It Must Have Been Another Country

We Americans like to think we’d never allow our rights to be traded away and shake our heads at grainy photographs and newsreels of the soldiers, cops and politicians responsible for herding the Indians onto reservations, rounding up the Japanese for relocation camps and sending the Rosenbergs to the chair. What were they thinking? we ask in a brave, enlightened voice that slyly asks the same question of the persecuted as well.

We may soon be finding out the answer in our own responses to the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, known more colloquially as the PATRIOT Act II. When a draft of the new act was leaked in January to the Center for Public Integrity, it created an outcry that the war with Iraq and Oscar chatter quickly drowned out. Among other things, it calls for legislation that will place American citizens in the company of those hapless history-book victims, as well as on equal footing with Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

It will permit authorities to legally abduct and “disappear” citizens pending charges; it will repeal current restraints preventing local police departments from spying on religious and political groups and give the government the power to obtain financial credit reports “without issuing multiple time-consuming subpoenas.” It will also authorize the government to strip U.S. citizenship from anyone who belongs to an organization it deems terroristic. And, of course, it will add the death penalty (always a plus in Mr. Bush’s eyes) to a new range of offenses. Oh yes, and Section 205 grants tax breaks to Cabinet members, Congress members and others who require bodyguards and security details. Can’t forget those tax breaks.

The first PATRIOT Act passed Congress 45 days after 9/11 when the smoke was still rising from the World Trade Center debris. So far, its sequel has not been formally introduced for debate, which is just fine with one Long Beach man facing jail time because of Act I. Sherman Austin, whose Valley home was raided early last year by the FBI and a joint anti-terrorist SWAT team of local law-enforcement agencies, has become something of a firsthand expert on the consequences of tripping the administration’s radar. The then-18-year-old anarchist ran the Web site, which the government had long been monitoring before pulling the plug on it when the site ran a link to another Web page posting explosives and firearms information. Austin was not arrested or charged with anything then, but shortly after the raid he was seized with about two dozen people near New York’s Central Park during the February 2002 World Economic Forum protests.


Dreadlocks and a thin beard give Austin the appearance of a young Bob Marley, but his troubles with the U.S. government more resemble the travails of novelist Bernard Malamud’s persecuted character in The Fixer. Following his Central Park bust, Austin was whisked to a processing station near the United Nations, put in a detention cage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then bused back to a cell in Manhattan. He was served bread and oranges as men who identified themselves as FBI and Secret Service agents questioned him — Who did he come to New York with? Was he part of a terrorist agency? After 30 hours he was taken to a courthouse in Manhattan where G-men arrested Austin for “distribution of information relating to explosives” and where the feds tried to persuade a judge of the threat Austin posed to the republic.

“What the FBI said was totally bogus,” Austin says. “That I was a man on a mission, that I was going to blow up the Olympics.”

From Manhattan, Austin was driven to an Air Force base upstate, then flown to a federal prison in Oklahoma where, after 13 days in custody, he was finally kicked free when a prosecutor declined to file charges at the time. Half a year later, the government changed its mind.

“The prosecutors called and told my lawyers they didn’t want to let me off the hook,” Austin recalls, “because they’d spent all this money and paperwork on my case.”

Last September the prosecutor’s office and Austin’s lawyer worked out a plea arrangement in which he would serve only one month in custody and three years on probation. But in L.A., California Central District Judge Stephen V. Wilson threw out the agreement as too lenient and scheduled the trial for sometime in May 2003. At first Austin considered fighting the case in court, but was then told by a federal probation consultant that, with PATRIOT Act “enhancements,” his crime could land him 20 years if convicted.

“We’re like, Yeah, take any plea you can!” Austin says. His defense’s new proposal seeks a sentence in the same range as the first plea, and could get him anywhere between one and 12 months’ jail time, but he won’t know until he goes up before Judge Wilson on June 30. In the meantime, Austin waits, tending the raisethefist Web site and “keeping my distance” from the Long Beach police, who, he claims, regularly stop or follow him and make a point of letting him know they’re familiar with his name.

Austin’s case, like a few similar ones around the nation, has received almost no press attention or interest in a country whose citizens simply don’t want to believe such things are happening — or don’t care. It might remind some of us of the lines from an old Phil Ochs song about murder and legal violence in America:

I know that couldn’t happen here. Oh, it must have been another country — Yes, it must have been another land.

And yet it is happening here, because we are about as interested in what happens to some 19-year-old dreadlocked citizen as we are in a 13-year-old foreigner held in Guantánamo. The past, when viewed only as images, always seems outlandish, its crimes so avoidable. What Americans don’t realize, perhaps, is that our government’s innate taste for repression and intolerance has never gone away, it just wears nicer clothes and speaks softer — Bill O’Reilly for Joe McCarthy, PATRIOT Act II for Executive Order 9066. Then again, maybe we don’t care that our library visits could be monitored, or maybe we’ve always assumed the government had that right anyway. What are we thinking?

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