Reflection from the Richard Hunsinger Defense Committee about organizing a support committee for an incarcerated activist from the George Floyd uprising.
The Atlanta Community Press Collective (ACPC) received the following submission on 3/3/2023 from a defense committee organizing on behalf of an Atlanta activist who was arrested during the uprisings in summer 2020. In the following statement, the defense committee describes its experience navigating the logistics of organizing a support network, identifying a criminal defense attorney, and streamlining communication between the incarcerated activist and members of the support network outside, among other challenges. The defense committee offers insight on this process to other activists seeking to support in the case of arrest, identifying areas of risk assessment and providing guidance for conducting legal research and establishing operational and digital security. The opinions herein are only reflective of the authors and not ACPC.
In November 2020, our close friend and comrade, Richard Hunsinger, was arrested in a multi-agency raid on charges stemming from his actions while protesting at a federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building in Atlanta, Georgia during the George Floyd Uprising. We, the Richard Hunsinger defense committee, began working immediately to support and free him. After two long years, Richard pleaded guilty to one count each of depredation of government property and assaulting, resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating, or interfering with an officer engaged in official duties. Richard was sentenced to 32 months of incarceration after a protracted legal battle. The government had requested a terrorism enhancement and recommended a sentence of 84 months incarceration, while the probation office had calculated a sentencing guidelines range of 262 to 327 months of incarceration. We are abolitionists and firmly believe that no one should be in a cage for any length of time, but we celebrate that Richard has a much shorter sentence than either recommendation and that the terrorism enhancement wasn’t applied.
We believe that we have a responsibility to reflect on our successes and failures. We hope that others on the left—especially other defense committees—will find our observations useful for their own work. We also hope to empower people who are interested in the work of prisoner and defendant support to feel like they can take it on. We started with no legal knowledge, just a desire to support and protect our friend, and were fairly successful in assisting his defense. We believe that it’s vital for the left to support the defendants who are a part of our movement. We also believe that our experience successfully resisting the attempted application of a terrorism enhancement represents a significant victory against the government’s ongoing retaliatory campaign against leftist protesters. Across jurisdictional levels, officials are experimenting with various tools to classify politically motivated offenses as terrorism. As we have seen with the Atlanta Forest Defenders, even alleged trespass can be deemed a terroristic offense if the government decides such classification serves their agenda.
When we started this process, we were scared and panicked. Our close friend had been taken from us and locked away in pre-trial detention in an ICE facility. Even before we could tackle the initial steps of finding a lawyer and organizing turnout for a bond hearing, we had to struggle to discover the most basic information—where he was and how to contact him—while terrified for his well-being. We started a Signal group message with close friends and made a to-do list. Our priorities were finding a lawyer who would be able to handle a case of this magnitude, supporting Richard through his detention, and getting him out as quickly as possible. With little expectation of how protracted and entrenched this process would become, we were forming what we would later learn to call a defense committee. Eventually, after some initial hurdles and hard-learned lessons, we would be able to reprioritize and act more strategically.
The fear of surveillance that gripped us after the raid was intense and overwhelming. We had been involved in political projects that cultivated some degree of security culture before, so we did our best to secure our communications without impeding our work. There were moments when we took it too far. We avoided things like Google Drive and unencrypted messaging even for information that was already public or would be utterly useless to the government. One of us even used a burner phone to communicate with Richard’s parents. We were very anxious to control how others spoke about the case online, becoming averse to social media in general, because we didn’t want to help the government map our social network. The feeling of constantly having to look over your shoulder isn’t good for anyone, especially not for over two years. We were probably more private than necessary out of a nebulous fear that the government would find something out. As time progressed, we got better at gauging what we actually needed to be careful about, but we still tended to move quietly behind the scenes, probably to the detriment of informing supporters and gaining new ones. The government’s goal is to make you feel like you can’t speak to others at all because you don’t know what is okay to say. Don’t share any information that could aid in an investigation and try to avoid helping the government make a social map of your movement, but don’t let fear get the best of you.
Richard was detained during a pre-vaccine COVID spike and was in preventative quarantine for his first two weeks inside. This meant that on top of facing the seriousness of his charges and trying to figure out what to do, Richard couldn’t even go outside and see the sky. It was an extremely crushing experience for him and for us as his loved ones who missed and worried about him. As his friends and his defense committee, we were his emotional and logistical support—it was challenging to do both, and arguably both the emotional and logistical sides suffered as a result.
We worked quickly to set up support structures. We created a public Twitter account encouraging supporters to write to Richard at an encrypted email account we set up. To save on postage, we printed multiple messages double-sided and sent them to Richard in batches. This way he could respond in one letter to all his messages, saving commissary money. We individually responded to each writer with a photo of Richard’s response so correspondence could be maintained. This was a fairly intensive effort on our end, but saved Richard a good deal of money and allowed him to communicate with people who were not comfortable sharing their names and addresses with prison authorities. We also mailed Richard books off a list he gave us. Due to facility restrictions, books could only be sent directly from the publisher and he could only have five books in his cell at a time. Having one person in charge of mailing books ensured they actually made it through all the restrictions without jeopardizing his current stash of books. Another useful thing we did was mail Richard a printed contact sheet of his close friends’ numbers and a rough schedule of their availability. Since his facility only allowed him to dial ten different contacts each month, we set up a system to rotate close friends on call duty. We set up a Keybase (like Slack or Discord, but encrypted) where we gathered our close supporters to share updates, delegate tasks, coordinate call times, provide support for each other, and share news or requests from Richard.
You’re not alone
One of the most important steps we took after Richard’s arrest was to connect with Tilted Scales Collective, a group of anarchist legal workers that supports political prisoners. On several occasions, a collective member offered one-on-one guidance and helped resolve specific questions. They wrote an incredibly helpful book, A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, which we read and sent to Richard (and a few other Atlanta protesters) in jail and read together as a defense committee. It offers invaluable advice for anyone working on a politically targeted case, and we cannot recommend it enough. You can read it for free online here or order a physical copy here.
Most importantly, Tilted Scales Collective helped us gain confidence in our work and reassured us that we weren’t alone. If you engage in this work, you will feel unsupported at times. Standing up to the carceral system feels like facing an unstoppable force. There were moments when we attempted to contact other prisoner and defendant support groups and couldn’t reach anyone, maybe because they were too busy or maybe because they didn’t know if we could be trusted. Later on, we went to cybersecurity activists and professionals looking for someone who could provide expert testimony, only to get referred endlessly to someone else. In these moments, it is critical to remember that you are part of a continuous struggle against repression of the people’s will. You have an obligation to your own humanity, to your movement, and to everyone who is unable or too afraid to fight back. You are not the first to go through this experience, and you will not be the last. Finding ways to stay grounded—through your personal relationships with each other and the knowledge that you are part of a larger historical movement for liberation—will keep you going.
Hiring an Attorney
Richard was arrested on a Thursday and assigned a public defender but he did not hear from them for days after his arrest. Multiple members of the defense committee and his parents attempted to facilitate contact with the public defender’s office, but it was a weekend and the office was already swamped. Because the bond hearing was scheduled for the following Tuesday (three business days after his arrest), we acted with extreme urgency. We had pre-existing connections with J20 defendants who referred us to one of their lawyers, who in turn recommended a few Georgia defense attorneys. Since we are part of a community that has dealt with political repression before, we were able to act quickly and come up with a short list of lawyers in a day. Richard chose an attorney from that list to represent him at the bond hearing. We were lucky that Richard’s family had the means to temporarily go out of pocket for a private attorney and that the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, our local community bail fund, was ultimately able to cover the cost. This is not to say that the public defender wouldn’t have done a good job—we have heard great things about the Atlanta federal public defender’s office, and we encouraged Richard and his family to consider sticking with them. However, given the seriousness of the charges, the lawyer Richard selected—a trial lawyer with experience in similar cases—was a great option.
Bond Hearing Preparation
Next, we started preparing for the bond hearing. We worked on gathering letters to the judge that spoke to Richard’s character and demonstrated he was not a flight risk. Richard’s lawyer gave us advice on how to write these letters and then we created a list of people who we knew could get us letters quickly. We divided up the contacts among defense committee members and followed up personally and continuously with everyone, ultimately collecting 14 letters. For hearing turnout, we went through our contacts and reached out to everyone we knew in the area, encouraging them to invite trusted friends, too. We also contacted local left groups in Atlanta and asked them to bring their members to pack the court. We provided information with our invitations: wear a mask and bring a government-issued ID, be aware that our actions in court will reflect on Richard, and do not come if you think you are likely to be questioned. We had a strong turnout of about 50 people.
Bond Hearing Aftermath
Since we weren’t familiar with the courthouse, we did not realize how few people would be allowed into the courtroom. It was a small room, and a large group of federal marshals took up most of them. The majority of attendees, including the members of our committee, stood outside the courtroom while Richard’s bond was denied. It was a crushing moment, especially because we could not even be in the room to see him. As his close friends, we were stunned and this setback hit us hard. We had not prepared for the worst-case scenario, emotionally or logistically, and didn’t know what to say or do. We should have prepared more proactively to communicate the next steps. Instead, we left supporters on a hopeless note when we said goodbye in the courthouse. We should have also done a better job of collecting attendees’ contact information—at some point, we did pass a notebook around to collect names and emails, but we missed the opportunity to start building a comprehensive contact list for future calls to action. This experience taught us that Richard’s supporters were looking to us for leadership. We had asked them to be there and we should have been better prepared to encourage them in the face of defeat.
After the hearing, the online alt-right began monitoring Richard’s case and attempting to incite harassment against Richard and his supporters. In our rush to submit our letters to the court, we didn’t realize they would be on the public record. Some of us included personal contact information in our signatures, making it accessible to anyone who created a PACER account and paid a small fee to access the letters. One of the letter writers used their graduate program’s letterhead, and Andy Ngo emailed their university in an attempt to get them fired or disciplined. Additionally, AntifaWatch, a Twitter account that monitors cases of left-wing protesters and publishes their personal information, pulled pictures from Richard’s girlfriend’s public social media accounts to add to regularly posted updates on Richard’s legal proceedings. We realized that a lot of our personally identifiable information was accessible and any of us could be the next target.
Many of us had stressful conversations with our bosses explaining the situation in hopes of getting ahead of potential doxxing. Fortunately, one of our defense committee members was trained on doxxing prevention and response at her job, and she shared resources and connected our targeted writer to privacy experts for further support. We created instructions for the other letter writers on easy steps to increase their privacy and minimize risk which you can read here. We decided to use DeleteMe, a paid service that removes personal information like addresses, emails, and phone numbers collected by data brokers online. We created a chain of referral codes for all of our letter writers and close supporters (Richard’s parents, girlfriend, and defense committee members) so that people could easily and cheaply remove their personal information from the internet. We also immediately contacted Richard’s lawyer to provide a redacted copy of the letters to submit in place of the original letters.
It was an incredibly stressful situation that could have been avoided. The negative attention scared off some initial supporters, intimidated our targeted writer, and left us rattled and anxious. We highly recommend that other defense committees assume that the right will be monitoring their work and act accordingly. We fundamentally restructured our approach to sharing information publicly after this incident, avoiding social media entirely and instructing supporters to never speak about Richard’s case online. This had downsides—some people were left out of the loop or struggled to find information about the case that wasn’t from the right, but ultimately we believe it was the right decision. Despite the right’s continued monitoring of and reporting on the case, no one else was harassed.
Richard’s lawyer soon filed for a reconsideration of Richard’s detention. We began recruiting people to attend this second hearing, emailing and texting everyone we could reach who had attended the first one. We had more time which allowed us to get more local groups to attend with their members. We provided instructions for joining the hearing, which was virtual this time, giving attendees a general idea of what to expect so they would feel less intimidated. Close to 130 supporters attended, and Richard’s bond was granted, with the judge citing the impressive amount of community support as one of the deciding factors. Richard began his house arrest in Virginia, at his parent’s home, right after Christmas.
With Richard out, we were able to begin planning for the future. This was a privilege we had over other defense committees whose defendants are not granted bond. Actively supporting someone in detention takes a lot of time and energy. We were lucky to be able to redirect that energy toward preparing a legal defense without having to worry as much about Richard’s well-being.
We began a series of Know Your Rights trainings for local Atlanta left groups. At this point, the feds were knocking on doors and asking people questions about protests. We believed that other arrests were likely and that the investigation was ongoing. We had started sharing this information immediately after Richard’s arrest, asking everyone close to him not to speak to any officers without a lawyer present, but we wanted to inoculate as many people in Atlanta as possible against questioning. We adopted a “Train the Trainer” model to empower participants to share this information more broadly. We prepared a training presentation and supplemental materials and reached out to the groups we had invited to the bond hearings. We delivered a one-hour presentation where we facilitated practice sessions and answered questions as best as we could. We also used these sessions as an opportunity to recruit people interested in supporting Richard and included a plug to stay connected with us at the end.
Planning for the Future
We began having weekly defense committee meetings. In this period, we were uncertain of whether Richard would go to trial or change his plea, but we used this as an opportunity to work ahead and make progress wherever possible. We kept running notes for every meeting using Cryptpad, an encrypted open-source office suite, and used a shared Google Drive to organize our less sensitive research and other documents. After reading the Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant in jail, Richard solidified his personal, legal, and political goals. His most important goal was to not provide any information that could lead to the prosecution of anyone else, and we took this as the foundation of our work. Additionally, we were concerned about what the precedent of applying the terrorism enhancement to his case would mean for other protesters and focused on preventing that.
This was a strange period where the case did not move much—for all of 2021 and a large chunk of 2022, almost nothing happened. Since we were no longer sharing information about the case publicly, we took this time to build and update our supporter contact list for private communications. We collected the emails of everyone who wrote to Richard while he was detained, everyone who attended a bond hearing, and everyone we knew personally who would want to follow Richard’s case. Then we tagged these people in Google Contacts (ex. “bond writer,” “jail correspondence,” “close supporter,” etc.) so we could keep track of different subgroups and contact them as needed.
When it began to seem likely that Richard would change his plea, we started preparing to collect character letters for a sentencing hearing. We created a list of everyone we could think of who would be willing to write a letter for Richard and divided these contacts among ourselves. We asked people far in advance if they would write us a letter so we knew we could call on them when the time came. We created a template and guidelines for the letters to the judge (based partly on our past experience with the bond hearing) which included general recommendations on what to write and information about privacy concerns. We shared this document with our letter writers so they could get started early. This strategy allowed us to collect 50 letters with minimal stress. We also shared our templates with Atlanta Jail Support so that they could use them for other protest-related cases, like those of the arrested Forest Defenders.
Terrorism Enhancement Research
Our other big effort during this period was intensive research on the government’s application of the terrorism sentencing enhancement (U.S.S.G. §3A1.4) in cases related to the 2020 protests and the January 6 Capitol Breach. Richard’s lawyer anticipated that sentencing disparities in these cases would be important to the judge’s decision, and started trusting us with paralegal work after we demonstrated our competency and commitment through organizing turnout and collecting letters. We used a dataset from the Prosecution Project and the DOJ’s list of Capitol Breach cases to identify the research populations, and narrowed the list down to felony convictions using data from the Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Database. Then we retrieved the sentencing hearing transcripts for those cases to see if the government recommended a terrorism enhancement and, if so, how the judge evaluated it. This was an expensive and lengthy process—PACER (the online federal court records system) charges you to view and download documents, and transcripts aren’t available online until 90 days after someone else has requested and received them. When a transcript wasn’t available on PACER, we requested and purchased it directly from the court reporter at a higher rate. As we got closer to Richard’s sentencing date, we had to request expedited 14-day transcripts which were even more costly.
We contacted the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and they agreed to reimburse us for research costs since it would help Richard’s case and could benefit other protesters. We were able to front the initial cost, knowing we’d be paid back eventually, but the expense of court research is a factor that, like everything else in the criminal punishment system, disproportionately punishes the poor. You can read a more detailed summary of our research here.
Once we got the transcripts, we had to read each one multiple times since we don’t have legal training and didn’t always understand the specific terminology and arguments presented. We had one person focused on the data analysis and administrative tasks (figuring out which cases to look at, tracking government recommendations versus actual sentences, requesting transcripts, etc.) and one person reading the transcripts. This division of labor allowed both parties to specialize in their area which made the work progress faster. Eventually, after all this research, we discovered that the use of a terrorism enhancement is fairly rare—this worried us since it suggested Richard was being targeted for political reasons.
After sharing our research with Richard’s lawyer, he asked us to write a declaration that we would sign under oath at the sentencing hearing. This declaration summarized our research and highlighted important cases we felt the judge should look at before making her decision.
The Sentencing Hearing
As we finalized our research, we began planning for hearing turnout. After nearly two years of limbo, Richard was finally presented with a plea deal he could accept—one that didn’t require him to cooperate with the government or plead guilty to a charge with a mandatory minimum. We sent the first big update for supporters since Richard had been released on bond and reminded people still working on sentencing letters that we would need them back soon. Once the hearing date was finalized, we created a two-month plan for packing the court. We brainstormed groups to contact, followed up with groups who had attended the bond hearings, and stressed the importance of not talking about the case on social media to avoid harassment.
We created a Google Form for sign-ups so we could estimate how many people were coming, and asked people to share their emails and phone numbers so we could send reminders. We also found local housing for out-of-town attendees and helped arrange carpools for people who needed rides. The day before the hearing, we sent guidelines on what to expect and how to prepare for court.
One of the recurring themes of this experience is that we were always surprised in court. This was due in part to our lack of legal knowledge and experience, but also due to the nature of court proceedings. Most of what happens in that room is completely out of your control. Even the lawyers can only do so much—the judge has vastly powerful discretion. You can’t prepare for every contingency. Tell your supporters to expect the unexpected and do the best you can to have open communication.
On the day of the hearing, we assigned a member of the defense committee to stand outside to direct people and told supporters that we would be unable to answer messages once the hearing started. We arrived early and packed the courtroom so completely that an overflow room was necessary. We had anticipated this and had asked Richard’s lawyer to request a larger courtroom or overflow room so people wouldn’t end up standing around in the hall like we did at the bond hearing. The judge referenced the high turnout positively at numerous points during the day so we knew we had made an impact.
Due to an extraordinary amount of disagreements between the prosecution and defense over the sentencing guidelines calculations, the judge decided to continue the hearing in three weeks’ time. This was shocking to us—we thought we had prepared for every outcome and did not consider the possibility of a continuance. We left the hearing confused and stressed out. We had been working towards this date for months with the expectation that it would finally provide a conclusion to Richard’s case but were left with more uncertainty.
Despite being momentarily discouraging, the extra three weeks allowed us to tie up some loose ends in our research. Plus, we knew we had a turnout strategy that worked. For the second hearing, we used the same tactics. While we had fewer supporters than our first hearing (no overflow room needed), we still completely packed the courtroom.
Richard’s lawyer had us submit our written declaration to the judge to present our research. We were wary of entering our names and places of employment in the public record of a politically charged case, so we requested that the court not include our workplaces in the transcript. We only knew to take this security precaution because of the previous doxxing experience, but you don’t have to learn the hard way. We recommend that you assess the risks of associating your personal information with a high-profile case before doing so—you can always ask your defendant’s lawyer about other options that can protect your privacy.
The judge ultimately decided that the terrorism enhancement did not apply and sentenced Richard to 32 months of incarceration—well under the government’s request for 84 months and the court’s own calculated guidelines range of 51-67 months. While we are saddened that Richard will spend any time incarcerated, especially without any credit for his two years on house arrest in a different state, we ultimately are pleased with this outcome and the denial of the government’s recommendations.
We accomplished an enormous amount of work for the hearing, but it bears repeating that what happens in court is out of your control. Part of the cruelty of the criminal punishment system is that the defendant’s fate is largely dependent on the whims of a judge who is motivated by his or her own ideological commitments. Richard is a white, affluent, college-educated activist, and the judge had a soft spot for him. The outcome may have been very different—almost certainly worse—with a different defendant or judge. The judge could have given a sentence of time served if she were not bound by a sense of institutional propriety. You can only do your best to manage the things within your control. It is hard to accept that the fate of your friend is out of your hands, but the only way to do this work is to accept the lack of control and do what you can in spite of it.
Our experience shows the impact that strong community support can have. Your work and your presence in court may take years off of someone’s sentence, and your support can keep a defendant from spiraling into despair and hopelessness. We hope this reflection is helpful for others supporting defendants and prisoners and encourages others to find ways to get involved in this vital work. We can be reached for questions and further communication at [email protected]. You can keep up with Richard’s case, write to him, and access all our resources here. Until we are all free!
photo: Jéan Béller via Unsplash