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A community under attack—a community in resistance

 

It’s a dark, drizzly mid-October night in Olympia, Washington—the first rainy weekend since fall quarter started at Evergreen a few weeks ago. Outside of the Northern, an all ages venue near downtown, the water is puddling up underfoot. Dozens of people in raincoats with hoods pulled up against the misty rain stand around in little groups talking and smoking. The three celebrities of the night, however, are not here, though their pictures smile down from posters tacked on the walls of the venue and look up from the covers of zines on the tables of anarchist literature set up inside. Fifty miles to the north, they are spending another night in the federal detention center in Seatac, Washington.

An explosion of sound—drums, heavily distorted guitars, bass—wrenches the still night, washing over the low drone of conversation: a hardcore punk band starts kickin’ out the jams inside. People finish their cigarettes and drift in. If they’ve paid, they show an ink stamp on the back of their hands to the person taking money at the door; if they haven’t, they’re asked for “$7-$100,” as the flier puts it.

It could be any other punk show in Olympia, but there are too many people here with too much money for that to be true—and the night is alive with an unusual energy and an unnamable tension. Tonight’s show is the first “Grand Jury Resisters’ Solidarity Benefit,” and people have turned out in large numbers to show their support. Most have even brought money with them, which is not necessarily a requirement at a lot of Olympia shows.

This benefit show is the first coordinated collective action against the grand jury in Olympia; it is the first public display of collective solidarity since the radical community here woke up to trauma on the morning of July 25th.

At about 6 a.m. on that morning, dozens of FBI agents and units from the Joint Terrorism Task Force dressed in paramilitary gear raided three houses in Portland, Oregon looking for the homes of certain anarchists and political activists. According to witnesses quoted in The Oregonian, the SWAT teams used battering rams to break down doors before tossing in flash-bang grenades. No arrests were made, but the SWAT teams confiscated computers, phones, thumb drives, black clothing, and “anti-government and anarchist literature,” according to The Portland Mercury.

The same morning, subpoenas to appear before a special federal grand jury were served to at least four people in the Pacific Northwest: two in Portland and two in Olympia.

Austin Nolen, an Olympia anarchist, recalls the days immediately following the raids and initial subpoenas as a time of panic and paralyzing fear for the radical community in Olympia: “What I felt when I heard about it [the raids and subpoenas] was just kind of panic. For myself and for people I care about. There was no information.” Austin continued: “There was a generalized fear at that point because nobody knew whose house would be raided next, who would be subpoenaed next…people realized ‘this isn’t something that’s going to blow over.’”

Grand juries are not uncommon things; in fact, an investigation by a grand jury is required before anyone can be charged with a federal crime. So what is different about this grand jury? What is it investigating?

According to Beth Anne Steele, a spokesperson for the FBI, the raids on activist houses in Portland were part of an “ongoing violent crime” investigation. This is assumed to mean that the investigation is a response to the May Day 2012 demonstrations in Seattle, during which a black bloc of about 70 people smashed the windows of banks, attacked a federal courthouse, and laid waste to the plate-glass windows of Niketown, American Apparel, and other corporate stores downtown. The black bloc—which, in Seattle, was part of a larger “Anti-Capitalist March” through downtown—is a tactic during which people dress in all black and cover their faces to protect their identity. The idea is that anonymity creates a solidarity between people in the black bloc and allows people to take militant direct action for which they could face legal consequences. A search warrant served at a house raid in Portland authorized the seizure of items related to “Destruction of government property…Conspiracy to destroy government property…Interstate travel with intent to riot…and Conspiracy to travel interstate with intent to riot…” confirming that the raids were indeed focused on Seattle’s May Day demonstrations. (The warrant can be viewed at greenisthenewred.com in the blog entry titled “FBI Agents Raid Homes in Search of ‘Anarchist Literature’”).

To Brad Callings, an Olympia activist and an organizer of the solidarity benefit shows, the raids and subpoenas are actually part of something much more broad. For one thing, he said, this grand jury was impaneled in March, two months before May Day happened—a fact that was uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Eugene, Oregon based Civil Liberties Defense Center. “It’s an investigation of anarchist communities and networks,” he explained when we talked in the alley behind Le Voyeur in downtown Olympia during the second benefit show on October 20.

On July 26, the day after the house raids and initial subpoenas, a loosely knit group in the Pacific Northwest called the Committee Against Political Repression issued a statement that contested the FBI’s “violent crime investigation” argument (the statement has since been signed by 255 other organizations):

…the truth is that the federal authorities are conducting a political witch-hunt against anarchists and others working toward a more just, free, and equal society.  The warrants served specifically listed anarchist literature as evidence to be seized, pointing to the fact that the FBI and police are targeting this group of people because of their political ideas.

This understanding is widely held by anarchists and radical activists, including Austin Nolen who insisted that “even if they do have specific targets, which I’m sure they do, they’re also just looking to get a bunch of good information about who is friends with whom in the process.”

“I think in general the grand jury is investigating anarchists,” said Peter Bohmer, an activist of 45 years and a professor of political economy and economics at the Evergreen State College. “May Day just gave them the ‘legitimacy,’ the excuse, to subpoena a lot more people.” “I think one of the main purposes is to network the Left,” said Professor Bohmer.

This view is substantiated further by an October 18th SeattlePi article, which reported that a mistakenly unsealed court document proved that the “FBI tailed Portland Anarchists Headed to May Day Riot.”  The article concludes that “the FBI’s interest in several suspects predated the political vandalism that swept downtown Seattle.”

“The historical aspect is very important,” said Peter Bohmer during our conversation at Traditions Café in Olympia; “this use of grand juries to weaken, destroy, and gather information about political movements is nothing new.” He specifically cited the Puerto Rican independence movement, which was strong in the late 1970s and early ‘80s before suffering severe government repression, he said. Professor Bohmer also mentioned the Red Scare of the 1950s and the repression of the anti-Vietnam war movement as examples of times that grand juries have been used against political movements. This grand jury and FBI investigation in the Pacific Northwest, he said, must also be placed within the context of the ongoing use of the criminal justice system to repress black and Latino communities and, mostly in the post-9/11/2001 world, Arabs and Muslims. Professor Bohmer insisted that those resisting this investigation in the Pacific Northwest should connect with these other struggles to “unite with much larger numbers of people.”

The perceived use of the grand jury as a tool of political repression highlights one of its most important features: its extraordinary investigative powers. According to Advanced Criminal Procedure by Mark Cammack and Norman Garland (excerpted for a grand jury resistance zine posted to pugetsoundanarchists.org), “Grand juries serve both an investigatory function and a screening function….” The idea behind the screening function is that it prevents the government from hastily and unfairly charging some one with a serious crime. But “The investigatory powers of the grand jury are very broad … the grand jury defines its own inquiry, and can initiate an investigation on mere suspicion that the law is being violated…” (Cammack and Garland, 79-80).

Grand jury proceedings are secret, no judge is present—just the prosecutor and a 15-23 person jury, and those subpoenaed do not have the right to have an attorney present, though an attorney may wait outside to be consulted between questions.

Perhaps most important, however, a grand jury has the power to coerce testimony with the threat of imprisonment. Refusal to co-operate can result in a civil contempt charge (or in some cases a criminal contempt charge) and imprisonment, without trial, for the duration of the grand jury—up to 18 months with the possibility of an 18-month renewal. “There’s no winning when you’re subpoenaed by the grand jury,” said Brad Callings; “You can either betray your principles and friendships or you cannot, and go to prison. Everyone should pick the second option.”

And that brings us back to the people sitting in the federal detention center in Seatac on the night of the first Solidarity Benefit show. They are grand jury resistors. They were subpoenaed to answer questions, and all three refused to cooperate, knowing they faced imprisonment.

Matt Duran of Olympia, the first to be imprisoned, was taken into federal custody on September 13th after refusing to testify at the courthouse in Seattle. In a statement released the day before, Duran pledged to “do everything I can to resist this Grand Jury.” Salon magazine reported on October 19th that “it is believed he [Matt Duran] has been kept largely in solitary confinement” (“Grand Jury Resistor Leah-Lynn Released from Prison,” 10/19/2012).

Second was another Olympia activist, Katherine Olejnik—known around Olympia as “KteeO”—who was imprisoned on September 28th. In her statement of resistance, Olejnik wrote: “I cannot and will not say something that could greatly harm another person’s life, and providing information that could lead to long-term incarceration would be doing that.”

Most recently imprisoned was Portland anarchist Leah-Lynn Plante, who was taken into custody in early October and held in solitary confinement. In a statement of resistance, Plante wrote: “I believe these hearings are politically motivated. The government wants to use them to collect information that it can use in a campaign of repression. I refuse to have any part in it….” (On October 19th, the Committee Against Political Repression (CAPR) announced that Plante had been released from federal detention “after appearing before the grand jury investigating anarchists.” “We do not know what was said at the hearing,” the statement continued, but “CAPR is withdrawing support for Leah until we get information regarding her grand jury hearing.”)

These three resistors are the first to bear the full brunt of the grand jury’s powers, but it seems they will not be the last. On October 25th, the government delivered another subpoena, this time to Mathew “Maddy” Pfeiffer of Olympia, sending a renewed ripple of shock through the anarchist community here. In a statement released October 31st, Students for a Democratic Society at The Evergreen State College wrote that the “subpoena of Maddy, a current student and very recent SDS coordinator who is still an important presence in the Evergreen radical community, has struck SDS and the Evergreen campus very close to its heart.” The statement also emphasized the significance of the latest known subpoena: “The government has turned its most terrifying weapons on the radical community in Olympia and is zeroing in on Evergreen…. we are under attack….” Maddy, who goes by they/them pronouns, appeared before the grand jury on November 7th and refused to answer questions except their name and birth date. They received a second subpoena for December 14th. On that day, Maddy is expecting to be imprisoned alongside Matt Duran and KteeO Olejnik.

The last few months have been a scary time to be an anarchist in the Pacific Northwest. “Every time someone knocked on the door, every time I heard any sort of loud sound in my house, my heart sank and I thought ‘they’ve come for me,’” Leah-Lynn Plante wrote in an October 10th statement. “To the day of this writing, I haven’t slept a full night since that cold July morning….”

In this environment of fear and paranoia “People are hesitant to be openly identified with anarchism,” explained Austin Nolen, “because they see themselves as targets…. A lot of people are really afraid. It’s just things like people looking over their shoulder and not wanting to answer the door.”

But its not just anarchists who need to be worried, Austin said; “everybody needs to be afraid of this because people are being put in prison for refusing to tell what they believe and what their friends believe.” In their statement in support of Maddy Pfeiffer, Students for a Democratic Society wrote: “everyone at Evergreen knows radicals, activists, and anarchists, and so anyone could be chosen for the next subpoena, even if they do not consider themselves of interest to the FBI.”

Fear and paranoia are only the most obvious effects of the investigation. “I think maybe the biggest thing is the secrecy,” said Austin. There is no way of knowing how many subpoenas have been issued or how many people have cooperated, he explained. Professor Peter Bohmer was once indicted by a state grand jury. “Until I got indicted, I didn’t even know the grand jury existed,” he said. And this secrecy “does spread suspicion,” he continued; “it tends to make movements more cliquish….” It “causes divisions by really putting pressure on people to inform on each other,” he said.

Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more inspiring, than the shadow of dread and paranoia that this investigation has cast over the Olympia community is the enthusiastic and determined resistance with which the community has responded.

Olympia at large has shown a tremendous outpouring of support. “People just came out of the woodwork, asking to help any way they can,” said Brad Callings. The Solidarity Benefit shows, put on by the Committee Against Political Repression, have seen several high-profile Olympia bands volunteer their time and energy; several hundred supporters have turned out, and the shows have raised over $2500 for the imprisoned resisters. According to Brad Callings, the money goes directly to the resistors to help them pay rent, bills, legal support, and “commissary”—the money they spend in prison. Matt Duran, for example, needs money to buy the foods necessary to maintain a healthy vegan diet. Basically, the funds are “material support, so the grand jury doesn’t fuck up the resistors’ financial lives,” Brad said.

Anarchists, those who consider themselves targets or potential targets, have responded with a steely determination not to let fear stop them from building a vibrant resistance. “There has been a remarkable unity,” said Austin Nolen; “I think certainly compared to last year there’s been a lot more anarchist activity. And activism is still building.”

When I arrive at Sylvester Park around 3:45 on October 27, thirty or forty people, mostly dressed in black or in witch costumes, are already congregated. They huddle under the gazebo in the middle of the park, having hopped the padlocked gate to escape the rain. I join them in there, back up against the metal railing on the edge of the circle, and look around. People’s eyes dart around the circle, looking for new faces; the paranoia and distrust is tangible. No one wants to be unwelcoming to newcomers, but, well, the presence of an informant is a very real possibility, at the front of everyone’s mind—and it has a history in Olympia. And it’s only two days since agents knocked on Maddy Pfeiffer’s door; the FBI’s in town, as some one put it. Two students have come down to document and photograph the action, but luckily they grasp the tension and promise not to take peoples’ pictures without consent.

The action carries on. Maddy reads their statement: “I will never cooperate with this or any attempt to stop struggle,” they declare; “if the federal government chooses to imprison me for my refusal, then so be it. I expect no less from them.”

Next, two girls dressed as witches and a guy in black robes and a mask, launch into a skit mocking the grand jury. The two witches are brought before the “Grand Inquisitor” who demands that they answer questions about their political beliefs and their friends. The two witches respond in unified refusal: “We will not forget: when we abandon our friends we’re next!” The Grand Inquisitor silences them and booms out another prying question. Again, the witches respond together, coaxing the crowd to join in: “Prison for one is prison for all! United we stand, divided we fall! … Prison for one is prison for all! United we stand, divided we fall!”

And the march begins, as organizers scramble about distributing black armbands painted with a white heart with the letter A inside—for anarchy “… Prison for one is prison for all! United we stand, divided we fall!..” A black flag—the anarchist flag—unfurls in the wind of motion and stands out sharp against the gray sky…“Prison for one is prison for all! United we stand, divided we fall!” Banners are unrolled, displaying slogans like “Grand Juries are witch hunts” and “Solidarity with Grand Jury Resistors!”

The march leaves the park and takes to the streets, ignoring stoplights and stopping traffic. It’s the second street action against the grand jury in Olympia; the other march took off after the first Solidarity Benefit, drawing moderate support from people at the show, with yells of “Out of the punk show into the streets!” From there, the march converged on the artesian well in downtown where it gathered a critical mass and took to 4th Avenue—Olympia’s main drag—blocking traffic (some questioning the effectiveness of this tactic) and shouting anti-police and anti-grand jury slogans.

People are more prepared for today’s march, however. This time, there are banners and rain soaked handbills to explain what’s happening to people who, shaken by the shouting in the street, gather on the sidewalks to watch. The group moves around the block and, again, onto 4th Avenue, bringing the busiest part of downtown to a momentary standstill. Eventually, the march leaves the streets to gather at the artesian well. After a quick debrief and final display of unity, participants roll up banners and flags and disperse back into the gray day.

The powers carrying out the investigation “want to isolate people who are under attack from other activists and make people afraid to act in general,” said Professor Bohmer. As much as anything else, these gatherings and marches are the defiant declaration that they will not succeed.

Joseph Bullington, originally from the great state of Montana, is a journalism student at The Evergreen State College.

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