Sherman Austin is 19 years old. On Jan. 24, his home in Southern California was raided by 24 heavily armed agents of the FBI, the Secret Service, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
Austin says that it was a terrifying experience, and that the agents confiscated political literature, his computer and protest signs. FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin asserted that "The FBI doesn't do anything political." The computer still has not been returned. An internal investigation has determined that the Justice Department has lost 400 of its own computers.
McLaughlin objects to the use of the word "raid." He says that the FBI "served a search warrant issued by a judge who thought that probable cause existed to believe that a specific federal code had been violated."
Austin seems to have been guilty of having a website, www.raisethefist.com, which features information about police brutality, efforts to oppose it, and about resistance movements overseas. It includes a section which invites users to post their own accounts of political repression and police abuse. The site promotes demonstrations against "all forms of hierarchy." Many of the authors who have contributed to it seem to believe in no government at all.
Alan Davidson is an attorney who is associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington-based think tank. He points out that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Internet is deserving of the same level of protection as the print medium. Also, he says that "it's become very clear from the Congressional Record and the public record that the FBI is behind the curve when it comes to information technology," and that the FBI has acknowledged that fact.
It may not have known how easy it is to impersonate someone on the Internet. There was a statement on Austin's site about vandalizing police cars. Austin says he didn't even know it was there. On July 15, officers of the LAPD questioned him about his political views, asking him, "Why do you hate cops so much?"
Despite the raid, Austin decided to protest the World Economic Forum in New York, to be held between between Jan. 31 and Feb. 4, where he says he was arrested by the NYPD, released from custody, then rearrested minutes later by the FBI under the new USA PATRIOT Act. He was then imprisoned in the Brooklyn Navy Yard Jail, he said. A spokesman for the US Attorney's office says the charges against Austin were quickly dismissed.
Austin wanted to protest the Forum because he thought of it as a gathering of corporations who have the power to drive people into poverty, wage wars, or kill people "with the swift stroke of a pen." He believes in absolute free expression. Even in preschool, he says, when he saw people working for money, he thought, "this is slavery." He has read about Marxism, and mentioned Bakunin, the 19th century Russian anarchist theoretician, when asked whether there were any political philosophers whose ideas he found particularly appealing. He referred to libertarian socialism, and plans to go to college.
FBI spokesman McLaughlin said Austin's website had "links relative to making bombs." According to the CDT's Davidson, courts have upheld the dissemination of highly controversial information, including information about how to build a nuclear bomb.
Austin says that his site had been getting many hits from the Department of Defense, and from the governments of foreign countries including Israel, Egypt, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.
During the McCarthy era, a group of people went to prison under the Smith Act, but the US Supreme Court in 1957 overturned the conviction of 14 members of the Communist Party in California in Yates v. United States, setting a precedent that "advocacy of forcible overthrow of the government as an abstract doctrine" is protected speech.
If Austin's website indeed had links to sites which gave information about manufacturing bombs, it did not reveal anything which could not be learned at any university research library. Posting such information should probably not be construed to be incitement to "imminent lawless activity," because, according to Davidson, a person reading a website is not the same as an angry mob listening to an impassioned speaker at a political rally exhorting it to, for example, storm a government building.
McLaughlin has said that partially assembled Molotov cocktails were found in Austin's home. Austin says that the FBI first said there were two such weapons, then that there was one, and he added that it said that a bottle found in his home tested positive for residue of petroleum products.
FBI spokesman McLaughlin said that a bag of fertilizer was found in Austin's car. Austin says it was potting soil.
Austin professes to be morally offended, as are many, by stories of police brutality, exploitation, and disparities in wealth and income. The difference between him and those who have not been targeted by the state may well be that he has spoken up about it. That flies in the face of the basic principles of a "government of laws and not men" to which the United States is publicly pledged.
D.H. Kerby is a writer in Los Angeles.