Grand juries have seen a resurgence as the FBI cracks down on radical communities.
October 9, 2013  |

From the narrow windows of New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, 24-year-old anarchist Jerry Koch can see the last place he stood as a free person.

The federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street is a familiar setting where Koch spent much of his time over the past several years providing legal support to New York activists. During Occupy Wall Street, Koch gained a reputation as the go-to person for help contacting lawyers, raising bail, and organizing supporters to be there when someone had a hearing or was released. This, his supporters say, is why he now has a view of the courthouse from his cell in the federal prison across the street.

Koch’s partner, Amanda Clarke, will tell you that all prisoners are political prisoners. Koch, however, fits a more traditional definition of the term. He has not been charged with or convicted of any crime. Legally, his incarceration is not considered punishment, but rather “coercion.” He is being held in contempt of court for refusing to testify before a grand jury in what many believe is an effort by the FBI to intimidate other anarchists, and anyone else engaged in political dissent.

Grand juries have been a tool in the FBI’s arsenal of intimidation and information-gathering tactics for decades. They were a hallmark of the Red Scare, COINTELPRO, and more recently the Green Scare, in which animal rights activists and environmentalists have been branded “eco-terrorists” by law enforcement.

Over the past year grand juries have seen a resurgence as the FBI has cracked down on radical communities. Koch’s case was preceded by a high-profile grand jury in the Pacific Northwest, where four people from Washington and Oregon were imprisoned for refusing to testify.

Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red, a historical survey of the Green Scare, says there are parallels between these recent grand juries and past FBI interference in social movements. But these cases also mark what he views as a change in tactics on the part of law enforcement.

“When we’re seeing things like the grand juries in the Northwest, or Jerry’s case in New York, we have to remember that the FBI is giving training presentations to new agents identifying anarchists as ‘criminals in search of an ideology,’” Potter warns. “What we’re seeing is a criminalization of an entire belief system.”

Potter says that historically grand juries have indicted prominent figures such as Craig Rosebraugh, spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front. However, in recent years federal law enforcement agencies have targeted people who may not have direct affiliations to organizations under scrutiny, but are believed to be of the same political persuasion.

“It sends a message that everyone [with radical politics] is vulnerable, everyone’s at risk.”

Though Koch was known for his politically driven work, the circumstances of his case exemplify the type of intimidation tactic Potter describes.

The grand jury that subpoenaed Koch was convened to investigate an incident that took place in 2008, when a cyclist deposited an explosive device outside an army recruitment station in Times Square. The blast shattered a window but injured no one. Koch was first subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about the incident in 2009. When his lawyers pressed the prosecutor for a reason, they were told he was believed to have been at a bar where a conversation between other people took place and information about the incident was discussed. No further details were given.

The message to other dissidents? If you are thought to be anywhere even near the wrong kind of conversation, you could be suspect.

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