Chasing Anarchists: May Day and the Federal Government's Use of Grand Juries as Political Counterintelligence

04/30/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2013

It's almost May 1st, otherwise known as May Day or International Workers Day. The genesis of May Day can be traced to labor struggles of the late 19th century in the United States, but today it's more widely celebrated in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is keenly interested in May Day-focused political demonstrations as if they represent a real threat to National Security in the U.S.

A year ago, on May Day 2012, a demonstration in Seattle, Washington resulted in a few broken windows at certain targeted corporations and other locations. As a result of these actions, which have become relatively commonplace at political demonstrations over the past decade, local law enforcement arrested and began criminally prosecuting five people accused of property destruction and other crimes. Ironically and perhaps symbolically, the trials in these State cases are scheduled to occur just after this May Day 2013.

But, that's not the whole story.

Last July 25th, in the early morning hours, the FBI conducted a series of coordinated actions across the Pacific Northwest, during which dozens of Joint Terrorism Task Force agents broke down doors, entered residences with automatic weapons drawn, and used flash-bang grenades while searching the homes of several targeted individuals and serving subpoenas on others.

According to one of the search warrants used in the raids, the federal government was looking for "Anti-government or anarchist literature," black clothing, flags, flag-making material, address books, cell phones, hard drives and other electronic storage devices. Multiple people were served with subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury the following week in Seattle.

Although initially unclear, the federal government's motivations soon became clear. Ostensibly tied to criminal investigations surrounding the May Day 2012 demonstrations, the series of raids and grand jury subpoenas would frame an effort by the FBI over the ensuing months to find out more about the anarchist community. Official records, however, also revealed that political activists endured heavy surveillance in the days leading up to May Day 2012.

Indeed, political-based surveillance and infiltration has become a renewed and common policing practice over the past decade at protests in the U.S. The anarchist-inspired Global Justice movement, which formed in the late 1990s, culminated with massive protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. Images of Black Bloc anarchists breaking the windows of banks and corporate chain stores in 1999 gave the federal government a modern day "bogeyman," which it has strategically used to antagonize and intimidate activists of all political persuasions ever since.

By constantly invoking the specter of "violent anarchists," and "outside agitators," law enforcement and other public officials hope to intimidate those demanding broad-based social change. Negative perceptions of anarchists and anarchism are not only generated by government and unquestioningly perpetuated by mainstream media, but they are also routinely used to drive a wedge between dissidents and an otherwise supportive public. The manufactured fear of anarchist bogeymen is conveniently used to justify the tens of billions of dollars spent on so-called "homeland security."

According to a recent report by the National Lawyers Guild, the "violent anarchist" narrative is used by authorities prior to almost every large political demonstration in order to justify "enormous security expenditures, large numbers of police, and strict event zone ordinances." The Guild further asserts that this strategy "produces a 'threat amplification' spiral that consistently leads to sweeping police repression," which is "the desired outcome of a multi-pronged strategy of maintaining control over the populace."

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So, why is the cash-strapped U.S. Justice Department so interested in a few broken windows? According to the affidavit used to obtain search warrants in the coordinated July raids, the pretext used by U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan was to find and prosecute the people who vandalized the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse in downtown Seattle. But, why didn't the State of Washington bring charges against the accused like it did with the five people currently being prosecuted? Many activists believe that Durkan and the rest of the Justice Department are eager to learn more about anarchists, disrupt their communities, and deter activists from confrontational political protest.

The search warrant affidavit, which was hidden from public view until earlier this year when The Stranger and attorney Neil Fox got the court to unseal it, contained some clues. In order to get a federal judge to sign the search warrant, the government claimed the raids would yield "evidence, instrumentalities, or fruits of violations of the following offenses:"

Destruction of government property, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361; Conspiracy to destroy government property, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; Interstate travel with intent to riot, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2101; and Conspiracy to travel interstate with intent to riot, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371.

While the federal government could convene a grand jury based on any of the above charges, it's the last two that stand out as a particularly aggressive legal move. Crossing state lines with the intent to riot and conspiracy to do the same are felonies contained in a little known provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 -- passed in response to inner-city riots throughout the previous decade. Although not explicitly protesting racial inequality, the Chicago 8 defendants were accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and were the first to be indicted under the Act. Have we progressed so little that we're using the same sensationalized charges 45 years later in an attempt to undermine yet another political movement?

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Last summer, in the Pacific Northwest, anarchists and other activists quickly came together after the July raids to organize a response to the grand jury subpoenas. A group calling itself the Committee Against Political Repression, which takes a principled stand against cooperation with politically motivated grand juries, began to stage demonstrations and offer direct material and legal support to those subpoenaed. Solidarity actions began happening across the country and around the world. As a result of widespread opposition to the government's apparent fishing expedition in the anarchist community, one-by-one people refused to testify and answer questions being asked by the federal prosecutor.

By the end of 2012, four of those subpoenaed had been jailed, not based on any criminal convictions, but for refusing to testify before the grand jury. Matt Duran, Katherine "KteeO" Olejnik, Leah-Lynn Plante, and Matthew "Maddy" Pfeiffer all made strong public statements against cooperation. Duran and Olejnik were the first to be jailed for civil contempt in September. Then, in October, Plante was jailed, but a week later released under an apparent agreement to testify. In late December, Pfeiffer joined Duran and Olejnik in jail, with the three spending several weeks in solitary confinement without explanation.

Under the rules of the U.S. justice system, one can be jailed for civil contempt if he or she refuses to testify before a grand jury after being granted so-called "use immunity," which can protect a subpoenant from being prosecuted for crimes related to the grand jury. However, this immunity may not protect the subpoenant from being prosecuted for other crimes such as perjury. Civil contempt must be imposed as a means of coercing not punishing one to testify. In order to achieve this end, the court can keep you jailed until the grand jury expires, up to 18 months.

Under some circumstances, a subpoenant can be released early if he or she can demonstrate that no amount of coercion will result in the desired testimony. This can be achieved with a "motion for release from non-coercive confinement," or "Grumbles" motion, named after the appellants in a 1971 court case.

In February, after spending five months in jail, Duran and Olejnik filed Grumbles motions, but not before the Seattle Human Rights Commission sent a scathing letter to federal District Court Judge Richard Jones, condemning the use of solitary confinement and calling for the prisoners' immediate release. According to The Stranger, attorneys for Duran and Olejnik argued that not only was their clients' detention punitive, but the government also appeared to no longer need their testimony, based on information revealed in the search warrant affidavit.

It's rare for Grumbles motions to succeed, given a government-leaning judicial system and the blurry line between coercion and punishment. Despite this, Judge Jones decided to free Duran and Olejnik days later with a strongly worded order. Judge Jones noted that during the detainees' time in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of the Federal Detention Center at SeaTac, "Their physical health has deteriorated sharply and their mental health has also suffered from the effects of solitary confinement." The Jones order echoed "extensive declarations" by Duran and Olejnik that "they will never end their confinement by testifying."

Shortly after Duran and Olejnik's release, the still-detained Pfeiffer was also set free. But freedom for the grand jury resisters has not resulted in an end to the federal government's campaign against the anarchist community. According to The Stranger, over the past week, FBI agents in Seattle and Olympia identifying themselves as members of the domestic terrorism unit have been "showing up at people's houses, jogging locations, schools, [and] workplaces," asking about "coworkers, roommates, romantic situations, and general social-mapping questions." Without a shred of evidence of terrorist activity or motivations, dissidents are left to assume that this continued harassment is at least partly aimed at chilling political protest on May Day 2013.

Although there remains a looming threat of federal indictments, dissidents are refusing to be intimidated. Activists of all stripes are busily organizing May Day activities and are continuing their efforts to draw attention to the federal grand jury in Seattle and to support those resisting its fishing expedition. Anarchists and other dissidents from around the country have organized a week of actions from April 24th-May 1st to oppose political repression and express solidarity with grand jury resisters.

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Unfettered speculation on the true motivations of the federal government to pursue political demonstrators is of limited and questionable utility, but the material consequences of such pursuits can be clearly tracked. The FBI's concerted campaign to drum up hysteria and justify the massive resources spent in chasing anarchists represents a law enforcement trend with loud echoes of McCarthyism, wherein FBI targets were identified by what books they read and with whom they kept company rather than on the basis of criminal acts. Harkening back to an era of blacklists and thought crime, the trend of using grand juries to target holders of unpopular political views represents a real move toward a dangerous and deeply troubling infringement on the civil liberties of all.

Although proportionally the federal government's targeting of largely white and young political radicals represents a smaller total number of terrorism-related investigations, the pattern of using grand juries as secret forums to ask activists what organizations they belong to, who they associate with and to scrutinize their political beliefs on the basis of "Americanism" closely parallels the hearings held by the House Subcommittee on Unamerican Activities. In this context, the activists in the Pacific Northwest who have vowed not to cooperate with politically motivated grand juries can be seen as canaries in the coal mine and the importance of their resistance to government intimidation cannot be overstated. Regardless of what one may think of the political philosophy, these government-identified anarchists merit widespread support and the gratitude of all who wish to exercise civil liberties so now in question