We’ve seen some pretty bold anti-authoritarian actions across the country in the last month. Police vehicles were vandalized in San Francisco, Oakland, Illinois and Milwaukee. Anarchist redecorators visited courthouses, police substations, sports car dealerships and more. Banners dropped in New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, Seattle and elsewhere echoed their graffitied sentiments: “Fuck Grand Juries”; “Solidarity with Northwest Anarchists.” Boldest of all, however (and the inspiration underpinning this spate), has been the action from a small group of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest: silence.
Two Portland-based activists, Leah-Lynn Plante and Dennison Williams, publicly announced late last month that they had been subpoenaed to appear in front of a federal grand jury in Seattle and that they would refuse to cooperate. During a grand jury hearing on August 2, Plante did just this – offering her name and birthdate only – and has been summoned to return for another hearing on August 30, where she again intends to say nothing. Meanwhile, it is believed a handful of other activists are fighting to quash subpoenas served to them with the shared intention of noncooperation.
Grand juries are among the blackest boxes in the federal judiciary system. Given their highly secretive nature, few people within – or outside – activist circles know what it means to be called to a grand jury and what it takes to resist.
“Our passion for freedom is stronger than their state prisons,” Williams announced in a statement on behalf of himself and Plante about their intention to resist the grand jury, referencing the fact that by merely staying silent, the two could face considerable jail time, despite facing no criminal charges.
The Seattle grand jury subpoenas were served in late July, when the FBI and a Joint Terrorist Task Force conducted a series of raids on activist homes and squats in Portland, Olympia and Seattle with warrants seeking out computers, phones, black clothing and “anarchist literature.” The FBI has stated only that the grand jury pertains to “violent crime,” but it is believed to relate to property damage in Seattle during this year’s May Day protests. The relatively small scale of the property destruction – a handful of spraypainted cars, slashed tires and smashed windows at a downtown Starbucks, Niketown, Wells Fargo and American Apparel store – in comparison to the cost of the police and FBI investigations points to the likelihood that the raids and grand juries have been widely dubbed a witch hunt, understood by commentators and activists alike as an attempt to intimidate, deter and undermine anarchists in the Northwest and beyond.
Will Potter, author of “Green is the New Red,” who has long covered the state persecution of environmental activists and anarchists, noted in a recent interview with The Dissenter, “I think what’s most indicative of what’s going on though is that specific call for agents to seize ‘anarchist literature’ as some kind of evidence of potential illegal activity.” He added that the convening of a grand jury is “especially troubling because grand juries have been used historically against social movements as tools of fishing expeditions, and they’re used to seek out information about people’s politics and their political associations.”
Ironically, however, the purported purpose of a federal grand jury is to act as “a safeguard to the accused from the improper motivations of government”- to protect the accused from prosecutorial overreach. A jury of between 16 and 23 civilians hears evidence from a given investigation brought by a prosecutor (the US attorney) in the form of documents, recordings and witnesses, and decides whether there are grounds to move forward with an indictment. However, the grand jury process has been long and regularly used as a form of political repression. According to Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyers Guild (the NLG is a group with a long history of advising grand jury resisters), “abuse of grand juries includes attempts to gather intelligence or information otherwise not easily obtained by the FBI.” As such, the grand jury process has been used to probe and intimidate activist groups of various stripes, from the Puerto Rican Independence Movement last century, to black liberationists, environmentalists and anarchists.
For the grand jury resisters themselves, the time during which a grand jury sits (typically 18 months) is a harrowing one. As the NLG’s Boghosian explained: “If someone receives a grand jury subpoena and decides not to cooperate, that person may be held in civil contempt. There is a chance that the individual may be jailed or imprisoned for the length of the grand jury in an effort to coerce the person to cooperate.”
“It’s actually lawful for the prosecution to hold an individual in order to coerce cooperation, but unlawful to hold the person as a form of punishment,” said Boghosian. “In addition to facing civil contempt, in some instances a non-cooperator may face criminal contempt charges.”
For example, in 2009, Utah-based animal rights activist Jordan Halliday spent jail time for civil contempt and was sentenced to 10 months in prison for criminal contempt for his effusive noncooperation with a grand jury. And many resisters who were not jailed nonetheless recount traumatic experiences.
“I thought I was doomed. I had nightmares, night sweats, turned heavily to drinking and drugs,” said a 23-year-old anarchist who refused to cooperate with a grand jury in 2009 in New York, which reportedly convened in regard to the placement of an incendiary device in a metropolitan area believed to be connected to anti-war activism. The young man, who requested to remain anonymous, remembers feeling “helpless,” believing that at any point, he could be put in jail for his political silence.
However, he equally recalls the comfort he felt in learning that support committees – people he did not even know – were forming and organizing solidarity actions for him. “People having each other’s back – it’s one thing we do have,” he said.
And indeed, statements and acts of solidarity with the Northwest resisters have been numerous and widespread. “Part of the purpose of grand juries seems to be to isolate people from a network of support, the support that puts them in a stronger place to resist,” said Kristian Williams, a member of the Committee Against Political Repression, which formed in support of the grand jury resisters.
“Solidarity actions and support also communicate to the state that people are paying attention to how the situation is being handled. Knowing that there is public opposition – not just a small group of friends outside a courtroom, but people all around the country – hopefully raises the political cost for the US attorney to continue this repression,” he added. Hundreds of people have already put in calls to the US attorney to express opposition to the treatment of Northwest anarchists, while over 350 organizations have signed on to a petition of opposition put out by the Committee Against Political Repression. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, banner drops, graffiti and other acts have been dedicated to the grand jury resisters in the past month. A national day of action has been called for August 30 to coincide with Plante’s second hearing.
For the New York-based resister, his act of political silence not only affirmed certain ideas about solidarity, but served as striking proof of personal resolve: “In a strange way, you show yourself something important when you resist a grand jury. The things you say, the things you believe, you find yourself actually acting upon them, even though you know it could cost you a chunk of your life.”
“It has a very powerful effect on yourself,” he said.
It is a sentiment seemingly understood by the anarchists in the Northwest as they begin their grand jury resistance ordeals. While inviting solidarity and support in their public statement, Plante and Dennison added, “You can show your solidarity by refusing to co-operate with any police force and encouraging your friends and families to do the same.”
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