Muzzled Activist in an Age of Terror

On 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, 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

“They showed me a search
warrant, and I just glanced at it 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,” Austin recalled. “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.”

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.

Upon arriving in New York,
though, 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 were,
and they 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 it’s funny,
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, 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 to get their

“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 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.”

Austin 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 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.”

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.

Before the now well known Patriot
Act there was The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,
which was signed into law following the Oklahoma City bombing
that took place on August 19, 1995, prompted the worst assaults
on civil liberties the United States had seen in decades.

“Members of Congress immediately
felt tremendous pressure to pass antiterrorism legislation,”
write Georgetown law professor David Cole and James X. Dempsey
in Terrorism and the Constitution. “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
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.”

“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 US 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 US 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
upon civil liberties. Speaking of the legacy of these breaches
in the guarantee of civil liberties, Clinton himself admitted
to making “a number of ill-advised changes in our immigration
laws, having nothing to do with fighting terrorism.”

Fast-forward now to Sherman
Austin’s trying 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 misguidance 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 thanks to her son’s

“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.”

Most recently, in February
2004, Martin attempted to recover computer equipment seized by
the FBI when they raided Austin’s house on January 24, 2002.
Although those computers were later returned, the hard drives
containing Austin’s data had been removed. When Martin asked
for an explanation for the removal of Austin’s hard drives, FBI
Agent John I. Pi, who headed the Austin investigation, offered
her several contradictory explanations. Initially, Pi explained
that Austin’s data needed to be destroyed. At a later date, however,
he claimed that the data needed to be handed over to local prosecutors
for possible state charges. As of October 2004, questions concerning
the hard drives-including their location and whether they will
be returned-remain unanswered. Austin learned in early November
2004, however, that he would not face any state charges.

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 by Pi 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, and one that 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 e-mails to Austin, unsuccessfully attempted
to provoke him into writing self-incriminating replies.

“I get this e-mail 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 e-mail 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.”

Sadly, media outlets of both
mainstream and leftist persuasions continue to ignore Austin’s
case and its implications for the fate of civil liberties in
the United States. Despite increasing criticism of the USA Patriot
Act, few commentators from the left- including magazines like
The Nation and organizations like the ACLU, MoveOn-mentioned
Austin’s case or Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death
Penalty Act in any of their writings on recent civil liberties
infringements. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
a smaller-budgeted and more radical civil rights group, did offer
their services. But perhaps the collective ignorance concerning
Austin’s ordeal by mainstream liberal publications and organizations
stems from the fact that Democratic congressional leaders, including
Austin’s own California senator, penned and supported the very
legislation that helped seal Austin’s unfortunate fate.

“The statute that [Democratic]
Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored and wrote just goes to show
that this has been happening for a while,” says Sherman.

*For those interested in
helping or learning more about Sherman Austin’s ongoing case,
please visit

Joshua Frank is the author of the forthcoming book,
Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush
, to be released
in early 2005 by Common Courage Press. He can be reached at:

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a student at Columbia University
in New York. He hosts a radio show on WBAR NYC 87.9 FM,