It’s been about six weeks since two anarchist activists were thrown in a Seattle jail to force their testimony in a grand jury hearing ostensibly convened as part of an investigation into vandalism at a May Day rally. Neither activist has been charged with any crime, nor are they suspects in the case. They are simply people who may or may not have knowledge that could potentially help the FBI with its investigation.
Since their testimony could tend to incriminate themselves, their fellow activists and the causes they stand for (that’s the whole point of the exercise, after all), the two activists have refused on principle to participate. Now they could be locked up for as long as 18 months without a single charge being filed against them for doing nothing but refusing to help the government crack down on their movement.
In California, a separate grand jury was recently convened as part of another investigation, this one into two 2008 firebombings at U.C. Santa Cruz that the FBI has publicly blamed on animal rights activists. In 2009, federal prosecutors secured indictments under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act against four local activists for activities such as marching, chanting, chalking sidewalks and creating leaflets with the names and addresses of vivisectors on them (under the AETA, First Amendment activities can be considered “terrorism” when aimed at animal exploitation-based industries). A year and a half later, a federal judge threw out the indictments for lack of specificity. Back at square one again, the U.S. Attorney’s office turned to its old stand-by tool of state repression: the grand jury.
Grand juries are routinely used by prosecutors and investigators to break social movements by turning activists into informants on one another. Grand jury hearings are conducted in secret; the proceedings are controlled by the prosecutor (there is no judge in a grand jury hearing as the process precedes an indictment so there is no ‘defendant,’ per se); and typically attorneys (other than government prosecutors) are not allowed. The process seems practically designed to enable government fishing expeditions, and as one might imagine, grand jury subpoenas have a profound chilling effect on political speech.
Jonathan Paul is a former Animal Liberation Front activist who spent 51 months in prison for his participation in the 1998 arson of a horse slaughterhouse in Oregon. Prior to that arrest, he spent five months in jail in the early 1990s after refusing to participate in a grand jury proceeding. He was the second animal rights activist ever to be locked up to coerce grand jury testimony, and his imprisonment was the longest at that time in the history of the American animal rights movement.
I asked Paul to recount his experience and shed light on the coercive process that is now being used against the Northwest Grand Jury resisters.
Describe your experience with the grand jury subpoena. Why did they target you? What were they after?
The reason why they targeted me was quite simple: foremost, I was an eco-animal activist, and second, at that time the grand jury was focused on Rod Coronado, who was on the run and was suspected of a number of ALF actions around the country. Rod and I were friends and roommates at the time. Also, in 1990, I was arrested for the 1987 liberation of 287 animals from University of Oregon, although the charges were dropped with some very well done legal wrangling. Although the grand jury was focused on Rod, in many ways they also were looking into others and would take any information they could on anyone else.
Did you consider cooperating, or did you know from the start that you would not comply?
I never considered cooperating and I knew the moment I was served with the subpoena from the two most stereotypical looking FBI agents I had ever seen. Really, it was almost comical. I knew from the start that I would never comply. Quite simply I am not a snitch and never will be.
Besides threatening (and carrying out) your imprisonment, what else did prosecutors do to try to compel you to testify?
All they did was tell me I had to testify under law. I replied that under the Constitution that with my freedom of speech I also had the freedom not to speak. The judge did not like that and threw me in jail. In the first hours I was thrown in a holding cell stripped naked and was approached by the federal prosecuter and told that this was my last chance to testify. I guess he was trying to humiliate me while I stood naked in the cell but I in fact he did not. In our history, all over the world people and political activists are tortured and even killed for their beliefs while I was just fine, other than behind bars. To turn would be weak and narcissistic at best.
What kind of a support network did you have within the activist community? Did it make a difference in your resolve?
Being put in a cell and all alone is a tactic used to make people feel alone and scared and compelled to testify. I felt empowered. I knew of all the suffering happening to the animal nations and even other humans. I knew I had a good life and turning on those who suffer because I was in a cell was simply unacceptable. Having said that, however, it is imperative to have support because we all need support and to know we are not alone. Even those who stand firm and are strong still need the support.
You became sort of a quasi-celebrity from your decision to refuse to cooperate. How did you turn state coercion into a public relations coup? Do you think the symbolism of your act helped the animal rights movement?
In the animal and environmental movement I was the second after Henry Hutto to be imprisoned for not testifying. Part of the resistance to the grand jury process is public outreach as this unconstitutional and fascist process spans to all walks of life, not just activists like me. Those who worked on freeing Henry after 45 days of not talking worked on my case so we knew the process better.
I think my resistance showed that anyone could resist the grand jury. I am no superman as I am just another person no different than anyone else in many ways. Really it is all about commitment in your beliefs. Are you really a true activist for your cause? Are you a government informant or are you an activist? If you feel that you cannot stand up for your beliefs you really should reconsider whether being an activist is for you.
Describe how grand jury subpoenas are used as a tactic by law enforcement to break social movements.
This is quite simple to answer. The grand jury process is an information gathering process that includes forcing people to appear and testify under the fear of having your freedom taken out from under you and at the same time not knowing when you can get out especially if you choose not to testify. With the process super secret it instills fear into people and disrupts from the inside. A sort of mild COINTELPRO process.
What message or advice would you convey to the Northwest Grand Jury resisters, based on your own experience?
All I can tell you is that from my own experience I see the world in a very dark place. Species extinction, the climate crisis, massive deforestation, dying oceans, human overpopulation, human suffering, and the systematic and continual torture, murder, and suffering of animals were at that time for me very compelling reasons to not testify and turn on my movement and my fellow activists let alone the animals and the planet. I saw the grand jury as a strong arm of the government and corporations whose continual behavior will destroy life as we know it on this planet. So for me to compromise my beliefs so I could be free while others suffer in ways I have never or never want to experience is narcissism at the highest level. I would never be able to live with myself.