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Related Categories: California | Police State & Prisons
An interview with Sherman Austin's Mother in G-spot
by upton sinclair (repost)
Friday Mar 12th, 2004 1:05 PM
An interview with Sherman Austin's Mother
(Re)Defining Patriot-ism:
Interview With Jennifer Martin Ruggiero

Serena Turley

Imagine waking up from a nap with your sister telling you that your house is surrounded by a army of fully-armed officers and federal agents. This is exactly what happened to Sherman Austin on January 24, 2002. Austin’s sister Rachel was leaving the house when she saw the agents outside preparing for an armed assault on their home. When their mother Jennifer arrived an hour after the raid began, she was told that she would have to wait outside while federal agents interrogated her eighteen-year-old son alone inside. Jennifer asked to see a search warrant and had to wait for over four hours before one was finally produced.

The raid lasted more than 6 hours but when the FBI finally left, Sherman was not arrested because they knew they didn’t have the evidence to support an arrest. According to Sherman, agents told him that “I had crossed a line, and as long as I got back on the other side of the line I’d be okay.”

A week later, Sherman traveled to New York to attend a peaceful protest against the World Economic Forum. When Austin arrived in New York he was arrested with about 26 other protestors for failure to disperse, even though the demonstration was a peaceful one. He was handcuffed and taken into custody, released, and arrested again by FBI agents and interrogated for hours. Sherman says the FBI agents kept asking him if he was a terrorist, as if they really believed that he was. Sherman was initially released and as he waited outside for someone to come pick him up, a troop of 5 FBI agents came in to tell him that he was under arrest for distributing information about how to make explosives.

Sherman was taken to a maximum security facility in Manhattan where the suspects of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had been detained. He was held for 11 days before being transferred to Oklahoma. Sherman was told that he would not be released on bail because he was “a man on a mission on his way to blow up the Utah Olympics.” After two days in Oklahoma, Sherman was allowed to fly home to Los Angeles free of any charges.

Although he was never formally indicted, Austin plead guilty to explosives charges in a binding plea agreement in order to avoid a 20-year sentencing enhancement under a 1996 law if the case went to trial. The government claims that Austin was “distributing information on how to make explosives with the knowledge or intent that the information would be used in a federal act of violence.” The information in question was a link to The Reclaim Guide that was posted to Sherman’s server by someone else. Sherman is not the author of the document. And yet because he offered free web hosting on his server, he is being held responsible for a “crime” he did not commit.

Sherman Austin’s case highlights the gross racial and class inequalities that are deeply embedded in Amerikkka’s (in)justice system. Sherman’s mother Jennifer says that she wasn’t formally involved with any activist groups before the raid on her home, but the magnitude of his case has thrust her into the international spotlight. The FBI kept telling Jennifer during the raid “this isn’t about you.” But as Jennifer points out, “this is my son and my house, so this is very much about me.”

Jennifer explains that Sherman’s persecution was intentional. For one, the raid occurred just a few months after the events of September 11, 2001 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act. Jennifer believes that Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted to make an example of Sherman to serve as a warning to other activists. The government needed a test case to show what they were capable of now that law enforcement agencies have been centralized under the banner of “homeland security.” So the timing of the raid proves that the government was just waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

There are also substantial racial and class dynamics that helped to shape Sherman’s case. “They did their homework,” Jennifer says. “They knew that I didn’t have the kind of funds to wage a drawn out legal battle on my son’s behalf. He is a young black male who now has a felony conviction.” Jennifer points out that another teenager named Nick signed an FBI affidavit claiming responsibility for posting a link to The Reclaim Guide to Sherman’s site. However, Nick is white and comes from an affluent home in Orange County. And despite his confession, the FBI has never charged or arrested Nick. “This is definitely race and class based,” says Martin.

Austin’s case clearly reveals the extreme level of corruption within the US government. “It is my belief that the judge in this case was not randomly selected,” says Martin. “He is a conservative Reagan appointee. It was deliberate. That’s how corrupt the system is.” Sherman’s outrageous sentence and Judge Wilson’s comments during the hearings is proof that the judge was politically motivated.

Originally, Sherman was told that he would only serve one month in prison and five months of community service. But the judge came back saying the sentence wasn’t harsh enough. He wanted Sherman’s case to serve as a “deterrent to other revolutionaries.” And so Sherman wound up with a one year sentence with three years of probation. As part of Sherman’s probation, he is prohibited from using a computer, digital organizer, pager, cell phone and any digital device unless it is first approved by a probation officer and constantly monitored. He is also prohibited from associating with anyone who wants to change the government. And this is all because the judge in this case admitted to using Sherman for political gain.

Martin says that her son was arrested based on a lie. “The FBI lied to the judge in New York and they lied to the media. They told them that Sherman was ‘a man on a mission’ who intended to blow up the Salt Lake Olympics even though Sherman has always advocated nonviolence and is nonviolent by nature. These people will say anything to get what they want. And unless you have money for good counsel, good luck!”

A public defender was appointed to represent Austin, but his handling of that case was anything but adequate. For one, he didn’t seek an independent analysis of the evidence the government had against Sherman and refused pro-bono analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He simply went along with the government’s interpretation of things. Moreover, the federal public defender had a low level of computer literacy and was dealing with a complex cyber case.

Based on the public defender’s advice, Sherman agreed to sign a plea agreement even though he was never formally indicted. He was afraid that a trial would mean that Sherman could go to jail for 20 years based on sentencing enhancements under a 1996 law that was authored by Diane Feinstein. When Jennifer asked if the law even applied to Sherman’s case, the public defender called the prosecutor to find out because he didn’t know. The prosecutor said no. However, when Sherman resisted signing the plea the prosecutor said the application of the terrorist enhancement was at the discretion of the court. The public defender kept telling Sherman that the government was doing him a favor by offering a plea agreement. But, says Martin, “the government never wanted this to go to trial because they knew they didn’t have the evidence to convict.”

For instance, during the raid, federal agents seized some empty ice-tea bottles that Austin had been saving for recycling. The search warrant that was finally produced instructed agents to look for “weapons of mass destruction.” Because Sherman had empty ice-tea bottles in his house that were being saved for recycling and a gasoline canister in his car, the government claims he had the components of a Molotov cocktails. Jennifer explains, “The FBI first stated that Sherman had two fully functional Molotov cocktails in his room. This changed to one fully functional device, then to one partially assembled device and finally to components of a Molotov cocktail. It’s important to note that the FBI kept changing their story.”

So maybe it’s not a weapon of mass destruction, but it certainly qualifies as an unregistered firearm according to the FBI. Far-fetched or not, this is what the government had to go off of. But as Sherman points out, “the only thing on my website related to weapons of mass destruction were the weapons the US was using against millions of poor people all over the world.”

One of the main documents that was used to support Austin’s arrest was an IRC chat that supposedly took place between Sherman and the FBI’s cooperating witness, Michael Reighley, sometime in 1999. Michael Reighley is a white supremacist from Huntington Beach, CA who met Sherman in a UFO chatroom. The problem with this so-called “evidence” is that IRC chats are not secure because IRC screen names are not password protected – anyone can log on under a screen name if it’s not already being used at the time. And one of the AOL chats that was used to support the government’s case took place while Sherman was imprisoned in New York City. A qualified attorney would have easily beat these charges if the case had actually gone to trial.

“Sherman’s only crime was that he was naïve,” claims Martin. “He let people of all political persuasions into his personal space. He didn’t have a firewall for his site. He was an advocate of free speech and allowed anyone to post anything they wanted. He had no disclaimer. In retrospect, I should have cut the cord to the DSL line. But how can you know everything that’s going on in cyberspace?”

I asked Jennifer if she was just saying this because she was Sherman’s mother. “Of course I believe in unconditional love. But I also raised my children with a respect for consequences. I’m not one of those parents who can’t admit when their child does something wrong. I am advocating on my son’s behalf because I know he is innocent of distribution with intent and making Molotov cocktails. If I knew he was guilty, I would be the first one to speak out against him. But I’m advocating for Sherman because what they’ve done to him is wrong. What they did is a crime. They’ve been doing it to people of color all along. This is my opportunity to expose the government for what it is.”

Jennifer compares Sherman’s case to psychological lynching. “Aggression is not just physical. They single out people of color because they are most threatening to the white establishment, especially when they start to take control of their own lives. They [whites] see the possibility of a huge revolt when people of color start to speak, to be present, and to organize. They did this to Sherman to shut him up. They lynched him in the press to destroy his character.”

Martin says that she is intimately aware of how racism operates in American society. “I have the benefit of being an insider because of my race. Sometimes people would tell me things, this really racist stuff, because they didn’t know that I have three African-American kids. Sometimes I couldn’t even put up pictures of my children in my office at work because of what people would think.”

This doesn’t stop Jennifer from looking at life as a series of challenges that can be overcome. “My whole life has been a struggle, but I’m not a victim. I look at each challenge as a new opportunity to learn, a new way of viewing the world. Suffering is not a negative thing. When you’re faced with struggles, you can let the experience wear you down or give you strength. I’ve learned how to overcome and move on.”

Jennifer has a lot of sound advice to give activists in order to avoid becoming a target of the federal government. “For one, never discuss your politics with anyone online and don’t say anything online that could get you into trouble. Check out your surroundings. Be careful at demonstrations and be aware of who befriends you. Don’t rely on technology for communication because they can watch your every move and misconstrue you words. Don’t take anything for granted.

Sherman is scheduled to be released from federal prison in late July. His mother is afraid that he will become an icon for people looking to further their own political causes. “I have no idea what his plans are when he gets out. But I don’t want people to use him for their own agenda. Prison is not a status symbol. My family and I are the ones who have to struggle with this every day and worry about him. Everyone else gets to go home, but we’re the ones left holding the cards when everyone disperses. Sherman has a huge following and a big responsibility when he gets out. But I don’t want my son to be an icon or a hero. I just want what’s right.”

Sherman’s case is far from over. When Jennifer petitioned to have the property returned that was seized during the raid, she was informed that some of the items would be held pending a further investigation by the L.A. District Attorney. Jennifer and her attorney met with the FBI Special Agent on February 24, 2004 and he returned all of the computers that were taken from Sherman’s room WITHOUT THE HARD DRIVES. Jennifer explains, “his first explanation for not returning the Hard Drives was that ‘ALL DATA WILL BE DESTROYED.’ When questioned as to why he was destroying the data he stated that the drives were being sent over to the L.A. District Attorney pending review. This is typical FBI nonsense. They never say what they mean and never mean what they say. It’s my opinion that they will NEVER give me back the data.”

With a drawn-out legal battle ahead, financial support for Sherman’s defense is critical. For more information on how you can help, please contact Jennifer Martin Ruggiero at jmi46 [at] sbcglobal.net or visit http://www.freesherman.org.
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