America's Pussy Riot

We are quick to loathe Putin's demand to control freedom of speech, but turn a blind eye to Obama's "act of repression".

    America's Pussy Riot
    Leah-Lynn Plante knew she would go to jail for "resisting a Grand Jury" [ Jazeera]

    In July, I reported on a violent "thought crime" raid in Seattle, Washington, at the home of Occupy-affiliated activists. As I wrote then, "Most of America was not awake when a SWAT team burst in the front doors of an apartment in Seattle on the morning of July 10, 2012. Four local activists struggled to dress; but, they say, after the agents stormed in, they grabbed them physically. The activists reported that these agents tied their hands at the wrists, while holding automatic rifles poised against them."

    Vandalism had occurred in a protest in May; but the sight of several black-clad individuals engaging in vandalism against property hardly justified, many would say, the severe repression that followed.

    Many scoffed at that time at the notion of a "thought crime" arrest in the US and insisted that the victims of the militarised SWAT team must have done something to deserve the response. But the early reports turn out to beno exaggeration. Those peaceful activists, including 24-year-old Leah-Lynn Plante, are now being held in Federal prison for refusing to testify about other protesters to a Federal Grand Jury.

    The warrants issued for the original raid specifically targeted these activists for the colours they chose to wear - the original raid identified their black sweatshirts as one of the reasons for them to be subjected to arrest.

    The raid also targeted the literature which they chose to read in their homes (anarchist literature). Their home and lives were invaded, in violation of First and Fourth Amendment protections; and they are now being judged by a government which has recently defined even peaceful anarchists, in a newly released FBI presentation, as "Criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities".

    Unconstitutional weapon

    After the raids, the activists received subpoenas to face a Federal Grand Jury. Because one cannot retain the right to remain silent - that is, the right not to be forced to incriminate others - a  Grand Jury proceeding can be used as one of the most draconian and unconstitutional weapons in the Department of Justice's arsenal against peaceful activists. 

    In other words, if you choose to remain silent in a Grand Jury, you may face 18 months in jail. As Natasha Lennard, a long-time Occupy reporter, notes in her excellent continuing coverage of the case:

    "The closed-door procedures are rare instances in which an individual loses the right to remain silent. As was the case with the Northwest grand juries resisters, the grand jury can grant a subpoenaed individual personal immunity; Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination are therefore protected, but silence is not. In these instances, refusal to speak can be considered civil contempt. Non-co-operators can be jailed for the 18-month length of the grand jury." 

    Since the Seattle raid, the globe has been swept with outrage when the Russian activists Pussy Riot were jailed for similar expressions of their freedom of speech. Especially here in America, observers found the punitive role of Putin and the corruption of the Russian justice system to be intolerable. Many notables, from human rights groups to the rock star Madonna, stood up for the punk band with the rallying cry "Free Pussy Riot!" 

    "While Pussy Riot faced years in jail for patently absurd charges, the Seattle Three are facing up to 18 months in jail without any charges whatsoever."

    But in contrast, what is happening in our own back yard in Seattle has received almost no reporting, and no protest, not any similar outrage. They may not have ad ready symbols, like colourful masks and punk music, but the three activists now in prison are our very own Pussy Riot - America.

    While Pussy Riot faced years in jail for patently absurd charges, the Seattle Three are facing up to 18 months in jail without any charges whatsoever. Lennard writes:   

    "The two Portland-based activists, Leah-Lynn Plante and Dennison Williams, publicly announced late last month that they had been subpoenaed to appear in front of a federal grand jury in Seattle and that they would refuse to co-operate. During a grand jury hearing on August 2, Plante did just this - offering her name and birthdate only - and has been summoned to return for another hearing on August 30, where she again intends to say nothing. Meanwhile, it is believed a handful of other activists are fighting to quash subpoenas served to them with the shared intention of non-co-operation."

    System of inequality 

    Leah-Lynn Plante knew she would go to jail for doing the right thing - resisting a Grand Jury - as did her other friends from the raid. She created a video to let the world know what was happening to free speech in America.

    Her inspiring statement is exemplary of what it means to be an American, to be courageously dedicated to freedom: "No, I will not answer their questions," she remarks. "I believe that these hearings are politically motivated. The government wants to use them to collect information that it can use in a campaign of repression. I refuse to have any part of it."

    We need a single standard for championing those arrested for free speech "violations". How can we cry out for Pussy Riot's freedom in Moscow - and ignore the injustice unfolding in Seattle? Why are we so quick to loathe Putin's demand to control freedom of speech, but we turn a blind eye to President Obama's same act of repression?

    There is no moral justification.

    This campaign of fear, the chilling effect of such raids, is intended shamelessly to intimidate those who would protest the increasingly entrenched system of inequality in America. This campaign seeks to equate protest with anarchism, and in turn to equate peaceful anarchism - "anarchism" which can mean something as simple and non-threatening as a belief in grassroots-level social organisation - with terrorism.

    In Seattle as in Moscow: if you aren't free to think, to read, to communicate; then does it really matter that you are physically free?

    Jennifer Slattery is a former private investigator from NYC and a lifelong human rights activist.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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