, and he was just standing two feet in front of me, taking pictures of me. He must have taken at least 10 or 20 pictures of me. I had to be escorted out of the protest by people with the National Lawyers Guild because they were surveilling me the whole time. It was unbelievable.
Things like that have happened. I’ve been riding my bike down the street at night, and a police officer will stop me, and he’ll know my name. Two other cops will come, and they both will know my name and ask me about my website. They’ll start asking me about my website and ask questions like, “Why do you hate cops so much?” They will try to debate me and argue with me on anarchism and everything like that. It’s just ongoing harassment.
MC: Later in 2002, when you heard from a prosecutor again, what happened?
SA: My lawyer told me that the prosecutor called him and said that they didn’t really find anything on my computers to get me for — but they didn’t want to let me off the hook. At first I wanted to fight the charges, but then I decided to take a pre-indictment binding plea, which was going to be one month in jail and five months in a community corrections facility. We got that set up, and then I went to court to enter the plea before the judge, and the judge rejected it because he wanted me to serve more time.
After that, we went back to the drawing board and worked up another plea, which was just a sentencing range between 6 and 12 months. It wasn’t as specific as the first plea, where it said one month in jail, five months in community corrections.
We went back with that, but by the time we went back to court for that, my criminal history went back up another point because of another conviction I had because I was pulled over by the Long Beach police for a broken headlight. At that time, I didn’t know my license was suspended because I had never received anything in the mail, so when they pulled me over, they asked me if I knew my license was suspended, and I said, “No.” They took my car, and I was convicted because when you’re driving with a suspended license, it’s a criminal conviction. That went on my record, and since it was two convictions, my criminal history category went up. My sentencing range changed from between 6 and 12 months to 8 and 14 months.
MC: And now, you initially weren’t going to do a plea bargain. You were actually going to go to trial on principle.
SA: Yeah, at first I just wanted to go to trial because all I was going to risk was three to four years in prison. We learned that was different after we consulted a probation officer on the case, and we learned that a terrorism enhancement was applicable to what I was being charged with. What that is that it’s the judge’s decision where he can add on up to 20 years onto your sentence, so if I had gone to trial, I’d have risked anywhere from 20 to 24 years in federal prison.
MC: The judge, Stephen V. Wilson, was unhappy with the eventual plea agreement and expressed this during a hearing on June 30, 2003. That’s when you were initially scheduled to receive your final sentence. What did he say then?
SA: We went in there, and my lawyer was telling the judge how I just got caught up and I didn’t really think about what was posted on the website. My lawyer asked if he accepted the plea.
The judge turned pretty defiant. It seemed like he already had different plans made up. He said that this should be looked at with more of a deterrent outcome to future “revolutionaries” wanting to act in a similar manner. He just openly admitted that he wanted to make an example out of me.
He said also to the prosecutors something like, “Out of all the nonsense cases you bring me, you finally bring me something serious but don’t take it seriously.”
The atmosphere of the courtroom was nothing but political at that time. It was completely obvious that this was nothing but a political case. He made it clear that he wanted to give me a lot of jail time. He said that he wanted to give me at least between 8 and 10 months in jail, but before making his final decision, he asked the prosecutors what the Justice Department thought about the case. It’s pretty irrelevant to the case because it’s the prosecutors who are representing the government, not necessarily the Justice Department. That’s what the prosecution told the judge.
The judge told the prosecution to get head FBI Director [Robert] Mueller’s opinion on the case. The judge wanted him to consult on the case and get his opinion and recommendation on sentencing.
MC: The judge used the word “revolutionaries.” He seemed to hint that you might also be a violent person, a harm to others. Can you talk about the psychological study you underwent to try and refute that?
SA: My lawyer said it was a good idea that I go see a psychologist and go under a psychological analysis to prove that I was a non-violent person by nature. I went into that, and the psychologist wrote up an entire report on me, stating that I was a non-violent person and that jail wouldn’t be the right sentence for me to serve. I think she recommended something different like community service or something like that. I think that pissed off the judge even more. He said that this had nothing to do with psychology. He was pretty turned off by it. He acted like it was completely irrelevant to the case.
MC: So now on June 30, 2003, he delayed the sentencing to July 28, 2003. What happened then?
SA: Well, we went back to court on July 28, and when we got there, we learned that the clerk never entered it into the judge’s schedule, so it was actually never scheduled that day. So then, after that, we got it rescheduled for next Monday, a week later. We went back on next Monday, which was on August 4th, for sentencing. We went back, and the judge asked the prosecutor what the FBI thought and what the Justice Department thought. And the FBI and Justice Department were both on board with the plea. They both agreed with it…the sentencing guidelines of four months in jail and four months in community confinement. And the judge just asked my lawyer a few questions. My lawyer advised me that I should just tell the judge a lot had changed since the incident…I was 18 then, and I’m 20 now…and it was just try and tell the judge that I was a good person, just try and set a positive image. But all of that was pretty much completely irrelevant to the judge. It looked like he already had his mind set and his mind made up. He just announced that he wanted to give me 12 months in prison.
MC: It seems like he had hoped that the FBI would also propose a very harsh sentence, and then when it didn’t do that, he just basically ignored what it suggested. What was the reaction of people in the courtroom?
SA: Everyone seemed pretty shocked. The FBI, I don’t think they were shocked. They pretty much came out with smiles on their faces. I think the prosecutors were a little bit shocked. Everyone else who was there was shocked. It was pretty saddening. It was pretty horrible that this judge was just going to give me 12 months in prison for no other reason really than to set an example, for no other reason than my political views.
MC: Did he give a clear reason why he chose to go with 12 months even though the FBI had suggested four months?
SA: His only reason was that he wanted to set an example for, in his words, future “revolutionaries.”
MC: In addition to the one-year sentence in federal prison, there are also three years of probation. When I read these probation provisions, I was quite shocked. These are very strict and draconian provisions. Can you tell us what they are?
SA: One of them is that I can’t associate with any group or persons who advocate violence or political or social or economic change. Basically, I can’t associate myself with anarchists. It actually says that on the pre-sentencing report, that I can’t associate myself with anarchists or anarchist associations.
If I have to use a computer for work, I have to consult with the probation officer, but I can’t use a computer for any type of political organizing or any type of political use. It’s just obvious that they’re just trying to keep me away from a computer.
As long as I’m using it for work to make money for income, for a job, it’s fine, but even with that, I’m going to have very intense restrictions. I’m going to have my computer probably seized at least once a week or once every two weeks. I’m going to have to have tracking software installed on my computers. I’m going to have to surrender DSL phone bills and everything like that so they can monitor every little thing I’m doing.
MC: So there was this Reclaim Guide on there. You didn’t author it. You were merely loaning out some server space. Right after you were sentenced, there was a lot of erroneous media coverage. In particular, there was an AP article that a lot of sources across the country seemed to pick up.
SA: After my sentencing, the AP article was written to make it sound like I was the one who actually authored the explosives information, and not just that, but that my entire website was also explosives information. They didn’t point out that raisethefist.com was just an open publishing website, and just a small portion of that website contained a link to another website that had explosives information on it. They made it sound like I authored the information and the entire website was about explosives, and they also made it sound like I apologized for making the entire website, like I was just some stupid little kid who didn’t know any better and was just completely intimidated by what the FBI had done.
MC: When will you have to report for prison, and do you know where you are going?
SA: The date when I’m going to have to surrender myself is September 3, which will be next month. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going to be at, but I have an idea. They might send me to Lompoc. They might send me to Boron or Nellis. They might send me to Terminal Island. It’s all up to the Bureau of Prisons.
MC: You are an African-American male. What did you learn about the racial dimensions of this case and this legal system?
SA: There are definitely racial implications in this case. We’re dealing with a system that has more people locked up in the prison industrial-complex than any other country in the world. The longest I’ve been to jail is 13 days, but every time I’ve gone, it’s obvious there are racial implications. We’re dealing with a very racist institution. I felt if I had been white and had a lot of money, I could have bought my way out of this. It’s just disgusting what the system is doing, not just to people who are politically involved but people who just happen to be black.
There’ve been times where I’ve been waiting in jail and seen young black males come back in tears because they’ve had to take a plea and gotten 14 years because they’ve basically been convinced that they couldn’t fight the system. Number one, they’re a person of color. They come from a low-income background. They don’t have the money to afford a private attorney like a lot of other people do who happen to be white.
We can look at the people at Enron, who are just barely getting a slap on the wrist, if anything. It’s such blatant racism if you look at it.
MC: The most outrageous irony to this case is that while you will be going to prison for one year for raisethefist.com, Kenneth Lay, the ex-head of Enron, has not been indicted on anything. In your case, in terms of racial dimensions, the person who actually did author the Reclaim Guide, he was white and from a fairly affluent background.
SA: Yeah, and I think he realizes that too. It’s just so obvious. Why didn’t they go after him? If you look at the charge, they could have just as much indicted him as they wanted to indict me, but they decided to go after me instead of him.
MC: What do you say to people who have fears and are worried about getting involved politically?
SA: First of all, don’t let them intimidate you. Don’t let them keep you into a state of fear where you become pacified and too afraid to stand up and voice your opinion because that’s what they want to do. If they keep us pacified in a state of fear, they have us under control. We have a very serious problem if they’re able to do that. If we don’t speak up, who’s going to speak up? It’s only up to us to do what has to be done to stop this problem, to stop this system and this government from doing what they’re doing. The best advice I can give to people is don’t be intimidated. Don’t let them scare you into not getting politically active. There’re more of us than there are of them. They can’t come after every single one of us. 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 lock us all up. They’re definitely going to try and lock a bunch of us away and silence a bunch of us, but they don’t have the capacity to silence us 100%.
MC: Will raisethefist.com continue to run?
SA: Yeah, I’m working on currently setting up a team to keep the site going and to make sure, if something happens with our current host, that we can get the site moved to another backup server immediately so we can eliminate any long-term downtime.
MC: I must say that, in my opinion, liberal, bourgeois organizations like the ACLU and institutional publications like The Nation and Mother Jones really dropped the ball on this case. I think the only publications that really deserve a pat on the back are the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Washington Post of all papers, and a very little-known newsletter called the Progressive Populist, and of course, IndyMedia. What’s your take?
SA: It’s kind of weird and messed up. It’s confusing. Why wouldn’t the ACLU want to take something on like this? They were contacted almost immediately after I was arrested in New York by the FBI. They said they didn’t do criminal cases and couldn’t do anything. It’s obviously a case that deals with civil liberties and freedom of speech. When the government will come after us, they’ll tack these charges on us as criminal cases. It looks like there are going to be more and more criminal cases that involve civil liberties than there are going to be civil suits. I think the ACLU, if they want to really start defending people on their civil liberties, should really think about reorganizing the way they represent people in court.
OTHER ALLEGATIONS IN FBI DOCUMENTS
MC: I have to ask you to address one issue — and it’s in many ways not a relevant question because it wasn’t even part of that one final charge — but I’m asking it because many observers hostile to your political orientation may pounce on it, and you should have a chance to respond. In the warrant and in this FBI memorandum I’m reading now, there are sections on alleged “defacements” of private web sites and such.
SA: They never proved anything. They sure had a bunch of stuff about it in the warrant, arrest affidavit, and discovery materials. We were thinking, since they included it so much, why didn’t the prosecutors just charge me with that — instead of the distribution of information charge since that was a charge the judge was going to reject their suggested sentencing range for. But they didn’t want to do it, I’m assuming, because they didn’t have enough to prove it.
MC: Right. I mean, I’ve always found it peculiar that if those other supposed accusations were correct, why they didn’t just go for that instead of this distribution charge with intent, which is significantly harder to show.
SA: The same with the “firearm,” Molotov cocktail charge.
MC: What about the actual crime some FBI documents were claiming — the defacements and admitting to it? Is the FBI memorandum inaccurate when they say that you admitted to the this stuff? Did they take something you said out of context?
SA: I don’t remember their asking me to admit it. I remember their saying, “Did you hack into any web site?” and “Did you hack into any government computer systems?” I was about to tell them, “No,” then they kept cutting me off saying, “If you did or don’t know, then don’t tell us.”
I don’t remember admitting anything to them except that I ran raisethefist.com, and I was an anarchist, and again, I must have told them seven times straight out that I didn’t author the reclaim guide when they were right there at my house, but they put in that I told them I authored it.
MC: On some sites, there are citations to an interview you did with some reporter, in which you supposedly admitted to the defacing. Now, reporters screw up all the time or misquote. Is that what happened there?
SA: It was probably a misquote, or I was answering a different question of his. I remember that interview actually. It was over AIM while I was on the east coast before the WEF.
I had tons of FTP servers and passwords stored on my computers for web sites, which were my clients’. They voluntarily gave them to me because I uploaded and installed my software on their servers. They also said I did credit card fraud too. It was the same thing with credit cards, which were also in my client database, from clients who purchased my software and at times would pay for things on a monthly basis
They said my whole client database, which had my clients’ credit cards and billing info in it, was a database of stolen credit cards I was using for credit card fraud A lot of people who also ordered my software were using stolen credit cards. I’d find out every time I got a charge back. These charges were always reported as fraudulent charges as well, so in my client database I had people’s orders with their billing info and credit card numbers for orders that were made by other people doing credit card fraud.
I was also running Linux 6.0, which had various exploits in it. One I remember specifically was an exploit in the DNS, which gave anyone complete access to my server. Several times people used my server to try and break into the FDIC and other government computer systems.
MC: I never asked you about the way the FBI interrogation took place. Would you describe it as coercive? Were they constantly interrupting you, bullying you into answers, trying to pigeonhole you into saying certain things?
SA: They were playing the good cop, bad cop game. [FBI Agent] John Pi tried to play nice like he was my friend. They would ask questions, and if I didn’t answer, go back to them later and ask them again. The Secret Service, too, held up a picture of Bush with crosshairs over him that he found on my site and asked if I wanted to kill the president. I said, “No,” then he asked, “Well would you like to see the president killed?”
MC: Do you wish you went to trial also so you could refute those defacement claims? I know that wasn’t in the eventual charge, but I’m sure they would have tried to introduce it somehow, perhaps to tar your character.
SA: If I knew I was going to get a year under the plea, yeah, I would have taken it to trial.
LAW ENFORCEMENT SURVEILLANCE AND ONGOING HARASSMENT
MC: Can you talk about the Long Beach Police Department, what sort of things they’ve been doing, and how long it’s been going on?
SA: I moved to Long Beach in 2002 around March, when I had first got out of federal jail in New York and when I got raisethefist.com back up and everything. I thought the LAPD was bad. When I got to Long Beach, I’d never seen a police force more crazy than the LAPD.
When I moved, I experienced everything from getting followed to having undercover detectives parked in front of where I was living, just watching people come in and out. I saw a lot of weird stuff happen where undercover police have looked into my car, walked around it, and then walked off after I saw them and pretended that they were ordinary people listening to walkmen. They’d have little headphones, earpieces in their ears, but of course they weren’t hooked up to any walkmen. They were hooked up to a walkie-talkie or something.
I’ve seen so much, not just happen to me, but other people around me. I can go back to May 1, 2001. That was actually my first time coming to Long Beach. We tried to have a peaceful march on the streets as a celebration of workers’ rights day. It was May Day, and just two minutes into the march, police were already swinging their batons at us.
Eventually, they just lured us into this trap and opened fire on us with all this riot gear and all these rubber bullets. That was an outrageous brutal attack. That was a bloody brutal attack. They broke people’s arms. I myself was shot twice. I had embedded penetrating wounds in my calf, which I still have scars of today, and I still have one of the fragments embedded in my leg today, two and a half years later.
Even after that, the repression from Long Beach Police Department continued to intensify. They didn’t just come after me, but other people like Matthew Lamont [a Long Beach-area anarchist], who’s in jail right now. He just pleaded no contest and got two years, and he has an appeal in October.
We used to have an infoshop in Long Beach. It was an anarchist community empowerment center. On Hitler’s birthday, Matthew Lamont was followed from the infoshop by two Long Beach detectives into Whittier, and he was pulled over, and they arrested him on explosives charges. They were saying that he was going to blow up a Nazi party that was supposed to happen that day. There was no Nazi party scheduled for that day. He was arrested and taken to Orange County jail facility and put in solitary confinement.
He had court hearings at least a few times a month, and we would always go to his court hearings. Every time I’d go to his court hearings, I’d just come within a few blocks of the courthouse, and all of a sudden I would have at least five cop cars following me until I parked and got out of my car, and then they would get out of the car and ask why I was there…just basically harass me and intimidate me. I’d walk into the courthouse, and sheriffs inside of the courthouse would come up to me and ask if there was anything planned for that day. They would treat me like I was some leader or something. I’m just some ordinary guy with a website just coming to view a public court hearing, which is supposed to be a constitutional right, but the way they intimidate you, the way they harass you, it seems like they don’t even want you to come.
There’s Javier Perez, who was deported after May Day. He’s actually in Mexico right now and doesn’t have enough money to make it back to the U.S. There’s Robert Middaugh, who was actually supposed to get out of jail after serving two years, and then they arrested him again and put him back in. I think he’s out on bail now, but they’re trying to get him back in for even more time, even more years.
MC: What kind of things are they trying to charge them for?
SA: Javier Perez, he was in jail, and they got him to sign a voluntary deportation form in which they would let him out if they deported him to Mexico. I think when he first came to the United States, he was two-years-old. He doesn’t even speak Spanish. He didn’t even grow up in Mexico. What was he supposed to do there? It’s been really hard for him to make it through all this.
Robert Middaugh, I can’t remember the exact charge, but I know that what they’re trying to charge him with now is assault on a federal police officer from an incident that happened in Wilshire, in downtown at the federal building, when an anti-immigrant group was there having a demonstration on the fourth of July a few years ago. I think he was arrested, and one of the police officers said that he threw a soda at him with his right hand but in fact he’s left-handed.
They’re trying to give him some more time for that. It’s just absolutely ridiculous what they’re doing, which is just coming down on anyone and everyone they can.
They’re not just coming down after those people, but the Long Beach police have routinely just stopped people on the street just because they’re wearing black or they look like an anarchist. They’ve stopped and harassed them, followed them to the apartment, searched them. In one case, one guy came into our center who was crying because he said the police threw him to the ground and put guns to his head and asked him if he was affiliated with the infoshop we were running, and he said, “No.” He had no idea who we were until that happened. It was interesting because a lot of people started coming in and telling us that police had been following them and harassing them and trying to search them because they were suspected of being anarchists. A wave of people were coming in and telling us what was going on.
MC: Has any effort been made to file complaints or lawsuits against these cops?
SA: Yeah, there’ve been a lot of complaints filed. From what I know right now, there’s a lawyer who’s setting up individual lawsuits from what happened on May 1, 2001. I’m not sure how soon that’s all going to go through, but I know that they tried to do a big civil case, and I think it was denied. Since that happened, she’s trying to get individual lawsuits going.
MC: When you walk around Long Beach, they seem to recognize you.
SA: They’ve told me my picture is hanging up in the Long Beach police station. Ever since I’ve moved to Long Beach, I’ve been pulled over so many times and harassed by police.
MC: What techniques did the FBI use to watch you?
SA: They were packeting my Internet line, which is basically monitoring all incoming and outgoing information…all data going in and out of my DSL connection. And through that, they were able to get passwords and things like my e-mail accounts, my instant messenger accounts. On numerous occasions, they blocked me out of my e-mail accounts, changed the passwords, used the e-mail accounts to change the domain name server [DNS settings] on my domain and make it non-accessible on the Internet…and then playing around with me, sending me an instant message, using my own screenname online, and telling me the password of the e-mail account and warning me not to change it, saying that they were watching me.
They’ve gone into my instant messenger accounts, completely taken control over them. They would start instant messaging people, “You’re next,” and stuff like that. I remember one time they came into my account, and I caught them one time, and they threatened me like, “Your ass is going to jail.” They said a bunch of stuff. It was pretty obvious they were packeting my line and looking through, basically downloading all the information they were getting that was coming in and out of my DSL connection. When they would talk to people on my screenname, they’d use the exact same wording that I’d use. They tried to impersonate me word for word, use the exact same wording I was using. It was pretty obvious they were monitoring my conversations pretty extensively on a daily basis, and they were watching everything pretty closely.
MC: I understand you were also able to look at logs of IP addresses [personally identifiable numbers assigned to computers on the Internet] and things like that and that was a second way of confirming they were packeting your line. Is that correct?
SA: Exactly. When they were getting onto my screennames, I was able to get their IP addresses, and I remember tracerouting the IP address to a location in Los Angeles down to a zip code, and within that same zip code was a federal building. This happened on a lot of occasions. Once I started getting their IPs, I noticed they kept changing their IP addresses. I was able to find out they were the same people going into my e-mail address and using that to knock my domain offline. I remember when I was blocked out of my e-mail address, I was assuming someone was in there checking all the e-mails I was getting. I sent an e-mail to the e-mail address with a little script that logged the IP of anyone who opened up any message, and it was the same IP address of the people that I was logging who were on my screenname, so that meant it was the same IP address of the person who logged into my e-mail account and then used my e-mail to knock my domain offline by changing the DNS servers.
MC: When you were speaking with these people, did you ever raise this issue with them?
SA: Yeah, I always raised that issue. Sometimes, they would just play stupid and not say anything. Other times, they would just openly admit it. They would tell me the name of my ISP. They would know my name. They would know names of my friends. They would know where I was living, what my phone number was. They would know what I was looking at online, what I was doing, and things like that.
They were saying a lot of racist and sexist things as well, not just to me but to other people, and a lot of threats too like, “You’re going to jail.” Even death threats sometimes. It was pretty disgusting what they were doing. The funny thing is…do they not know we know who they’re working for and what they’re doing? It seems like everything they were doing was an intimidation tactic to say, “We’re watching you. You’d better watch out.
MC: What was their rationale for shutting down the anarchist infoshop?
SA: We had a benefit show for raisethefist last year in December. About six police officers came with a noise complaint. We decided to end the show early because we didn’t want to risk any more trouble or anything like that. About three days later, our leasing company, Crestwave, contacted us and said that the police called them and said that when they went to show, the door was slammed in their face and someone tried to assault them. The police told them that if they didn’t evict us, they were going to take legal action against them. They put pressure on our leasing company to evict us. On May 3, they evicted us. We had to shut down the place.
MC: People are stunned at how calm you manage to be through this. The FBI, the prosecutors, were treating you at some points like the most dangerous man in America. I know some of your friends and your mother in the courtroom were shocked. How are you so calm, and what’s going through your mind right now?
SA: I guess I’m so calm because I’ve probably gotten used in the past few years to all the harassment and all the things that have been going on, constantly in this legal limbo, having to go back and forth to court, having the thought that I’m potentially going to be facing a long time in prison just there in my mind for a while now. I’ve gotten so used to it that I pretty much expected them to come down on me the way they did. I wasn’t really surprised when the judge gave me a 12-month prison sentence in federal prison.
If you really look at it, that’s the nature of this government. This government has been persecuting people for their political beliefs ever since the day it was founded. Its been persecuting people for the color of their skin ever since the day it was founded. Look what happened in the 1960s and early 1970s. They completely annihilated political organizations. They assassinated political organizers, framed them up, locked them up in jail. Some people just disappeared. They infiltrated organizations. It’s not surprising to see what they’re doing. That’s the nature of this government. 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.
The most important thing is just to stay focused and have determination. I don’t want them to scare me into thinking that I can’t continue doing what I’m doing. The more they’re going to come down on me, the more I’m going to organize and continue do things within the community and raisethefist.
Portions of this interview were previously aired on WBAR 87.9 FM NYC (www.wbar.org). Minor edits were made for length and clarity.
MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN is an investigative journalist and student at Columbia University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org