|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
On June 30, TV news crews crowded in front of the federal courthouse on Spring Street, but no one who worked in the austere old building could say who the fuss was for — there were so many big names in trouble these days. It was a safe bet, though, that the cameras were not here for the United States v. Sherman Martin Austin, an obscure case scheduled to conclude that day after a year and a half of Kafkaesque twists. The 20-year-old Austin faced a single felony count of “distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction with the intent that such information be used in furtherance of a federal crime of violence.” Outside of the local anarchist community and some Internet chat rooms, his case is virtually unknown.
In January 2002, Austin, then 18, was living at his mother’s rented Sherman Oaks house, described in the FBI’s search warrant as “a single-story family residence, with white stucco sidings, a red brick front, and a light brown shingle roof.” For nearly a year, according to the FBI, Austin and Raisethefist.com, the anarchist Web site he ran from his bedroom, had been under a government microscope. This, allegedly, was due to RTF’s incendiary language and links to other Web sites that translate such rhetoric into bomb-making instructions. The government’s curiosity was further piqued by Internet chatter, traced back to Austin’s site, that boasted of defacing other Web sites and illegally probing an Army computer system.
On January 24, 2002, the FBI, along with a small SWAT army of LAPD, LASD and Secret Service officers, descended on Austin’s home, with a bomb-squad truck parked nearby for good measure. For six hours the authorities asked questions, searched closets and carted off computers.
“I came home and saw all these people in their jackets on my lawn,” says Austin’s mother, Jennifer Martin Ruggiero, of the crowd of cops and G-men in windbreakers. “I thought maybe they were shooting a movie.”
Despite the January raid’s manpower, no arrests were made, and Ruggiero says that the raiders were quite civilized: “Everyone was very nice. We had all kinds of conversations about the weather, travel, careers — the kind of things normal people talk about.”
Sherman Austin describes himself as a nonviolent person who was only mildly politically aware in high school, a characterization his mother corroborates. “Sherman wanted to be the next Bill Gates,” Ruggiero says of her computer-savvy son. “He was Mr. Corporate.”
Then, during a 2001 May Day march in Long Beach, Austin got roughed up and jailed for a few days by the police. “After that I was more determined and more angry,” he says. “I began channeling my anger into organizing. I put on everything from political benefit shows, hip-hop shows and anti-police-brutality marches.”
A month after the January 2002 raid on his house, Austin was nabbed near New York’s Central Park during demonstrations against the World Economic Forum. He was held for about two weeks in a variety of federal lockups from Brooklyn to Oklahoma before being cut loose without charge. Six months later, the government informed him it would seek an indictment after all. Eventually he and his lawyer reached a plea agreement with a federal prosecutor that would send Austin to a month in prison followed by five months’ custody in a halfway house.
Or so the parties thought. Last September, however, federal District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson threw out the plea on the grounds that it was too light. Austin and his attorney consulted a federal probation officer and proposed a new sentence, this one involving four months in prison and four months in “community confinement,” followed by three years of supervised probation. Two weeks ago, they brought the revised deal to court.
For about an hour on June 30, Austin, his family and a few friends sat in Room 6 as the court heard a series of drug cases, the chamber’s somber calm occasionally lightened by the chinkle of chains and cuffs as defendants were led in from lockup. Judge Wilson, a Reagan appointee, is known for an evenhandedness that government and big business cannot always count on to work in their favor. Over the years he’s ruled against LAPD policies on body-cavity searches, found in favor of a fireman who read Playboy in his station, and blocked federal attempts to deport six Palestinians accused of terrorist affiliations; more recently he has sided with the online file-sharing sites Grokster and Morpheus against the recording industry.
Wilson ran a tight, fair court that Monday, allowing defense attorneys ample plea time while occasionally making an arid observation. Austin had dressed for the occasion in a gray suit and had neatly tied back his dreadlocks. But when Ron Kaye, Austin’s federal public defender, began making his appeal for the new plea agreement, Wilson’s stone-faced demeanor changed: He looked away or fiddled with his glasses whenever Kaye spoke. Before long, an agitated Wilson made it clear he thought even the latest arrangement was too lenient.
“I must tell you,” he interrupted Kaye,
“I see this case differently. I’m rather surprised the government hasn’t taken this case seriously.”
By “taking the case seriously,” Wilson said, he meant setting an example to deter other would-be revolutionaries. He hinted that he favored an 8-to-10-month sentencing range. “Maybe I’m just living in another world,” he said of the plea deal. “I just don’t understand it.”
Then Wilson turned to the federal assistant prosecutor, Rob Castro-Silva: “Has your recommendation been cleared with the Justice Department? I just find it shocking.”
“I don’t need their approval —” the prosecutor began.
“How old are you?” the judge suddenly inquired.
“Thirty-eight,” the surprised prosecutor replied.
“You look younger,” Wilson pronounced, before telling the court that Austin’s case “has national and international implications.”
Wilson then announced he was postponing sentencing until July 28 and ordered Castro-Silva to contact the Justice Department and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller for their views on the plea arrangement.
Filing out of the courtroom, Castro-Silva was heard to mutter, “Well, I have my marching orders.”
Much of the Internet is a cricket chorus of disaffected voices, and Raisethefist.com, which Austin still operates, is no different from any other of the woollier one-man sites on the left and right. Perhaps, in another time, the feds would have merely regarded Sherman Austin as a minor irritant, marginally worth watching. But then 9/11 hit, and the rest, as they say, is hysteria. The feds have also used petty crimes as excuses to apprehend Austin and intensify their case against him. “On or about June 24,” the FBI affidavit notes with deadpan seriousness,
“. . . Austin was cited by San Diego Police Department (SDPD) for a traffic violation, California Vehicle Codes Section 21456(8), ‘pedestrian crossing against a don’t walk or wait sign’ . . .” It would appear that it’s not the PATRIOT Act so much as the DMV book that’s been thrown at Austin: A driving-without-a-license citation was used to bump up his sentencing schedule in the same way the possession of a handgun might be used to raise the severity of a robbery charge.
Although the American Civil Liberties Union is not involved in Austin’s case (it does not assist defendants in criminal proceedings), his plight seems to be one of those small stories told in quiet courtrooms that define the liberties we can or cannot take for granted during times of national emergency — or, at least, the government’s self-declared emergencies.
“Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly,” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than 75 years ago in a case involving what were then called Reds. “Men feared witches and burnt women . . . To justify suppression of free speech there must be reasonable ground to believe that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced.”
How much of a threat RTF has posed is a point that’s becoming moot. Sooner or later, Sherman Austin is going to jail, having agreed to plead guilty rather than risk a much longer sentence that could be put into place through “terrorist enhancements” provided by the PATRIOT Act. Except for the “RTF Legal Defense Fund” advertised on his own Web site, there are no “Save Sherman” committees and no petition drives.
“The whole thing’s like a movie script,” Jennifer Ruggiero says, again reflecting on the surreal logic of her son’s ordeal. “We’re not bomb-throwing radicals. I raised my kids to be good people and to give back to the world — we have faith in this country.”
When asked what he’ll miss while in custody, Sherman Austin’s reply is simple: “Probably just being out seeing people