On the seventeenth floor of San Francisco's Philip Burton Federal Building, a grand jury may or may not have been convened to track down the whereabouts of Daniel Andreas San Diego, the animal-rights activist and prime suspect in the 2003 bombings of Chiron Laboratories and the Shaklee Corporation. As a matter of policy, the US Attorney's office refuses to confirm or deny the existence of any grand jury. But activist Nadia Winstead claims that the feds have subpoenaed her and ordered her to testify about whatever she might know about San Diego. On the morning of August 17, she and roughly sixty people showed up at the courthouse to tell a federal prosecutor to go to hell.
The entrance to the federal building is a hodgepodge of bomb security features masquerading as public art; concrete hillocks rise before the doors, with steel posts driven into the ground before each possible driveway. The tableau has been thoroughly knobbed to keep thrashers from riding their skateboards up and down the paths. At 9 a.m., Winstead and her friends distributed posterboards denouncing the federal government. Although there's little foot traffic around the courthouse, they lined up before the entrance and waved signs reading "Fight repression resist grand juries" and "Grand jury out of SF."
Winstead, a slight young woman with short brown hair, clogs, and black slacks, doesn't just refuse to talk to the federal government. "I'm not a media type of person," she mumbles. Digging through her possessions, she produces a sheet of paper with sound bites for the press: "The federal government is willing to use every trick in the book to silence our dissent," reads one, "but we will not be silenced." When asked about how long she's lived in the city, or what kind of animal-rights activism she does, her associate Kris Hermes intervened. "You're probably asking the same questions the grand jury is going to," he scolded.
Hermes is one of the main organizers of the Grand Jury Resistance Project, an ad hoc group of lawyers, law students, and self-described "legal activists," including the National Lawyers Guild and Oakland's Midnight Special Law Collective. In the past few years, the federal government has convened grand juries to investigate allegations of bombings and arson related to animal rights, environmentalism, and anarchist demonstrations. In response, Hermes and his colleagues have created a sort of "stop snitching" campaign, in which they not only provide legal advice to subpoenaed activists, but encourage them not to talk, and thus risk going to jail for up to eighteen months.
Grand juries have been on the minds of activists since May 2005, when an FBI agent told a Senate subcommittee that animal-rights and environmental extremists constituted "one of today's most serious domestic terrorism threats." Last year, a federal grand jury was convened to reopen the investigation into the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer; several former Black Panthers were jailed for refusing to testify. A grand jury in Eugene has been opened to investigate a string of arson attacks in the Pacific Northwest, and activist Jeff Hogg is sitting in jail for refusing to talk. A grand jury in New Jersey indicted seven people for conspiracy to harass the business affiliates of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a firm that uses animals in pharmaceutical and cosmetic tests.
Earlier this year, Hermes and a few lawyers and fellow activists decided that leftist movements needed a special service to advise people on how a grand jury works, what their rights are, and what they can do if they get a subpoena. The answer, of course, is not much. No judge presides over the grand jury, evidence in defense of grand jury targets cannot be presented, and the proceedings are secret. As a result, Hermes claims, people who don't understand the process can be easily intimidated into spilling their guts, even if the prosecutor is going well beyond the scope of the investigation and looking for basic intelligence about antiwar or animal-rights movements. "They are fishing expeditions," he says of the most recent grand juries. "We educate activists and the public on grand juries in general, and how they are being misused to undermine political movements."
But Hermes and the Grand Jury Resistance Project do more than "demystify" the legal system. They encourage activists to refuse to cooperate altogether by providing emotional support, rallies, and letter-writing campaigns. "People, when they get charged with unfair crimes, they should fight their cases," says Paul Marini, a member of the project. "And when they get called inappropriately before grand juries, they should fight that."
It can't be easy to convince someone to go to jail for more than a year. One of the project's main arguments, to put it rather crudely, is that martyrs strengthen the movement. Just as the grand jury's secrecy creates a climate of fear that their colleagues may have ratted them out, Hermes claims that people who go to jail encourage their colleagues to recommit themselves to the struggle. "Resisting grand juries can also empower a movement not to be intimidated and harassed by this tactic," he says.
Unfortunately, a grand jury's very secrecy makes it impossible to know whether prosecutors are pursuing violent terrorists or intimidating legitimate leftist dissenters. Take the case of Josh Wolf, a San Francisco filmmaker with anarchist sympathies who recently was jailed for refusing to turn over videotapes to a grand jury. The incident being investigated doesn't seem to merit federal attention: During a riot last year, someone set a fire that did minor damage to a cop car that may or may not have been bought with federal money, thus making the vandalism a federal crime. That this rationale has been used to convene a federal grand jury adds to the suspicion that prosecutors are really looking for broad surveillance of inconsequential anarchists.
Other cases are considerably more serious. Daniel Andreas San Diego is wanted for allegedly bombing two laboratories and issuing a communiqué posted on an animal-rights Web site that took credit for the bombings and warned Chiron CEO Sean Lance, "You never know when your house, your car even, might go boom. Who knows, that new car in the parking lot may be packed with explosives."
Grand Jury Resistance Project members acknowledge that Nadia Winstead has been subpoenaed as part of an effort to find San Diego and punish the people who have helped hide him. But they claim this also is part of a larger effort to conduct surveillance on the animal-rights movement in general. When Winstead walked into the grand jury chambers last week, the dozen people who waited in the lobby outside cheered her on, knowing that she wouldn't say a word, and that this might well be the last time they saw her for months. The clock ticked off the minutes while they sat on the cold marble floor. One woman idly bounced a yellow rubber ball over and over. A man in a gray suit walked up and down the hallways, fruitlessly looking for the BALCO case.
Finally, Winstead emerged, looking sheepish and happy. She was free while prosecutors schedule a hearing to determine her fate. Is she a martyr, or a conspirator? Thanks to the secrecy of the grand jury system, the only thing we'll know for sure is that sooner or later, she'll probably be a prisoner.
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