Jeremy Hammond has spent two birthdays in captivity now since his conviction, but his friends have promised to celebrate each one. As with many political prisoners, his supporters send him cards, but they’ve also invented a new tradition: turning his birthday party into political protest against his enemies.
Hammond was sentenced to a decade’s imprisonment in November 2013 for his part in the hack of Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based private intelligence agency. As part of LulzSec, an infamous collective from the Anonymous movement, Hammond liberated 5 million emails and the credit card numbers of Stratfor’s clients, which included government and military officials. The emails became part of a searchable archive on Wikileaks called the Global Intelligence files, while Anonymous used some of the credit card numbers to charge donations to charity.
An Inspiring Correspondence
Activist Azzurra Crispino is one of many people who have struck up a prison correspondence with Hammond, inspired by his support of the Occupy movement. After police removed Occupy Austin from the steps of City Hall, she began writing some of the thousands who’d been arrested during the wave of camp “evictions” in early 2012.
She’d reached out to a New York activist, Mark Adams, after his hunger strike on Rikers Island.
“On Twitter, after he got out, I said hey, I’m really new to doing prisoner support; do you have any suggestions?” Crispino told Truthout at an Austin cafe. “He said ‘Yes, keep writing, and write to Jeremy Hammond.’ At this point, in June, it will be three years that we’ve been corresponding.”
It was in one of these letters that she promised to celebrate his birthday in front of Stratfor every year until he got out – plus one more year, so he could join the celebration in person. At these rallies, activists share cake and raise awareness for local residents often ignorant about Stratfor’s presence and actions. Crispino’s correspondence with Hammond and others also inspired her to create Prisoner Abolition and Prisoner Support (PAPS), a collective offering mutual aid to imprisoned activists.
“When you first start writing to prisoners, you have this idea that you’re on the outside; you have all the privilege, that you’re performing for a charity by writing to these folks,” she said. “Quickly you begin to realize that no, as a matter of fact, it is a two-way correspondence; it is mutual aid. Jeremy’s got easily a decade of street activism experience, and he has a lot to say about what’s good and bad about organizing, ways to be more effective, and he’s someone who will absolutely call you out on your shit.”
Although she had been immersed in Occupy and its emphasis on inequality and class war, Crispino recounted how Hammond’s letters gave her an important new perspective on prisons.
“In the very first letter letter I got from him – I’d said something about how we are the 99%, and he came back and said no, you’re the 98 percent,” she remembered.
While the typical slogan of Occupy Wall Street divides the population between the working class and the richest 1%, nearly a whole percentage point of the American population is incarcerated, according to Department of Justice statistics.
For Hammond, “There needs to be an acknowledgment that there is a subset of the population that is hidden and forgotten,” Crispino explained.
Hammond’s message of prison abolition is closely aligned to his previous work as an anti-racist activist. A disproportionate number of America’s incarcerated 1 percent are black (40 percent of the prison population) and Latino (20 percent), an effect that can only be credited to systemic racism since studies consistently show that people of color do not commit more or worse crimes than whites.
A Risky Message of Abolition
It’s not unusual for an activist-turned-political prisoner to emerge with a renewed passion for fixing the prison system – two members of Pussy Riot even started a prison reform charity. Hammond, however, is dedicated to total prison abolition and to expressing those views, even though his words are read by censors who can and will punish him for his views.
Truthout spoke with Grace North, director of the Jeremy Hammond Defense Committee. North, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, told us about how prison officials have reacted to Hammond’s abolitionist viewpoint.
“Officials can’t specifically say, ‘You can’t talk about it,’ because that’s obviously against the law,” they told us. “What prison officials do is very sneakily push back in other ways.”
North said Hammond was recently forced to cut back on his public statements because he feared that officials at FCI Manchester (a medium-security federal prison for male inmates in Kentucky) would transfer him to another, worse prison, a practice known as “dumping” or “diesel therapy.” Another political prisoner, John Kiriakou, the CIA torture whistleblower, received similar threats while incarcerated.
“There are a lot of things the prison can do to make his life miserable,” emphasized North.
They fear that Hammond will be transferred to a solitary confinement unit, another punishment inflicted on prisoners, like Walter Bond or Daniel McGowan, who continue to speak out against the system while incarcerated.
Though North said Hammond’s critique of the prison industrial complex did not begin with his incarceration, it inspired his current dedication to abolition.
“No one can understand more about why prisons need to be abolished than someone who’s actually been there,” they said.
Azzurra Crispino explained that his views – and his history of hacktivism – may be preventing Hammond from getting as much media exposure as other whistleblowers.
“We sometimes gloss over the fact that Hammond had already done two years in a federal prison for hacking Protest Warriors before he decided to go back and start hacking again,” she said.
During the Iraq War, Protest Warriors used its website to coordinate disruption of antiwar protests, often through aggressive counter-protesting or infiltration of peace groups. In December 2006, a court sentenced Hammond to two years in a federal prison for exposing internal files and credit card numbers of Protest Warrior members and damaging their web server. The group never fully recovered from the attack.
“Jeremy’s point is not that, ‘I’m a nonviolent offender; what I did isn’t that wrong so I shouldn’t be in prison.’ His point is that no one should be in prison,” Crispino told Truthout. “Prison is unacceptable social control and one of the most cruel atrocities that humanity wages upon each other.”
Jeremy Hammond: Prison Abolition in His Own Words
At his sentencing, Hammond read a lengthy statement about the source of his beliefs and what inspires him to action.
“While in prison I have seen for myself the ugly reality of how the criminal justice system destroys the lives of the millions of people held captive behind bars,” he said. “The experience solidified my opposition to repressive forms of power and the importance of standing up for what you believe.”
He continued: “I thought long and hard about choosing this path again. I had to ask myself, ‘If Chelsea Manning fell into the abysmal nightmare of prison fighting for the truth, could I in good conscience do any less, if I was able?’ I thought the best way to demonstrate solidarity was to continue the work of exposing and confronting corruption.”
Truthout asked Crispino to share selections from Jeremy Hammond’s letters that reflect his support for prison abolition. She quoted from one letter, where Hammond envisions a post-revolutionary society.
“I don’t have any answers what it’ll take to win this thing … or whether it will be a utopia or an ongoing process,” Hammond wrote. “An ongoing question is how we will deal with abuse or conflict without police or prisons. I believe economic inequality is the root cause of ‘crime’ + so overthrowing capitalism + the state will solve most problems anyway.”
In another letter, he gives a description of the American police state that’s brutally succinct and clear.
Besides routinely crushing us + mass arresting protesters, the everyday operation of “law and order” perpetuates a racist and dehumanizing prison system in which we are warehoused like slaves so prison profiteers + corporations that use prison labor can make mad cash, there is no hope of a “nicer” or “more benevolent” prison system – we don’t want reform – we don’t want longer leashes or bigger cages – abolition in its entirety is necessary.
Jeremy Hammond’s Call to Action
PAPS recently celebrated what Azzurra Crispino called, “the three-year anniversary of Jeremy being abducted by the state” in March, with a barbecue to mark the date he’d been arrested for the hack. Using a small downtown plaza across the street from Strategic Forecasting, the group roasted an entire pig in a wooden roasting box under hot coals for hours, resisting multiple visits from police, until finally forced to pack up their gear by city code enforcement authorities.
“Originally the plan was to roast a pig in front of Stratfor and then march with it to APD (Austin Police Department) headquarters, to physically represent the link between the global intelligence state and global law enforcement,” she explained.
PAPS named the pig Sabu, after the FBI’s LulzSec informant.
Crispino chose the date not just to coincide with the increased foot traffic from Austin’s massive SXSW festival, but also because she wanted to highlight a precarious time for any prisoner. The longer a person is incarcerated, the more likely they will lose touch with family and friends, she said, and prison correspondence often dries up as years pass.
“There’s a very real concern that when the next hacker is caught, when there’s the next big name, Jeremy will be forgotten,” Crispino added. “That would be really detrimental to him, not the political prisoner, but the person who is sitting inside that cell.”
She told Truthout she hoped actions like the pig roast would recruit more people to write to Jeremy Hammond and support all prisoners. His website features a prisoner solidarity page that states, “To anyone incarcerated, a letter of support or just a friendly greeting can make a great difference.” Here, Hammond has highlighted often-overlooked prisoners, like Alvaro Luna Hernandez and Michael “Little B” Lewis, whom he continues to support during his sentence.
For Azzurra Crispino and Grace North, Hammond’s hacktivism gave them a deeper understanding of the importance of acting against a repressive state, despite the dangers.
“I have a 6-year old son. I’m very aware that the line that I tread with the government, with the people I work with on Jeremy’s behalf – I work with Wikileaks, I work with Courage Foundation – it puts a giant bull’s-eye on me,” North said. “But I want to show my son that you can’t be afraid. There will always be risk in things you do. They can take your freedom, but your honor, they can’t take that.”
Like Crispino, North emphasized Hammond’s history of anti-racist direct action and intersectional activism.
North concluded, “We can’t free one group on the backs of another group. He understands that all our struggles are connected. I want to leave a better world for my son, and Jeremy wants to leave a better world for everybody.”