THE JOYS OF JUXTAPOSITION
Its been a while since I’ve last posted; I’d lost the will to bother with this site for a while. This may have something to do with the apparent apathy I seem to sense in the U.S. populace, at least in the people I come into contact with, and the society around me as perceived through the psychotropic prism of the corporate media. The apathy to which I refer, of course, is pertaining to the state of affairs in the U.S., primarily regarding on the ‘war’ in Iraq, the ‘war on terror,’ and the domestic political climate in which these events exist.
This apathy is quite dangerous, as I see it. I’ll give you an example. Read the story below, for starters:
“The events reported in the statement below are deeply troubling. Sherman Austin appears to be the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I hope that this matter is pursued quickly, fairly, and justly.” Noam Chomsky
We, the undersigned, are united in our opposition to the selective prosecution and imprisonment of Sherman Austin, a twenty year-old African American webmaster and activist. Sherman’s sentencing sets a dangerous precedent for the future of our right to express dissent and marks a troubling escalation in the criminalization of critical thinking and the erosion of the very civil liberties and rights our society purports to value.
On September 3, 2003 Sherman Austin surrendered himself to begin a one-year term in federal prison for the contents of a website that was authored by another boy and linked to Sherman’s site, http://www.raisethefist.com, on a free-hosting area Sherman provided there. The other boy’s site included a direct link to the “Reclaim Guide,” a manual that provides crude instructions on how to build explosives. While this boy has not been charged with any crime, Sherman, who had no part in writing or posting any of the offending material, was prosecuted under a 1997 law sponsored by Dianne Feinstein that makes it illegal to distribute information related to explosives with the intent to use that information in a “federal crime of violence.”
Numerous websites feature bomb-making instructions, and while such information is easily accessed via the internet and online bookstores such as amazon.com, Sherman, who has no history of violence and who did not write the “Reclaim Guide,” is the first person to be charged under this law. The key element in the case against Sherman hinged on the question of “intent.” Because Sherman’s site is critical of U.S. government policy, police brutality, globalization, and racism, the prosecution and judge maintained that his politics provided grounds for proving intent.
Senator Feinstein, in a press release issued the day Sherman entered prison, expressed “dismay” that prosecutors had not pursued the “bombmaking” law “aggressively” enough as a “tool in fighting terrorism.” We ask, why is it that a nonviolent twenty year-old, someone whom the California Department of Corrections Senior Staff Psychologist determined “does not represent a risk to society whatsoever” and described as “a very, very peaceful, mild-mannered” person, has been sentenced under this law while others who present clear and identifiable threats, such as certain white supremacist and anti-choice organizations, have been permitted to distribute bombmaking information and make direct threats on individuals, clinics, and groups? We contend that the selective prosecution of Sherman Austin had everything to do with his race, his politics, his effectiveness as an internet activist, and his mother’s lack of financial resources to mount an aggressive legal defense. We find it significant and telling that the actual author of the site directly linked to the “Reclaim Guide” is the son of affluent and conservative white parents.
We also question the validity of Sherman’s plea itself. Sherman, who was eighteen years-old when this case began, was told a “terrorism enhancement” would be applied to his case if he went to trial. This meant that he could have been subjected to an additional 20 years in prison if found guilty. We challenge the notion that a plea made under such circumstances could be truly voluntary. Sherman accepted two plea bargain agreements, one of which the judge rejected, sentencing Sherman to a term longer than what the prosecution suggested.
As is evident in the court transcripts, the decisions of U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson were neither fair nor impartial. He stated that he hoped Sherman’s case would serve as a deterrent to other activists and “revolutionaries” and that he wanted to “send a message” by subjecting Sherman to a harsher sentence. As activists, educators, artists, and concerned individuals, we stand together to send a message back to Judge Wilson. We will not be silenced or deterred.
Many of us have published, recorded, performed, or presented work that is critical of U.S. foreign policy, domestic examples of social injustice, and the effects of globalization. Some of us have made statements that could provide even more compelling grounds for applying the standard of “intent” invoked in Sherman’s case had we offered free-hosting website space that the author of the “Reclaim Guide” could have used. Because Sherman is now serving time in federal prison for having expressed opinions not unlike our own, we feel compelled to speak out lest we be next.
Two days after entering prison, Sherman was moved into isolation because of death threats made by white supremacist groups. Thanks to numerous calls, faxes, and letters sent to prison officials, Sherman has now been transferred, but his safety in prison remains a concern. In the words of the Department of Corrections Psychologist, Sherman “is likely to become a victim by virtue of his youth, slight build and naiveté. He is totally unprepared to defend himself in such a setting. He is more likely to become brutalized by the experience than to learn from it.”
We support the efforts underway to challenge the terms of Sherman’s plea and probation, and we demand that prison and government officials ensure the safety of Sherman Austin while he remains in custody.
Now, read the following article, which I believe provides an interesting counterpoint:
MILITIA MEMBER ‘FILLED WITH RAGE,’ PLOTTED AMBUSH
Friday, October 17, 2003
By Ed White
The Grand Rapids Press
It was a rural arsenal fit for war.
After the peaceful arrest of a Cadillac-area man, authorities who searched his 40-acre compound discovered a stunning collection of firepower, including an anti-aircraft gun capable of firing 550 rounds per minute up to four miles away.
A van and a Jeep Cherokee, described by the suspect as his “war wagons,” had machine guns inside, with one “locked, loaded and ready to go,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lloyd Meyer said.
Agents found an underground bunker, thousands of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of pounds of gunpowder and manuals on guerrilla warfare, “booby traps” and explosives.
There were chilling pictures of President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the cross-hairs of a high-
see MILITIA, A4
powered rifle scope drawn over them, Meyer said.
Norman Somerville, 43, was arrested last week on federal gun and drug charges as he shopped at Home Depot in Cadillac. Authorities then spent the weekend combing his property in Wexford County’s Antioch Township, about 20 miles northwest of Cadillac.
Details of the search were disclosed in a court document filed Thursday in federal court in Grand Rapids, four days before a judge will decide whether Somerville should remain in jail while his case is pending.
Somerville was “filled with rage and intended to ambush people, mowing them down in a hail of machine-gun bullets,” Meyer said, quoting informants. He belongs to a “self-styled radical militia unit” whose members are upset over the death of Scott Woodring, the prosecutor said.
Woodring was the Newaygo County man fatally shot by state police during the summer, days after a trooper died while trying to serve him with an arrest warrant.
State police were told in September that Somerville wanted to cause a car accident, then “ambush and kill” any responding officers with a machine gun mounted in his Jeep, Meyer wrote in the court document.
An unidentified source, described as one of Somerville’s “trusted associates,” feared he had become “mentally unbalanced and would kill an innocent person or be killed,” Meyer said.
Somerville may face additional charges linked to the search of his property, although Meyer declined to elaborate.
Two years ago, Somerville moved to Wexford County from elsewhere in northern Michigan. He served in the Army from 1978 to 1984 and was trained as an intelligence analyst assigned to the elite Special Forces.
During a brief court appearance last week in Grand Rapids, Somerville said: “The people will have their day. … There’s a quiet civil war going on in the country.”
In Antioch Township, five miles outside Mesick, neighbors said he is not the type to share a cup of sugar.
“We told our kids to stay off his property. There was gunfire a lot,” said Lynda Sherburne, a former township clerk who lives nearby. “Who knows where the stray bullets are going.
“He got angry very easily. No contact with him was the best contact.”
Sherburne said her nephew’s house shook as state and federal authorities detonated explosives found on Somerville’s property.
“I don’t think anyone realized he was stockpiling back there,” she said.
Okay, so what we have here is a story (the Sherman Austin one) where a decidedly nonviolent young man is essentially railroaded into federal prison for the sole reason that those in power didn’t like his political views, nor did they approve of his expressing them. Unconstitutional measures were used to carry out this unconstitutional act, and I’ve seen nothing of this on the corporate media. I haven’t even heard a peep out of NPR.
On the other hand, we have a man who seemed hell-bent on eventually carrying out some serious anti-government violence, and had amassed a stockpile of weaponry for that very purpose. I have also not heard one iota about this in the national media.
I wonder what would have happened if it had been Sherman Austin who had stockpiled the weaponry and launched into a public tirade about wanting to “ambush and kill” some police officers. I wonder if there would have been at least a mention of Austin’s story on NBC or CNN had Sherman Austin been the son of wealthy white Republicans (of course, as the facts of Austin’s case show, he would never have been approached at all had he been the son of wealthy white Republicans).