Drag ‘Net

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.

Austin calls his experience a sign of what lies ahead for
progressives in post-9/11 America. ‘If it happened to me, it can
definitely happen to you,’ he said. ‘But don’t be scared, because
that’s what they want. Once they have you in a state of fear, they
have you in control.’

For more information, contact
jmi46@sbcglobal.net

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