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Muzzled Activist: The Case of Sherman Austin

Merlin Chowkwanyun
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

Almost one year has passed since Southern California-area activist and webmaster Sherman Austin entered federal prison for “distribution” of information about making or using explosives with the “intent” that such information “be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence.”

To date, he remains the only person sentenced under the vaguely worded 18 USC. 842 (p)(2)(A), pushed through Congress after years of effort by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Though the worst of his nightmare in the judicial system is over, Austin will nevertheless continue to face new challenges after prison.

On his site, Austin provided free space to activists looking for places to store their websites, and those taking Austin up on his offer could alter the contents of their websites independently of Austin. The offending material that ultimately sent Austin to prison contained amateurish bomb-making instructions authored by a teenage boy, who admitted to the FBI that he had assembled and uploaded the material – but whom the agency and prosecutors never arrested or charged.

Austin intended to fight the charges but eventually plead guilty due to advice from his federal public defender, Ronald Kaye, who feared that new “terrorism enhancements” in the federal sentencing guidelines would earned Austin an extra 20 years in prison. He received a one year sentence – three times that recommended by prosecutors – from federal judge Stephen Wilson. In hearings leading up to the eventual sentence, Wilson made critical statements about Austin’s political beliefs such as: “Why should someone at 19, who, arguably, has some misguidance on some geo-political issues be given a pass?”

Austin now faces three years of supervised release. During that time, his computer access may be monitored, and his equipment subject to announced and unannounced inspection. He is allowed to associate with activists and political groups except those that, in the words of the probation department, “espouse[s] violence or physical force as a means of intimidation or achieving economic, social, or political change.” Determining whether groups that, say, employ civil disobedience or street protest fall under such language may prove problematic.

Meanwhile, Austin’s troubles have been stressful for his family, most notably his mother, who lost her job as a result.

Multiple explanations

“It has depleted my finances – any money that was donated was used for organizing – and used for his commissary and visiting him. This organizing campaign has been extremely expensive and time consuming,” said Martin, who will begin working again in August. “It’s like someone took my life, put the pieces in a bucket and scattered them in a 20-acre field. I’ve survived.”

Most recently in February 2004, Martin attempted to recover computer equipment that the FBI had seized during the January 24, 2002 raid on Austin’s house that involved more than 20 agents. Those computers were returned, but without the hard drives containing Austin’s data. Martin has received multiple (and contradictory) explanations for this from FBI Agent John I. Pi, who headed the Austin investigation.

Agent Pi stated to Martin that the data needed to be destroyed, then later claimed it needed to be handed over to local prosecutors for possible state charges. Questions about the hard drives, such as their location and whether they will be returned, remain open.

FBI conduct in the case came under sharp criticism. Affidavits that Agent Pi wrote for judges to authorize the FBI raid – and a week later, the arrest of Austin – contained many factual errors, including claims that Austin authored the bomb-making instructions. FBI agents also enlisted the help of a right-wing militia member, who in e-mails to Austin attempted unsuccessfully to provoke him into writing self-incriminating replies.

“I get this e-mail from him saying that he wants to go with me to the Olympics to smash capitalism and do all this radical anti-capitalist stuff – like it wasn’t him at all,” Austin said of the e-mail, shortly before he entered prison. “The first thing I thought when I read that e-mail was FBI.”

Meanwhile, with the help of grassroots activists, Martin has been speaking out about the case at public panels throughout the past year.

“The positive thing about this is that there’s a passionate community out there that has offered me their undying support. On a spiritual level, I feel I have evolved tremendously. I have met some amazing people, especially young people. I really feel this world has a chance for surviving,” Martin said. “These kids are good people. They are trying so hard to create change in our world.”

Media outlets of both mainstream and left persuasion, however, continue to ignore the case for the most part. Although there has been rising criticism of the USA Patriot Act, few commentators from the establishment left, including magazines like The Nation and organizations like MoveOn, mention Austin in any of their writings on recent civil liberties incursions.

Still, the case has attracted support from some high-profile names, including musicians Zach de la Rocha and the Indigo Girls, novelist Russell Banks, historian Howard Zinn, and MIT professor and political activist Noam Chomsky, all of whom signed a petition in support of Austin.

But now, the good will of observers may be even more necessary. Hiring private legal help to ensure fair enforcement of Austin’s probation may prove costly. And Austin’s mother alone will no longer be able to dedicate as much time to her son’s case as she returns to work.

“There’s no way I would have been able to organize with the depth and focus had I been working full-time this year,” she said.

To help Sherman Austin out, mail Jennifer Martin @ 12115 Magnolia Blvd. #155, North Hollywood, CA 91607, or contact her at [email protected]. For more background information on the case, see Merlin Chowkwanyun, “A Strange and Tragic Legal Journey: The Case of Sherman Martin Austin,” Counterpunch,