Filed under: Anarchist Movement, Critique, Incarceration, Interviews, Political Prisoners, Radio/Podcast, Repression, Technology, The State, US
In this interview for the June 11th International Day of Solidarity with Marius Mason and All Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners, we talked to Grace from Jeremy Hammond support.
Jeremy Hammond is a long-time anarchist and hacker who is serving 10 years in prison for leaking information about Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor), a private intelligence firm engaged in spying at the behest of corporations and governments. Jeremy was arrested in March 2012, and has remained vocal and defiant behind bars.
We talked about Jeremy’s case, repression Jeremy has faced for his defiant attitude, the potential for solidarity between the hacker and anti-prison worlds, long-term support for prisoners, the generalization of prisoner support amongst anarchists, Lauri Love, and the specific nature of supporting anarchist prisoners.
JUNE 11TH: Can you start by telling us about yourself and your experience with prison and prisoner support?
GRACE: Sure. My name is Grace North. I’ve been heading up the Jeremy Hammond committee since 2013. Before that I had really no formal experience in prison support. I had participated in it tangentially through other activist work that I did, but before that I had never really done any formal prison support. When Jeremy asked me to do it I said, “Sure!” not really realizing what I was getting myself into. All of my experience with prison support has really been learning as I go along. I joke with people that my strategy is to just bumble along and hope I don’t mess things up too badly. It seems to be going okay so far.
J11: Can you speak to the importance of prisoner solidarity as part of the anarchist project and other liberation struggles, in specific to the necessity of long term prisoner support?
G: Absolutely. I feel that prisoner support, especially for us anarchists, is inextricably tied with our values as anarchists. One of our core principles is the principle of solidarity, especially solidarity with the oppressed, and honestly prisoners are some of the most oppressed and the most marginalized people in this country, especially because most of the prison population is made up of black and brown people. If we as anarchists are not engaging in all areas of solidarity, we really have no business calling ourselves anarchists in the first place because anarchy is all about solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. I think it’s hugely important for us to engage in this and so often it is a little bit overlooked.
We do a really good job in the beginning where there’s all this hype and energy, but sustaining that energy can be a hard in any activist project. For long term prisoners, we need to especially keep that going because prison is so brutally dehumanizing that the longer you’re there the more it wears on you, the more it does its best to grind you down. We need to be especially supporting long term prisoners.
J11: Can you tell us more about Jeremy, his case, and what he’s up to now?
G: Sure. Jeremy is a lifelong activist. He’s being doing activism pretty much his entire life. He was part of a hacking group. They were known as LulzSec, later known as AntiSec. AntiSec was sort of an offshoot of LulzSec. In the beginning, it was hacking just for a little bit of mayhem. Later, especially with Jeremy’s hacks, it became more political. Jeremy tied in his politics as an anarchist with his hacking. He hacked Stratfor. He hacked several police and law enforcement related groups and organizations. Unbeknownst to him, unfortunately, one of the other members of the group, Hector Monsegur, had been arrested several months prior on identity-theft-related charges and agreed to turn state’s witness. So, all this time he was being watched by the FBI. Hector Monsegur helped the FBI connect the dots and lead them to Jeremy. Jeremy was then arrested in March of 2012.
J11: Can you speak to how the strengths or failings of prisoner support have personally affected Jeremy?
G: I know absolutely 100% that the support that he received from the outside and from various groups, such as yourself and from other individuals have absolutely helped him maintain his spirit. He remains strong, vocal, and defiant. I know a large part to the support from the people outside is writing him, sending him books, really just keeping his spirits up and reminding him that he’s not alone and that no matter how much prison and the system tries to strip him of who he is, he’s still there and there’s still people that care about him and see him. I think that importance of being seen just really has kept his spirits up.
J11: Years into his sentence, Jeremy has remained vocal and defiant. I know he releases a lot of statements, there’s some sort of Twitter feed. Has he faced any repercussions for his outspoken attitude?
G: Absolutely. For those who may be listening who do not know, he was sent to the segregated housing unit, also know as solitary confinement. I believe it was last summer right after the shooting in Dallas where several police officers were killed, he released a tweet that basically said that everybody on the inside was excited to see the police get some get back and he ended it with “Support the Dallas shooter.” He didn’t say, “you yourself should go out and kill cops” or anything like that, he just said “Support the Dallas shooter.” For that statement, he was placed in SHU. At first, he didn’t know why. They wouldn’t tell him why he was placed in SHU. And unfortunately, the process in SHU is that they can put you in SHU for 90 days without charge. At the end of 90 days they either have to charge you or let you go. Unfortunately, if they charge you and you are found guilty of whatever infraction it is, the 90 days that you’ve already spent in SHU doesn’t count towards whatever sentence you’re handed out. So, you can spend 90 days in SHU and if it’s a severe shot you can get however much longer. SHU and solitary are torture. They are absolutely inhumane.
At fist when he was sent down to SHU they wouldn’t tell him why he was there. They wouldn’t tell him what was going on. And then the warden personally visited and basically said to Jeremy, “Look you’re not our problem anymore. We’re sending you to a CMU”, which again, for those who may be listening who don’t know what a CMU is, it stands for Communication Management Unit. There are only two in the entire country. It’s sort of like a prison within a prison where your communications are very highly restricted, there are no in-person visits, you get one 15 minute phone call per week that must be between certain hours of the day. It’s extremely restrictive. They’re hell. Several anarchist prisoners have spent time in them. Daniel McGowan. Walter Bond, also I believe may still be in a CMU or may have just got out. People that are in CMU are people that have been convicted of terrorism-related charges. I think something like 80% of people in CMUs are Muslim. They came down and they said, “Look you’re not our problem anymore.” Those were their exact words: that he was not their problem and they were sending him away. We all worried for weeks and weeks and weeks. We didn’t know what was happening. He didn’t know what was happening. He didn’t know if he was going to get transferred, so we were all sick. Everybody that knows him and supports him was sick for weeks wondering what was going to happen, where he was going to go, how they were going to punish him.
In the end, he had another talk with people at the prison that basically outlined exactly what he could say and what he couldn’t and they sent him back to general population. So, he was sent to solitary, threatened with being transferred to this other prison environment that is even more highly restrictive than the one he’s in, and then nothing. He was given a low level shot and then sent back. He’s had email and phone taken. He had email taken for writing a letter of support for Barrett Brown because he sent it to someone else to be given to Barrett Brown’s judge. He has over and over again been penalized for speech and been penalized for being just who he is.
J11: That reminds me – I recently saw a picture of Jeremy with one of the Cleveland 4. I think it was Connor or Brandon?
G: Connor Stevens, yeah. They hang out pretty regularly. Jeremy has tried to befriend Connor considering they’re both sort of the same kind of person on the inside. He has tried to be someone that he can talk to if he needs it. Of the Cleveland 4, he’s a little bit of the reclusive one. Connor’s been going through some stuff recently that I don’t know if I’m at liberty to talk about so I’ll just leave it at that. And Jeremy has tried to befriend him and guide him through what he’s going though.
J11: So, with Chelsea Manning recently released from prison and the government still seeking to capture Edward Snowden and Lauri Love, what do you think the future looks like for repression against hackers and information leakers?
G: Well, with this administration I honestly don’t have much hope. I feel like especially with Trump saying over and over again he’s the law and order candidate and Sessions taking such a hard line against things like prison reform, hackers, activists, and people with a political motive are going to be treated a little bit more harshly because they’re going up against such a fascist regime. It hurts me to say that, but I’m not hopeful and I feel like these next four years are going to involve a lot of really hard work to support a lot of really good people. I don’t want that fear to hold people back. I do want people to be very careful. I do want people to follow their conscience and do what they feel is right and what they feel is necessary, but honestly it really scares me. It really scares me, which is why I feel like prisoner support – we’re going to need more people, we’re going to need people who are committed, we’re going to need people who are in it for the long run because again, I’m not hopeful with the administration with the way it is.
J11: On that note, generally we see a pretty small number of people doing a lot of the support work for anarchist prisoners. Do you see any potential for expanding those roles and building on connections between other movements and communities and prisoner support efforts?
G: Absolutely. I’ve spoken about this before. The internet has become such an integral part of how we communicate with each other and how we spread information that I feel like the hacker community is really good at supporting its own. It’s pretty good at that. But unfortunately, the hacker community tends to be overwhelmingly white and male and they sort of forget about all these other really awesome people that also need support. The potential is there. It’s there. The hacker community just needs to open itself up a little bit. We also tend to be very insular. The hacker community just needs to open itself up a little bit more and recognize that they have such a huge potential to help so many people and to spread information and to get activists mobilized and to just do things. They need to recognize that it’s not just them that’s suffering. Many other communities are suffering. Many other people are suffering. We need to, as a community, offer our skills to not only lift up their voices, but to expand the scope of who we reach and how we reach them. I just think it’s so important for hacktivists and the hacker community to get in line with.
J11: It’s really good to hear that you’re hopeful about those connections being strengthened.
G: I really hope that they can be because there’s just so much potential there. I know I keep saying that, but there is. There’s so much potential. Look at how protests can be mobilized in a day just getting the word out, especially on social media, Twitter, Facebook. You don’t even have to be technically a hacker. I mean right now we’re looking at the prospect of the government going after WikiLeaks. What’s going to happen to people like Jeremy? I talked to some friends who are hackers and computer people and I said, “Look, I might need some help if this happens” and immediately I had 8-10 people go, “You know what? We got you if this happens. We can put websites back up. The down time will be a day at most. We got this.” I would really like to see that solidarity expanded further beyond supporting fellow hacktivists.
I did a talk in Berlin where I tied in other whistle blowers from other movements. People know who Chelsea Manning is. They know who Jeremy Hammond is, but do they know who Jeffrey Sterling is? He’s a black former CIA agent that blew the whistle on the CIA. People know who Eric Garner is. Do they know who Ramsey Orta is? Ramsey Orta filmed Eric Garner’s death and, to me, that’s being a whistle blower. That is taking action in the face of the overwhelming repression that Ramsey Orta has faced. I mean, he’s in jail on trumped up weapons charges. Do they know who people like Ramsey Orta are? Not just do they know who he is, but do they support him? Do they support the NODAPL protesters, who again in the face of overwhelming government repression brought light to the brutality of capitalism and the police state by being there, by putting their bodies on their line to protect sacred land and water? Do they support activists in countries that are facing overwhelming repression by the government just being out on the streets? It’s not just hackers who can be whistle blowers and that’s something that I really think the hacktivist community needs to get in their heads. You don’t have to hack to be a whistle blower. If you support whistle blowers, you need to support all whisper blowers, including people like Jeffrey Sterling, people like Ramsey Orta, people like those out there protesting DAPL. We need to support them all, not just the ones that fall within our narrow, overwhelming white and male community.
J11: That’s a really good point that you bring up. There are just so many people in prison who need and deserve our support. Can you speak to other challenges of prisoner solidarity and what you think we could collectively be doing better?
G: I think one of the major challenges to supporting prisoners is that after a while it’s not flashy anymore. When there’s the trial, we got all this great momentum. We got to support them, we got to make sure they got letters, we got to do this, this, this, and this. And when there’s a sentence and when the hype dies down a little bit, it doesn’t become so urgent. It becomes doing things like making sure he has books, making sure we collect money so he can have a little bit extra for commissary. It becomes these not flashy tasks and people tend to fall away because it’s not such an urgent need. It’s not right now. It’s just these little things you have to do every month, every week, just these little tasks that take time and energy, but they’re not the big or flashy things.
I think that we need to get to a place where we carry that momentum through the entire sentence, not just when there’s a big urgent need. When there’s a big urgent need people show up, even after the sentence is over. When Jeremy gets thrown in SHU, it’s outrage. It’s, “Should we write letters, should we make calls, should we do this or this or this?” That’s great. I really love seeing people support him in any way that they can, but then what about right now? When he’s doing okay? And when I say okay I mean as okay as you can possibly can be in such a horribly, brutally dehumanizing and repressive environment. When I ask him how he is and I try to feel out how he’s doing, he always tells me, “I’m fine” so when I say okay that’s sort of what I mean. What about now? When things are relatively quiet? When there’s not that big urgent need? Are people still writing? Are people still sending him books? It doesn’t even have to be a whole letter. He loves getting memes because he’s like, “I miss the internet.” So, if you see a meme and you’re like “Oh man, that’s funny” do you print it out? Do you send it to him? Or do you just click over to the next meme? Like I said, now there’s not a huge need to raise for a lawyer, but we still need money for his commissary so he can be as comfortable as possible. Do you send him $5 a month so he can buy stamps, so he can make phone calls? Are you writing to other prisoners that maybe aren’t as famous as him and making sure they have what they need? Building that initial momentum, but time and time again I’ve seen that momentum just die out. That’s frustrating as someone who’s in it for the long term, but especially for the prisoners. That is really frustrating for them because they’re like, “Well I’m really good at being recognized when there’s an urgent need, but what about right now when I just wish I had a letter to read?”
J11: Yeah. That’s something that we’re hearing from a number of people that we’ve been talking to.
G: That makes me really frustrated. It just hurts my heart because I know how important support is for people on the inside. That you’re hearing it from multiple people just really hurts my hurt.
J11: In what way can you see June 11th addressing some of these challenges? And what are your hopes for June 11th this year?
G: I really love you guys because you are that momentous push, that little reminder that these prisoners are still here and they still need your support, even though we’re not in that time of crisis. I love days like June 11th because again it just reminds people that prisoners are still there and that even though they may not be hearing much from them or that they may be quiet or that they may have already taken a plea or are serving a sentence, that they’re still there and they still need support. I love you guys. I love other groups that do days like this, like the day for trans prisoners. I really love them just because again it reminds people that they’re still there. My hope this year is the same as every year: that people don’t forget, that they remember, that they use that remembering to not just remember but to also go out and educate others, get other people who may not be involved or might not know about these people to get involved.
J11: What are your broader hopes and visions both for June 11th, but also prisoner solidarity in general for the years to come?
G: My hope is that prisoner support, instead of being a side project of the anarchist movement, becomes central to the anarchist movement. Because from what I’m seeing a lot of prison support is a side project. It’s like a niche market. “Oh, these people do prison support.” No – everyone should do prison support. Everyone should be writing to prisoners. There are groups out there – Black & Pink, all Anarchist Black Crosses – that keep lists, not just of anarchist prisoners, black liberation prisoners, eco prisoners. There are so many people from such a wide swath of life experiences that even if you’re not an anarchist, you can write to people. You can write to people that have zero political views, if you want. Just please write to them, send them pictures, memes, if you can financially support them, please do. It’s not just anarchist prisoners that need support. It’s all prisoners. No matter what they’ve done. No matter what they’re in for. They need support.
J11: Are there any struggles or moments in the recent past that have been inspiring to you?
G: I am just so floored to see that the antifascist movement is getting more mainstream, getting more press, and getting way more visible. I’ve been antifascist and involved in antifascist work for over a decade at this point, so it really just thrills me that that’s getting more mainstream, that people are getting out there and getting in the streets. I’ve been absolutely inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, by the Indigenous Water Protectors that again, in the face of brutal police repression mixed with the brutality of capitalism have been out there putting their lives and bodies on the line to bring these injustices to light. It’s super inspiring. I feel like especially under Obama people got – well, some people, not all people – got a little complacent because we had this great liberal president. Meanwhile, deportation sky rocketed, use of drones skyrocketed. “It’s okay because he’s liberal. It’s a liberal dropping the bombs on wedding parties, not some evil Republican doing it.” Again, it worries me that we’re really good at starting movements, but we need to keep that momentum going and carry that through. I want to see that done and the fact that it is being done warms my heart.
J11: Are there any other projects you’re involved with or have interest in that you’d like to talk about?
G: Prisoner support is my main thing. Besides Jeremy, the case of Lauri Love is still going. People need to keep eyes on that. Even though Lauri’s not in jail and he’s currently free, the case and the ongoing worry about it has taken a huge toll on him physically and mentally. I would really like to see people support him because he’s such a great guy. He doesn’t deserve to be kidnapped to the United States to face our horrible, draconian legal system. Every legal system is horrible and draconian, but ours seems to be especially bad. I’d really like to see people support and not forget about him because he’s not in jail currently, but the case is still taking a huge toll.
J11: I’m actually not familiar with Lauri’s case. Could you talk about that a little bit?
G: Absolutely. I love talking about people. This is all alleged. Nothing has been proven in court. He was allegedly part of Op Last Resort, which was in response to the death of Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz, if people don’t know, was a hacktivist who was being tried for downloading academic papers and releasing them for free on the internet. Aaron was facing millions of dollars in fines, decades in prison, and instead of risking that, he instead chose to take his own life. Op Last Resort was in reaction to him taking his own life in the face of this brutal persecution. They did things like deface the US Sentencing Commissions homepage. Lauri is alleged to have hacked everything from the EPA to the Missile Defense System of the United States to the DoD. There’s a whole list of things he’s alleged to have hacked. Right now, what we’re fighting for is for him to be tried in the UK. They want to bring him here. He’s facing possibly over 90 years in prison, millions of dollars in fines. He has indictments in three separate jurisdictions: one is the southern district of New York, which is the district that Jeremy was tried in, one is the district of New Jersey (New Jersey’s all one district), and one is the eastern district of Virginia, which some other hacktivists have also been tried in. None of these districts are very friendly to hacktivists, so right now what we’re fighting for since he is a UK citizen and since the alleged crimes occurred while in he was on UK soil, we’re fighting for him to be tried in the UK. I’ve already highlighted the brutal repression of the American Justice System, but in addition to that there’s also huge sentencing disparities. For example, Jeremy’s co-defendants. The longest any one of them served is 20-30 months. I’m not sure the exact number, but Jeremy spent almost as much of that time just in pre-trial detention before he was sentenced. We’re talking huge sentencing disparities.
Lauri would have no family support, he would have no support system in the United States. Lauri has Aspergers. He suffers from depression. Bringing him here to try him would be a death sentence. Lauri has said very clearly numerous times that he will kill himself before he will allow himself to be taken here. He is autistic. He suffers from depression. He has physical medical problems as well. That’s all being exacerbated by the stress from the whole situation. From what I’ve seen from the American Justice System, I don’t blame him for saying that he’d rather kill himself than come here. One of the things that we’re trying to highlight in the case is the sentencing disparity from the UK and the US. In the US, Lauri’s facing decades and decades and decades in prison, millions of dollars in fines. In the UK, he’d be facing exponentially less than that. Lauri has no support system here. He has all of his family, his friends, all of this in the UK. Bringing him here, especially with the horrible way that mental health is dealt with in American prisons – in that, it’s not dealt with at all, it’s ignored, and people are left to suffer – that would be a death sentence.
J11: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
G: I think I want to speak specifically for a moment to the importance of supporting anarchists in prison. We touched on this earlier, but the one thing I want to get across to people about why prison support is so important is that prison is so brutal and so dehumanizing in a way that people who haven’t experienced it can’t understand. It does everything in its power to strip you of your autonomy, who you are, what you believe, just of everything. It grinds you down day after day to the point where you just lose who you are. For someone, especially like anarchists whose entire life has been decided to dismantling the state and the systems of oppression, to then be completely subject to the very system that you’ve been working your entire like to dismantle, is extra hard and brutal and dehumanizing. The support from the outside is what keeps people going. It’s what gives them hope that this is not forever, that one day they’re going to be free. I cannot stress how important that is for every prisoner, not just for anarchist prisoners, but I think especially for anarchist prisoners, that the letters and the books and the memes, it keeps them going and it reminds them that they’re loved and that they’re not forgotten. While it may just be 15 minutes on our end of writing a letter, sending a meme, donating, it’s the world to people that are in prison. I can’t overstate how important it is to the prisoners. If you don’t know what to say, if you don’t know how to go about it, ask. There are so many people out there that are willing to help, that are willing to guide you, that are willing to show you the ropes. I had someone DM the other day and say, “Hey, I want to start a letter writing night for prisoners in my town. How do I do that?” And I’m like “Great! Awesome! Here’s how you do this. It’s really simple.” It’s so simple. It’s such a simple thing that means so much to people. If you need help, if you don’t know what to do, if you don’t know how to do it, there are so many great organizations. The Anarchist Black Crosses – they’re always there to help people. The June 11th committee, you guys are there. People who run the Head Up defense campaign for prisoners. Ask them. Go to them. They’re always so willing to help. Please just do it. I can’t say it any more plainly. Just please do it because it means so much and is such a lifeline to so many people.