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Anarchist, Interrupted

Photo by Steven Mikulan

Last Friday the 13th was Sherman Austin’s lucky day. After serving a one-year sentence for distributing explosives information over the Internet, the 21-year-old anarchist walked out of an Echo Park halfway house and into a summer’s morning a free man. He was met by his mother, girlfriend and the family dog — which he took for a walk before leaving for home. Austin had finished his federal term in the Gateway correctional facility after spending most of it in a medium-security lockup near Tucson. During the job searches that were part of his Echo Park regimen, Austin got a taste of problems that may lie ahead when he was forced to turn down a canvassing job that required using a company cell phone.

Under the terms of Austin’s three-year probation, the Raise the Fist Webmaster may only use a cell phone that is owned in his name; he may use a computer — but only a laptop that he must bring in for government examination at any time, and he cannot associate with individuals thought to advocate political violence. In other words, don’t expect him to show up at the Republican convention in New York.‰

Worse, according to his new attorney, William Paparian, Austin is still subject to state prosecution not only for the same count for which he was indicted, but also for an incendiary-devices charge that the feds had agreed to drop as part of a plea bargain. Unfortunately for Austin, that agreement didn’t include immunity from future California indictments. Deputy L.A. County District Attorney Jonathan Fairtlough is currently reviewing documents on the case prepared for him by the FBI. When contacted, Fairtlough declined to answer questions about Austin’s possible case, saying, “The District Attorney’s Office cannot comment on cases that have not been filed.”

“It offends anyone’s fundamental feelings of fairness,” Paparian told the Weekly by phone. In addition to guiding Austin through his probation, Paparian is trying to get the government to return computer hardware seized from Austin’s home during a 2001 raid.

“Sherman could be in violation of his parole,” the Pasadena lawyer said, “if he’s at a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution and they’re talking about the Declaration of Independence. There’s a myth being perpetuated here — the stereotype of the black-masked anarchist breaking the plate-glass windows of Starbucks. It’s part and parcel of the demonization of [Sherman’s] anarchist philosophy.”

Indeed, Austin has come to represent an American radicalism endangered by post-9/11 crackdowns on civil liberties. So much so that he has become a kind of touchstone to the young left (even Hustler ran a spread on his case) — sometimes to the ire of older radicals who don’t view him as an Angela Davis or a George Jackson.

“Celebrity feels kinda weird,” Austin told the Weekly a few days after his release, shortly before a homecoming party at his mother’s Valley Village apartment. “My reason for starting Raise the Fist wasn’t to be a celebrity.”

While in Tucson he played in prison rock bands and moved from his old love, the drums, to bass guitar. In between looking for work and enrolling in Harbor City College, Austin has busied himself by recording songs he wrote in Tucson and honing his new bass skills. Meanwhile, he must navigate between expressing his beliefs and abiding by the terms of his probation — as well as his relative fame.

“I don’t mind speaking in public, but there’s a certain point where someone might use you as a poster for their own agenda. I don’t want to only talk about my case or because I went to prison. I want to move forward to find solutions.”

Today the drummer who learned bass is adapting to a different personal environment, one that could drastically change should the deputy D.A. decide to prosecute him.

“I’m just trying to get back on my feet,” Austin said before his party began. “I’m still going to do organizing, but I have to watch out what scenery I’m around.”


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