Federal Prosecutors in Seattle Are Dragging Activists into Grand Juries, Citing Their Social Circles and Anarchist Reading Materials
On Thursday, August 2, at roughly 12:45 p.m., a small woman with long black hair and a red cardigan sweater stood on the lawn of Seattle's federal courthouse, surrounded by a few friends and around 75 protesters. On the steps behind her, a few dozen law-enforcement officers watched as she nervously spoke into a megaphone, announcing that she would not cooperate with the federal grand jury proceedings taking place inside. She said she would go into the courthouse, give the jury only her name and date of birth, and refuse to answer any further questions. "Under no circumstances," she said, speaking for herself and another recipient of a subpoena, "will we talk about other people."
The woman, a 24-year-old from Portland named Leah-Lynn Plante, was prepared to go to jail for refusing to talk about who may have been involved in the politically motivated vandalism in downtown Seattle on May Day, when activists smashed out the windows of several banks and stores—including Wells Fargo and Niketown—as well as a federal courthouse door.
Refusal to testify before a federal grand jury can result in jail time for contempt of court. (Video journalist Josh Wolf, for example, served seven and a half months in 2006 and 2007 for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury and turn over his footage of a protest in San Francisco.)
In a follow-up interview with The Stranger, Plante said she wasn't even in Seattle on May 1 and is neither a witness to nor a perpetrator of any related crimes. She is, however, a self-declared anarchist and thinks the FBI singled her out because of her political beliefs and social affiliations.
"We support the efforts of all those who will be resisting this grand jury," she said quietly into the megaphone on the courthouse lawn. The crowd cheered.
"We love you, Leah!" somebody shouted. Plante smiled wanly. Then she walked up the courthouse steps past the line of officers, hugged two friends, wiped some tears from her eyes, and pushed her way through the revolving glass door. She was headed to a courtroom where she was not allowed to have an attorney to represent her or a judge to mediate—just a jury listening to a prosecutor who is looking for an indictment. (Because grand jury proceedings are secret, the US Department of Justice was unable to comment on any elements of this story.)
Plante had been summoned to Seattle by a federal subpoena, delivered to her in the early hours of July 25, when the FBI raided her home—one of several raids in Seattle and Portland in the past couple of months. FBI agents, she said, smashed through her front door with a battering ram with assault rifles drawn, "looking paramilitary." According to a copy of the warrant, agents were looking for black clothing, paint, sticks, flags, computers and cell phones, and "anti-government or anarchist literature."
The warrants for the related raids used similar language. One warrant for an early morning raid at a Seattle home also listed black clothing, electronics, and "paperwork—anarchists in the Occupy movement." In effect, witnesses in Portland and Seattle say, federal and local police burst into people's homes while they were sleeping and held them at gunpoint while rummaging through their bookshelves, looking for evidence of political leanings instead of evidence of a crime. (For the record, I executed a quick search of my home early this morning and found black clothing, cans of paint, sticks, cloth, electronics, and "anarchist literature.")
"When I see a search warrant that targets political literature, I get nervous," said attorney Neil Fox, president of the Seattle chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. (The Seattle chapter released a statement urging the FBI and the US Attorney to end the raids and drop the grand jury subpoenas.) Raids like those can have a chilling effect on free speech, he said, and a long-term "negative effect on the country—you want to have robust discussions about political issues without fear." He also has concerns about the scope of the warrants: "'Anti- government literature' is so broad," he said. "What does that include? Does that include the writings of Karl Marx? Will that subject me to having my door kicked in and being dragged in front of a grand jury?"
Grand juries, Fox explained, were originally conceived as a protection for citizens against overzealous prosecutors and are enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. A petite jury—the more familiar kind, from 6 to 12 people—determines innocence or guilt during a trial. A grand jury is larger, from 16 to 23 people, meets with a prosecutor but no defense attorneys, and determines whether there's enough evidence to indict someone for a federal crime.
Nowadays, Fox said, grand juries are often used by prosecutors and investigators who have run out of leads. But grand juries are secret, so it's difficult to know what the prosecutor is really doing. And the effects of raids and subpoenas like the ones in Seattle and Portland may be more about putting on the dramatic public spectacle of dragging people through the mud than investigating a crime.
Doug Honig, communications director at ACLU of Washington, echoed Fox's concerns: "If it's not carefully conducted, it can end up becoming a fishing expedition looking into people's political views and political associations."
Journalist Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red, who has written extensively about US law enforcement and its relationships with political dissidents from the 1990s onward, said such investigations don't just incidentally chill free speech—in some cases, he believes, they're trying to do that.
"Sometimes, law enforcement believes this knocking-down-the-door, boot-on-the-throat intimidation is part of a crime-prevention strategy," he said. But a more pernicious goal may be social mapping. The anarchist books and cans of spray paint can be sexy items to wave around a courtroom, he said, but "address books, cell phones, hard drives—that's the real gold."
During the raid at her home, Plante said, some of the agents were initially hyperaggressive, but seemed "confused" by finding nothing more sinister than five sleepy young people. "It seemed like what they expected was some armed stronghold," she said. "But it's just a normal house, with normal stuff in the pantry, lots of cute animals, and everyone here was docile and polite."
"That's a really important point," Potter said when I mentioned that detail. "There's a huge disconnect between what the FBI and local police are being told and trained for, and what the reality is. There are presentations about ominous, nihilistic, black-clad, bomb-throwing, turn-of-the-century caricatures—the reality is that many anarchists are just organizing gathering spaces, free libraries, free neighborhood kitchens."
He directed me to a 2011 PowerPoint presentation from the FBI's "domestic terrorism operations unit"—posted on his blog—that described the current anarchist movement as "criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities." Following that logic, the very presence of anarchist literature could be construed as evidence that someone has motivations to commit a crime. And it makes attorneys, journalists, and others who care about First Amendment protections nervous about a law-enforcement practice that conflates political beliefs with criminal activity.
Forty-five minutes after Plante pushed through the revolving door at the courthouse, she reemerged. She smiled shyly while the crowd of protesters cheered. Plante told the crowd that she gave the grand jury her name and her date of birth, refused to answer any other questions, and was released.
But Plante's ordeal isn't over—the court issued another subpoena for her to return on August 30. Whether she cooperates, and whether she faces jail time for noncooperation, remains to be seen.
This article has been updated since its original publication.