The state of Illinois’s domestic terrorism statute, just one example of scores of state level terrorism laws passed in the aftermath of 9/11, may fail its first challenge in Illinois if the details emerging in the ongoing trial of Brian Church, Brent Betterly and Jared Chase, the so-called NATO 3, continue to paint a picture that falls far short of the state’s alleged terrorism charges.
As the trial of the NATO 3 moves into its second week, the facts being presented seem to strain the Cook County prosecutor’s case, which alleges the three young defendants plotted attacks on high-profile targets, including President Obama’s campaign headquarters and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house, during the May 2012 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit.
Defense Opens Trial With Strong Case
The trial began with testimony from Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer Nadia Chikko before Cook County Judge Thaddeus Wilson. Later in the week, another officer, Mohmet Uygun, took the stand. Known to the Occupy Chicago community as “Gloves” and “Mo,” the two officers represent a critical component of the NATO 3 case: They went undercover during the two months prior to the NATO summit to conduct surveillance on Church, Betterly and Chase, obtaining some of the audio-recorded evidence presented in court. Defense attorneys are expected to argue the NATO 3 are victims of police entrapment, insisting that the undercover officers, posing as activists, persuaded the men to discuss carrying out attacks and allow or participate in the assembly of Molotov cocktails at the apartment they were staying in.
Defense attorneys have emphasized the CPD intelligence unit’s spying operation in the run-up to the 2012 NATO summit, in which police infiltrated organizing meetings, activist events and listened in on conversations at popular hubs for Occupy activists, such as Chicago’s Heartland Café, in search of potential “violent anarchists.” The undercover officers also took photographs of license plates to check for outstanding warrants on the individuals attending these public meetings or events. Testimony this week has also revealed that the police offered the defendants beer, including Church, who was underage at the time. Chikko has testified she wasn’t specifically targeting anarchists, but listened in for suggestions of “planned criminal activity.”
Prosecutors filed a motion asking Judge Wilson to instruct the jury to ignore details related to the CPD’s conduct and how it handled the First Amendment investigation. But Judge Wilson decided not to issue the instruction, despite the prosecutor’s insistence that damage had been done to their argument.
Later in the week, prosecutors presented Facebook messages sent from the defendants in April and May of 2012, but the messages don’t seem to connect the defendants with the alleged crimes. While the defendants, in the messages, apparently anticipated a riot and tens of thousands of protesters to descend upon the summit, there is no indication of the defendants targeting police, making Molotovs or planning a violent action.
At this point in the trial, the prosecution is losing at its own game, according to Jude Ortiz, an organizer with the NATO 3 Defense Committee who has been attending the trial in Chicago.
“Right now, all [the prosecution’s] evidence and testimony has clearly shown that the NATO 3 were targeted for their politics and their political associations and activities, and has also shown the undercover police officers really went around trying to find these things that might be criminal activity,” Ortiz told Truthout, adding that beyond their targeting of the NATO 3, the officers sought out “violent anarchists” at places like cafés and punk shows. “The minute the police described their investigation, they clearly showed that it was a witch hunt for activists.”
The NATO 3 Defense Committee is raising funds for and personally supporting the defendants. Ortiz told Truthout the defendants seem to be holding up well at the Cook County jail, considering the stress of the ongoing trial, and are grateful for the outpouring of solidarity they have received.
The three defendants — Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Chase of Keene, New Hampshire; and Betterly of Massachusetts — traveled to Chicago for the NATO demonstrations. They were first arrested May 16, 2012, in a late night raid on an apartment in the Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The raid initially swept up 11 people, including the two undercover officers. The NATO 3 are alleged to have been caught making the Molotov cocktails in the presence of the undercover cops.
When the raid was originally reported in May 2012, the National Lawyers Guild stated the nine activists in the Bridgeport apartment possessed only home beer-making equipment, but the NATO 3 were later charged with making Molotovs. Michael Deutsch, Church’s defense attorney, then accused the CPD of planting evidence at the apartment, and activists accused the CPD of confusing the beer-making equipment with Molotovs.
Prosecutors have since revealed that Uygun accompanied Chase to a nearby gas station to purchase the gasoline allegedly used in the Molotovs. Defense attorneys no longer dispute the defendants had incendiary devices.
Still, it remains unclear who, exactly, purchased the gasoline, and whether the defendants would have pursued this course of action without the influence of the undercover officers.
The gasoline alleged to have been found in four beer bottles in the defendant’s apartment was never measured by police and was apparently poured into the toilet by a bomb and arson technician. This was done even though the bottles were clearly marked as evidence.
The initial Bridgeport apartment raid recovered a cache of weapons, including a mortar made from PVC piping, a crossbow, knives, throwing stars, an assault vest and the Molotovs. But at least one of the defendants, Church, indicated to undercover office Chikko that he wasn’t planning on using the weapons during the protests, telling her that he didn’t believe in “preemptive strikes.”
The fact that the federal government is not prosecuting the case against the NATO 3 has even led Judge Wilson to ask why the government won’t take up the case, suggesting there could be something inherently wrong about it. Judge Wilson ruled Illinois’s terrorism statute as constitutional on its face in March of 2013, two months after defense attorneys filed a memorandum arguing the statute violates the First Amendment.
Major Chicago media sources have also begun to express doubt about the prosecution’s argument in the NATO 3 case, with skeptical articles in publications like the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times pointing to police tactics as the most significant revelation in the case.
Why Is Illinois Determined to Prosecute?
A thick cloud of militarization hung over Chicago in the months leading up to the NATO summit. The summit was classified as a National Special Security Event, giving the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency sweeping control over decisions relating to security, intelligence gathering and recovery after criminal events. The federal government set up a militarized “red zone” in downtown Chicago to guard federal buildings there. During the summit itself, the city of Chicago mobilized thousands of CPD officers in riot gear and equipped with billy clubs, batons, pepper spray, machine guns, snarling dogs, whirring helicopters and sound cannons in tow.
But some of the most insidious impacts of this militarization took effect long before the event.
In the months leading up to the NATO summit, the Chicago City Council passed a series of regulations known as the “sit-down-and-shut-up” ordinances, which included steep fines for violations of parade permits and a $1 million price tag on liability insurance for marches in the downtown area.
The ordinances and use of undercover officers seemed to be part of a larger strategy to quell dissent from within activist groups while maintaining the appearance of using softer police tactics to control protesters. With the police riot of the 1968 Democratic National Convention lingering in Chicago’s memory, it seems clear that the CPD, Chicago aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to ensure there would not be a repeat of the public clashes between police and protesters that took place during that convention.
Defense attorneys argued this week that the NATO 3 should never have been charged with terrorism, saying the charges were a political move by those wanting to justify the millions spent on security during the summit.
The State Attorney’s Office did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.
Antiwar Protesters as Terrorists
The NATO 3 are not the first antiwar protesters in Chicago to be raided and charged as terrorists. In September 2010, the house of Joe Iosbaker and his wife, Stephanie Weiner, was raided by 20 FBI agents who meticulously went through every inch of their home. It was among the seven residences in Chicago and Minneapolis raided in connection with activists’ antiwar and international solidarity activism. The couple was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury on material support for a foreign terrorist organization.
The federal investigation that Iosbaker is still under began with an antiwar protest very similar to the NATO summit. Arguably the biggest antiwar protest in recent years prior to the summit comprised the demonstrations that took place at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Minnesota. That’s when Iosbaker’s group of activists were first infiltrated by undercover officers, who then built a case against the group, claiming they were providing support to two organizations: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“What [the NATO 3 case and my case] have in common is ever since the war on terror began, the prosecutorial wing of the Justice Department and the judicial wing of the Justice Department have not argued very much. When prosecutors have waved the bloody shirt of terrorism, judges all too often allow that,” Iosbaker told Truthout. He was heavily involved in the planning of many NATO protests. “I hope that judge in Chicago has some independence of mind.”
Iosbaker said that none of the state level terror charges on activists involved in the RNC protests in St. Paul stuck, and he expressed hope that the Illinois terror charges also could be defeated.
But if the NATO 3 are found guilty of terrorism, what kind of precedent will it set for grassroots activists in the future?
“The conspiracy and domestic terrorism charges the NATO 3 are facing are by no means unique to the defendants and have been used increasingly at both the federal and state level since 9/11,” said Ortiz. “If the NATO 3 were to be convicted, it would be yet another victory on the part of the government in labeling activists as terrorists and labeling anybody who they feel to be a threat to the dominant social order as terrorists in order to put them away for many, many years, if not decades.”