How the FBI Manipulates Grand Juries to Intimidate Political Dissidents and Radicals

Published on Dissident Voice (first on AlterNet), by Anna Simonton, October 18, 2013.

From the narrow windows of New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, 24-year-old anarchist Jerry Koch can see the last place he stood as a free person. 

The federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street is a familiar setting where Koch spent much of his time over the past several years providing legal support to New York activists. During Occupy Wall Street, Koch gained a reputation as the go-to person for help contacting lawyers, raising bail, and organizing supporters to be there when someone had a hearing or was released. This, his supporters say, is why he now has a view of the courthouse from his cell in the federal prison across the street.

Koch’s partner, Amanda Clarke, will tell you that all prisoners are political prisoners. Koch, however, fits a more traditional definition of the term. He has not been charged with or convicted of any crime. Legally, his incarceration is not considered punishment, but rather “coercion.” He is being held in contempt of court for refusing to testify before a grand jury in what many believe is an effort by the FBI to intimidate other anarchists, and anyone else engaged in political dissent.

Grand juries have been a tool in the FBI’s arsenal of intimidation and information-gathering tactics for decades. They were a hallmark of the Red Scare, COINTELPRO, and more recently the Green Scare, in which animal rights activists and environmentalists have been branded “eco-terrorists” by law enforcement.

Over the past year grand juries have seen a resurgence as the FBI has cracked down on radical communities. Koch’s case was preceded by a high-profile grand jury in the Pacific Northwest, where four people from Washington and Oregon were imprisoned for refusing to testify.

Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red, a historical survey of the Green Scare, says there are parallels between these recent grand juries and past FBI interference in social movements. But these cases also mark what he views as a change in tactics on the part of law enforcement.

“When we’re seeing things like the grand juries in the Northwest, or Jerry’s case in New York, we have to remember that the FBI is giving training presentations to new agents identifying anarchists as ‘criminals in search of an ideology,’” Potter warns. “What we’re seeing is a criminalization of an entire belief system.”

Potter says that historically grand juries have indicted prominent figures such as Craig Rosebraugh, spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front. However, in recent years federal law enforcement agencies have targeted people who may not have direct affiliations to organizations under scrutiny, but are believed to be of the same political persuasion.

“It sends a message that everyone [with radical politics] is vulnerable, everyone’s at risk.”

Though Koch was known for his politically driven work, the circumstances of his case exemplify the type of intimidation tactic Potter describes … //

… Grand Juries: Your Constitutional Rights on Opposite Day: … //

… Unwanted Visitors: … //

… Gone Fishing:

  • Olejnik appeared before the grand jury in September 2012, and says the prosecutor asked her four questions about May Day: Was she there? Did she know anything about what happened? Was she in Seattle the week before or after? Had anyone discussed the May Day events with her? She answered no to all of these.
  • For the next 45 minutes, the prosecutor showed her pictures of people and asked for their names, who they were friends with, and their political affiliations. Each time, Olejnik responded, “I refuse to answer that question.”
  • “It got to the point where the grand jurors were laughing hysterically because the prosecutor just kept asking me basically the same question but with a different name, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna answer that.’”
  • When the prosecutor finally relinquished, Olejnik had 20 minutes before her contempt hearing. She had a lot of supporters at home, but had asked that only a few friends be present with her that day. She hung out with them in the courthouse, knowing that she would soon be going to prison.
  • She was under no illusion regarding the seriousness of her decision. Rather, she says, it was the hell she believed prison to be that motivated her refusal to cooperate. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did anything that put anyone into that position.”
  • Matt Duran’s experience as a resister was similar, though in his case the prosecutor gave up after about 10 minutes. “It wasn’t a light decision to make, but it was something I knew I had to do,” Duran says. “No one wants to go to prison. But I wasn’t going to roll over for the government and be a tool for them to prosecute somebody. That’s just not something that’s in me.”

The Cost of Resistance: … //

… Staying Silent, Staying Strong:

  • Not as much is known about Koch’s experience over the nearly four months he’s been in prison. It took two months for Amanda Clarke to get visitation rights so she’s only seen him a few times. She recently received a phone call very early in the morning. It was Koch, letting her know he was okay. The prison had been on lockdown for several days so calls in and out were not allowed.
  • Clarke, 23, is working full-time as a paralegal and struggling to keep enough money in Koch’s commissary account and pay rent for the apartment they moved into two weeks before he was taken away.

The Jerry Resists website recently posted a statement Koch wrote from inside:

  • “The federal grand jury that put me here is only the most recent facet of an assault on those who wish to be free of state surveillance and intimidation. This legal onslaught has already targeted and claimed the freedom of many anarchists, but we will keep fighting. I will keep fighting. My politics, principles and ethics stand in direct opposition with this legal tool that is used to further enable the government in its assault on anarchists, and I will not lend it any legitimacy, nor will I comply in any way.”
  • As the days slowly pass for Koch, ticking their way toward the 18-month mark, the FBI continues its reign of intimidation in New York City, knocking on doors, questioning and threatening. While its strategies have very real, devastating effects on people’s lives, it isn’t working entirely. It isn’t working to destabilize the radical communities; it isn’t working to dissuade activists from doing their work or turn them against one another in fear and suspicion.
  • Olejnik and Duran say their ordeal made their community show its strength. As soon as they were subpoenaed, people within activist circles, as well as from other networks in Olympia, rallied and have sustained an incredible level of support. Fundraisers covered their legal expenses and ensured they had money while they were in prison. Hundreds of letters of support helped them withstand the duress of prison life. They had friends ready to help when they were released. Olejnik’s employers ensured that her job would be there for her whenever she was ready to go back to work. Local therapists even offered free services.
  • Duran says this gives him hope that when the FBI shows up again, instead of withdrawing in fear, “It’s now possible that people will think, ‘Well [the grand jury resisters] got that much support, so if something happens to me, I will get that support too.’”
  • Like Duran and Olejnik, Clarke emphasizes that one of the most important things people can do is write letters to people in prison.
  • “I have come to believe that prison walls are not there solely to keep the people inside in, they’re there to keep the outside world out,” Clarke says. “They’re there to keep me and you and anyone who wants to support a prisoner as far away as they can keep them, to alienate people, to really isolate them. Every letter that people that write, no matter how short, counteracts that a little bit.”
  • Koch’s supporters hold regular letter-writing sessions and have toured cities across the US, giving presentations to raise awareness about Koch’s case as well as grand juries and FBI suppression in general.
  • There is also potential for resistance through official channels. In 2012, the Congressional Research Service authored a report encouraging lawmakers to hold hearings on the issue of the FBI treating political activism as a domestic terrorist threat. No hearings have taken place, but the report sets a precedent for people to pressure their representatives to follow through on its recommendations.
  • As more people become aware of the witch hunts grand juries enable, those who have been through the system hope that communities of all political persuasions will be empowered to push back. If Matt Duran, Katherine Olejnik and Jerry Koch could sacrifice so much, then everyone has it within themselves to try.

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