Drag 'Net

Radical Web site content lands a cyberactivist in jail


| July / August 2004


When Jennifer Martin Ruggiero returned home on January 24, 2002, to find her yard filled with Los Angeles police officers, FBI agents, and Secret Service officers, she thought somebody was shooting a film. But the drama unfolding there was more surreal than anything Hollywood could invent.

Inside, agents were grilling her 18-year-old son, Sherman Austin, about his Web site, Raisethefist.com. They left without making any arrests, and Ruggiero had no reason to believe anything more would come of it. As she told LA Weekly (July 11, 2003), 'Everyone was very nice.'

But the federal government wasn't through with Austin, a neophyte activist and former straight-arrow computer geek who in high school aspired to be the next Bill Gates. In the hysteria of post-9/11 law enforcement, the feds were scrutinizing Austin's Web site, a clearinghouse of radical information. On the site was some basic information on making explosive devices, which Austin claims originated at another site, Reclaim Guide. So three days after the raid, when Austin traveled to New York to participate in the anti-World Economic Forum protests, agents were waiting for him.

New York City police arrested him and held him for questioning. Thirty hours later, he was released -- only to be picked up by FBI agents, who held him without charges for another 13 days. It wasn't until six months later that Austin was informed that the government was going to seek an indictment against him. 'Posting information on explosives is not illegal, but doing it with intent is, which is what I'm charged with,' he told the anarchist magazine Clamor (March/April 2004). 'But how do you prove intent? It's almost like 'thought crime.''

The FBI reportedly knows the author of the Reclaim Guide information but has refused to prosecute him, claiming instead in court testimony that Austin wrote the material. Austin and his attorney eventually negotiated a plea bargain with the federal prosecutor that would limit his jail time to one month followed by five months of custody in a halfway house. But when District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson was informed of the plea bargain at the June 30, 2003, court hearing, he said the case had 'national [and] international overtones' and rejected the plea as being too lenient.

He ordered the prosecutor to confer with the FBI and the Justice Department, which recommended a one-year prison sentence, a $2,000 fine, and three years of probation, during which Austin is not allowed to use a computer for any organizing work or associate with progressive organizations. With a possible 20-year sentence hanging over his head as a result of PATRIOT Act laws, Austin and his lawyer had no choice but to acquiesce. He's currently serving time at a federal prison in Tucson, Arizona.