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Wednesday, Jul. 19, 2006 at 6:09 AM
sherman austin served one year in federal prison after he was charged with "distribution" of explosives information. The website that he founded, Raisethefist.com, didn't contain any information on explosives — a link from his site to another website contained the information, the distribution of which austin was prosecuted for. Since his release in September 2004, he has been serving three years probation.
AGR interviews sherman austin
Interview by Greg White
Apr. 5- sherman austin served one year in federal prison after he was charged with "distribution" of explosives information. The website that he founded, Raisethefist.com, didn't contain any information on explosives — a link from his site to another website contained the information, the distribution of which austin was prosecuted for. Since his release in September 2004, he has been serving three years probation.
AGR: Can you talk about Raisethefist.com and the events that led to your imprisonment?
SA: I started Raisethe fist.com when I was 16, in the year 2000, about five months before the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Los Angeles. Until that time, it was pretty much just operated by me. After the DNC, I saw a lot of activism going on in Los Angeles and it motivated me to take it to another level and make it so other people could automatically publish their own articles.
Raisethefist kept on growing and it developed into a website where people could communicate with one another, automatically publish articles [and] post their opinions. It really became more of a network where people could come on and network and find information.
This is the point where the FBI started really paying attention…. The French, Australian, Israeli and Japanese… different government agencies started to monitor the site everyday. On one single day, I got well over 100 hits from different law enforcement agencies and the FBI.
AGR: How were you able to tell that the government was monitoring your site?
SA: I was pretty much maintaining the site everyday, so I wrote this tracking program that basically filtered out all the connections that were coming in through government servers and put them into a log file to see [who was coming] to the site. It was to a point where I knew something was up; they don't just monitor sites like that because they're interested.
On Jan. 24, 2002, I was [at home] taking a nap… while the FBI was surrounding the entire house, with [bullet proof vests] and their weapons drawn. My sister woke me up and told me the FBI was at the door and all up and down the street.
The raid happened only four months after 9/11and three months after the USA PATRIOT Act passed. Before 9/11, the site was getting a lot of hits from the government, a lot from the FBI and the Secret Service. But I noticed that immediately after 9/11, it increased like crazy. I was getting hundreds and hundreds [of hits]. It at least tripled, the amount of hits I was getting from government agencies… [and] my instant messenger accounts were being broken into. I was getting messages like "Your ass is going to jail," and my friends were getting threats like "Your ass is next." I suspected at that point that the FBI was tapping the DSL line….
They basically had a program connected to the ISP's network which allowed them to download what went in and out of my DSL modem. On top of that, they had a program which would archive that information and they could later go ahead and sift through all the information….
A lot of the time, [the FBI] would sign on [to instant messenger accounts] under my screen name and start talking to people. Other people couldn't tell the difference because they monitored the conversations so many times that they were able to talk and use the same lingo I used when I was talking to people online. At that point it was pretty obvious that they were tapping the line, that there was some heavy surveillance.
AGR: This was before the FBI raid?
SA: Yes, this was still before the FBI raid. When the raid went down, I actually told the head FBI agent that I knew they were hacking into my instant messenger accounts and the DSL line that Raisethefist was running on. The FBI agent asked me "How did you find out?" He wanted me to explain to him how I found out. He didn't dispute it….
During the raid, they knew exactly where the equipment was. They dismantled the entire computer network [and] downloaded everything off the hard drives onto their own remote equipment and then loaded everything into boxes in a big black truck outside. They also took a big stack of newspapers and books, as well as protest signs.
During this whole process… the main agent, Special Agent John I. Pi, [was] asking me about Raisethefist, where the logs were, stuff like that. And I asked him, how is an operation like this, coming into my home like this, legal? And he responded: "It's now actually legal under the USA PATRIOT Act."
They were asking me a lot about my political views. [The FBI agent] must have asked me 10 different times how I got my political views…. That's what it was all about. When they came, they said there was information on the Raisethefist.com website that told people how to manufacture and build explosives, which was false. It was on another person's website [that linked to Raisethefist.com]. In reality, the whole thing had nothing to do with… explosives information being available to the public. It had more to do with an anarchist website that was getting people's attention. People were coming to it everyday, and Raisethefist was really about putting words into action… It brought all these issues — police brutality, environmental racism, things going on in other countries; it brought all these things together…. They saw it as a threat and they used whatever they could to justify a raid and take all the computer equipment.
So they lied and said that I authored this website on how to build and manufacture explosives. All I had on the Raisethefist.com website was a link to another person's website. A page on this other person's website contained information in which he said he had copied from other sources on the internet about how to build these explosives, a Molotov cocktail [and] amateurish instructions on how to build incendiary devices…. The FBI said that I did it when they knew he did it.
AGR: They had questioned him, right? And he was never charged with anything?
SA: Exactly. Nothing ever happened to him at all. A couple weeks before they arrested me and charged me with the distribution of information related to explosives, they went to his house and confirmed that he was the one who authored, implemented and created the website on how to build explosives. And then they left, just like that…. Then they fabricated statements saying that I admitted to authoring the information, when I told them, at least seven different times, that I didn't author the website in any shape or form. They basically lied, and they twisted it around to make it look like I put this information on the internet…. They were able to, because of what was going on in the country, make it look I was a terrorist.
AGR: After that, there was a period of time before you went to prison, right?
SA: Before the raid, I was planning to attend the World Economic Forum demonstration in New York. [A week after the raid] I traveled to New York and the Secret Service had notified the New York police chief and the FBI issued a warrant for my arrest. I was standing in Columbus Circle in Manhattan when a bunch of police officers broke through a line of media people and they arrested 26 demonstrators, one of which was me.
They put us on a bus and we waited for about six hours before they brought us to a New York jail. Everyone else was starting to get released and I was taken out of my cell and put into handcuffs…
[and] taken into a backroom and interrogated by the Secret Service and a FBI agent. They kept asking me about the raid that happened back in California [and] Raisethefist.com. They asked me if I knew anything about any violence that was going to happen at the demonstration. They asked if I was a terrorist, or if I was involved in any terrorist organizations.
They said that I wasn't going to be able to leave New York until they searched my car. I basically told them that I had nothing to hide, that they could search my car and that they couldn't hold me for more than 72 hours.
Five minutes later, I was taken to the courthouse and released. About 20 minutes [after that], four FBI agents came to the courthouse and said that I was under arrest for information on the internet about explosives.
They escorted me out of the courthouse into a black SUV and drove me to a federal building… and put me in a 24-hour maximum security lockdown facility. I was on a cellblock with the same people who were accused of the USS Cole bombing and the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya. One guard called me "terror boy." The FBI, at my bail hearing, said I was a "man on a mission." I was 18 at the time this all went down. They said that I was a threat to the community if I was let go… so the judge said that I was denied bail.
The next week I was airlifted to a federal transfer center in Oklahoma. The second day I was there I learned that the prosecutor decided not to file any kind of indictment just yet. Just like that I was released, and I flew back to California on my own.
About a month later, I got Raisethefist.com back online again. By this time, the site was getting a lot of hits because of the FBI raid and all the articles that were on the internet about it…. Raisethefist continued to grow even more and developed into a direct action network. There were people who were putting up Raisethefist chapters in their own schools and their own communities… not to just talk about these things but to put these things into action. There were chapters not just in the United States, but in Canada, Germany and Brazil.
A period of six months went by and I just continued organizing with Raisethefist and the community. There was a lot of harassment, not just the FBI, but the local police. They had my picture hanging up at the police station and they would stop me and ask me questions about Raisethefist. I live in Long Beach, [CA], and all the Long Beach police knew who I was. My friends would be stopped by the police and asked about me….
After that six month period, I found out that the prosecutor didn't want to let me off the hook and they wanted to convict me of distribution of [explosives] information, even though they knew that I didn't author it.
There was this whole legal limbo going on for the next year and a half. They first offered me a plea bargain of one month in jail and four months in a community corrections center. I rejected it. I was told that I was looking at three to four years if I had gone to trial. And I said, "Fine, let's go to trial." As I kept resisting, the US probation officer assigned to the case decided that she was going to do another review of the case to find out whether the "terrorist enhancement" [a federal sentencing guideline] was applicable to my case. After she did her review, she issued a report saying that my case was applicable under the "terrorist enhancement" which would give me an additional 20 years… [despite] any decision by a jury. It's an additional 20 years automatically added onto your sentence.
When that happened, my lawyer was really concerned about going to trial. I just wanted to go to trial but I didn't have the financial resources to hire a top-of-the-line legal team. I was pretty much railroaded into accepting the plea.
When it was brought before the judge, he rejected [the plea], [questioning] what kind of deterrent would be set for "future revolutionaries acting out." He ordered the prosecutor to consult with the head of the FBI to get their opinion. The prosecutor said that the FBI was pretty much on board with the [terms of the original plea bargain], but the judge disagreed with that.
AGR: You were receiving death threats around this time as well?
SA: Yeah. I was receiving death threats a little bit before the raid. During the six month period [after the raid] they increased a lot…. They went into the email account that was associated with the Raisethefist.com domain name… and changed the password and rerouted Raisethefist to another server. That basically knocked the whole site offline.
When that happened, I decided that I was going to post a bunch of the logs of all the cases of when the FBI had come [online] on my screen name along with the threats that I had received. I compiled logs of all these conversations and I posted them on the internet on sites like Indymedia.org.
The next day, they came online again, using my screen name, and threatened me with a message saying that the password was changed. They gave me the new password and said that I better not change it, because they were watching, and that they basically had control over whether the site stays up or not.
They would go through instant message accounts…. There were all these neo-nazis and Aryan Brothers who would come onto the site, post threatening articles [and] death threats.
One person from a neo-nazi organization posted up this weird scenario about all the lights going out, and [the organization] using the opportunity of this huge blackout to come and kill me, which would spark riots which they would use as an opportunity to kill more blacks and people of color who were anarchist or socialist. The very next day, there was a huge blackout on the entire west coast. Two days later, the same person comes back onto the site and makes another posting and said "I told you so." As they were making all the death threats, it kind of looked like they were getting some sort of help.
The consistency with which the threats were coming in… it was like they were on a whole other level. I was tracking the posts that were coming in…. A lot of them were from different areas around the country. It was like all these neo-nazis were organizing and networking, and all [the postings] were consistent with one another. [After I went to jail], there were many posts saying that I wasn't going to leave prison alive.
I was transferred to a detention facility in San Bernardino, which also served as an overflow facility for federal inmates. San Bernardino has the largest population of Aryan Brotherhood.
Typically, they have a profile on you, [which] states who you're affiliated with and who your enemies are. Say you're a Cripp, they don't put you in the same open facility with a bunch of Bloods or rival gangs, unless they purposefully want to start something…. What they did with me, knowing that I had received plenty of death threats for years from neo-nazis, they went ahead and put me in San Bernardino detention facility straight into the general [prison] population.
I didn't see the death threats when I was in custody, but they supposedly increased even more [online]. A lot of people started calling the prison and demanding that I be moved immediately because I was at risk….
I was called down to speak with two San Bernardino County detectives… who said that they had to intervene because of the death threats coming in from neo-nazis. They said that it didn't matter to them if someone got hurt. Basically what it came down to, was a lot of paperwork that had to be filed [which they didn't want to do]. They didn't want the blood on their hands.
With all the pressure and the people calling into the prison and complaining, they basically had no other choice but to put me into protective custody. If something would have happened, it would have blown up and gotten out there. They told me a price was on my head, and all the Aryan Brothers and neo-nazis knew where I was at, and it was basically a matter of time.
I was put into protective custody, which was basically a one-man cell. When you're in protective custody, you're supposed to have all the same privileges as all the other inmates, such as being in the prison yard, except that you're isolated from the other inmates [in the yard]. I went out to the yard and went to call my girlfriend on one of the phones. I gave her a call, and she asks me who I gave her phone number to. I told her that I didn't give her number to anyone.
She told me that this guy called from another prison in Bakersfield [CA], saying that I was going to come out onto the yard in two hours and give her a call. I asked her how long ago did this person call, and she said two hours ago. I thought that was kind of peculiar…. I never had given her number out to anyone. It goes to show that… word was spreading to other institutions. For someone to have her number, it was obviously with the help of people other than just inmates for it to spread that quickly and efficiently. I don't know how anyone would get her number unless they were associated with the FBI. No one else would have her number.
After about two weeks, I was transferred to Oklahoma again, which is the federal transfer prison. I was then taken to my designated institution in Tucson, AZ, a medium security federal prison. And that's where I did the rest of my time at.
AGR: You recently wrote that some of the evidence that was used against you was obtained through NSA wiretaps? Could you talk a little bit about that?
SA: It was actually the reason I was never formally indicted. The prosecutors kept threatening me over and over again, that if I didn't take the plea bargain, they had this strong case against me, that they were going to indict me. And I rejected it. They decided they were going to leave the plea on the table, after they had only one chance to take it. But they never indicted me. They never wanted to indict me, because all the evidence they were going to bring forward was obtained through NSA wiretaps. It was obtained through tapping the DSL line….
At first, I didn't really catch on to it, but I knew something was definitely fishy, when they said that if I didn't take this plea bargain that it was my last chance [which they kept repeating every time I rejected it].
My lawyer even said that it was weird. He told me that he had never seen a case like this in all his years of law practice. I asked him, if they say they have all this evidence that they're going to use against me, if we could arrange a meeting with the prosecutors so they can lay out this evidence on the table.
We met with the prosecutor and his supervisor, they first showed photographs of things that were seized during the raid. They said they had seized a Molotov cocktail, which was untrue, which they tried [unsuccessfully] to use against me.
I was still kind of confused as to [what] evidence they claimed to have on me until the prosecutor made reference to a conversation that I had online [about some sort of direct action], which they had monitored. The prosecutor said they were going to use [things that I said in the conversation] if I didn't take the plea bargain. But the logs of that conversation were obtained through illegal NSA wiretaps, basically obtained through tapping my DSL line.
AGR: What do you think are some of the broader implications of your case in terms of free speech rights?
SA: That's a good question because the case isn't just about me. It was about setting a precedent, setting an example. Judge Stephen Wilson even said it himself, he wanted to set a deterrent for future revolutionaries who wanted to act out in the same manner. It had nothing to do with information about how to build and manufacture explosives being readily available to the public via the internet. There are tons of other websites that have detailed instructions [about] explosives….
It had to do with a political website, an anarchist website. It had to do with people coming to this website on a daily basis and getting information and using that to get organized. Raisethefist.com developed… into a direct action network, people taking action within their own communities.
It comes down to the basic principle of free speech. They tell us that we have free speech, but when we decide to utilize it, time and time again, we see that we don't have free speech.
Source: Asheville Global Report, www.agrnews.org
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