US activists facing grand jury garner broad support

Activists across the US have protested FBI repression against anti-war, labor and international solidarity activists. (Jacob Flom)

Activists and concerned citizens around the United States are preparing for a national day of action on 25 January, the date that several Palestine solidarity activists and Palestinian American community organizers have been summoned to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago. Meanwhile, dozens of civic, labor and student organizations in the United States and around the world have condemned the crackdown by US authorities on anti-war activists.

The activists have been subpoenaed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as part of what the US government calls an investigation into “material support” for groups the US State Department has unilaterally declared “foreign terrorist organizations.” On 24 September 2010 more than seventy federal agents in a coordinated early-morning raid burst into the homes and offices of prominent anti-war, labor and international solidarity activists in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Until now, a total of 23 activists have been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury. No one has been arrested or charged with any crime, nor has the government specified any alleged crimes that it might be investigating.

A grand jury, no longer in use anywhere outside the US, is an investigative tool that allows the government to compel citizens to testify even if they are not suspected of any crime. The US government has historically abused the grand jury to intern slavery abolitionists during the pre-Civil War era, African American community leaders during the Reconstruction period, labor activists organizing for an eight-hour work day, civil rights organizers and in recent decades, Puerto Rico independence advocates.

One of the nine activists summoned to the grand jury on 25 January is Maureen Clare Murphy, an organizer with the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago and Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada.

In a 22 December 2010 editorial, The Electronic Intifada stated that “Although The Electronic Intifada itself has not been a target of any of the subpoenas — contrary to some media reports — we consider the grand jury investigation and all of the subpoenas to be part of a broad attack on the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements and a threat to all of our rights.”

At a 23 December press conference outside the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago, where the grand jury convenes, Murphy told reporters and supporters that she does not intend to participate in what activists are describing as a “fishing expedition.” So far none of the activists previously summoned have consented to testify before the grand jury, though they risk being jailed for contempt of court for exercising their right against self-criminalization guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.

“It is very clear that no crime has been committed and that the government’s motivation in issuing these subpoenas is to have us name the names of other activists not only here in the United States, but also in places like Palestine and Colombia, where many of us have traveled to learn about the human rights situations in those places,” Murphy said.

“We can only assume that the US government shares intelligence with the governments of Israel and Colombia, whose repressive military rule the US bankrolls at the US taxpayer’s expense. And it is essentially a prison sentence or worse for human rights activists in Palestine and Colombia to be singled out and identified in this way. And I have no intention in playing any role in that,” she added (Murphy’s full statement is published on the Mondoweiss website).

FBI agents in Chicago also telephoned Sarah Smith to question her about a trip she made last summer to the occupied West Bank. In a statement read by her father at a 6 December 2010 press conference in Chicago, Smith, a young Jewish woman, stated: “I went with two Palestinian-American friends. You would think Jews and Palestinians going together to visit Israel [and the occupied West Bank] is something the US government would encourage. Instead, all three of us are now being ordered by the FBI to go before a grand jury for going on that trip.”

“Top US government leaders meet with Palestinian leaders, so why does the FBI investigate us because we talked to average Palestinians on the street? I went there so I could make up my own mind and talk about what I saw. It seems to me our government wants to hide what Israel is doing to Palestinians,” Smith added (Smith’s full statement is available on the Committee to Stop FBI Repression website).

An attack on the Palestine support movement

Many of the others subpoenaed in Chicago during the past few weeks are Palestinian Americans who have organized within their community — Chicago is home to one of the largest Palestinian populations outside of the Middle East — and have played a role in the Palestine solidarity movement in the US.

In response to the government’s repression of activists, the United States Palestinian Community Network stated: “Federal harassment of our communities and associational life has grown precipitously during the last decade, as Arabs, Muslims and their allies continue to be persecuted for their lawful and necessary civic engagement. This suppression of civil rights and free speech seeks to criminalize and quell civic activism undertaken in support of Palestinian and other oppressed peoples’ struggles against US-funded occupation and war. This harassment must stop.”

The Electronic Intifada reported in November that the investigation targeting the subpoenaed activists is just the latest chapter in a long history of US government attempts to criminalize Palestine community organizing and support work in the country. In December 2001, it shut down the largest Muslim charity in the US, the Holy Land Foundation, which sent direct humanitarian aid to Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, amongst other places. Five defendants prosecuted by the government in relation to the case are serving out lengthy prison sentences of 15 to 65 years (for more information, see the Holy Land Foundation case website).

Other prominent Palestinian community organizers in the US who have been put on trial in recent years because of their work educating Americans about the impact of US military aid to Israel and raising funds for humanitarian assistance for Palestinians living under occupation are Dr. Sami al-Arian, Muhammad Salah and Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar. All three were acquitted by juries of US citizens of all terrorism and racketeering-related charges but have been charged with or convicted of obstruction of justice and contempt of court for refusing to name the names of other Palestinian activists in the US and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Defending rights, defending movements

As the repression of the Palestinian American community and the Palestine solidarity movement grows ever broader, so does the movement that has rallied around the targeted activists.

Trade unions representing more than half a million workers in the US have passed resolutions condemning the invasive investigation. On 5 January the Chicago Teachers Union — with more than 30,000 members — resolved to condemn the raids and grand jury investigation and to bring the resolution forward to the Illinois Federation of Teachers (the resolution is available on the Committee to Stop FBI Repression website).

Solidarity groups in Palestine and the US have also spoken out in defense of the 23 activists and the wider solidarity movement, including the occupied West Bank-based Palestine Solidarity Project, American Muslims for Palestine, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, the Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign and Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network (solidarity statements are being indexed by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression).

Student groups representing more than fifty US campuses also issued a statement calling upon US Attorney General Eric Holder and US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald “to respect the civil rights and free speech of all those who support the Palestinian struggle for freedom by immediately withdrawing grand jury subpoenas which threaten the First Amendment rights of students and activists around the country.”

The student activists added “Today, America unfortunately stands behind Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people with money, weaponry and diplomatic support. We seek to reverse this situation so that American foreign policy stands on the side of people who work towards justice. We reject the government’s efforts to isolate the Palestinian people by severing them from their nonviolent supporters abroad.”

Three subpoenas reactivated

As more and more activists receive summons to appear before a grand jury, attorneys have said that three of the 14 activists subpoenaed on and around 24 September will have their subpoenas reactivated by the US attorney. The other activists targeted whose court dates have passed have been essentially put on hold by the US government.

Once they receive a court date, the three activists whose subpoenas are being reactivated — Tracy Molm, Anh Pham and Sarah Martin — are anticipated to be given the choice of testifying about the activity of other activists in the US as well as abroad, or immediate detention for contempt of court (profiles of Molm, Pham and Martin are available on the Committee to Stop FBI Repression website).

In its call to action, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, which formed around the 24 September 2010 raids and the grand jury investigation, is calling supporters to stand with the three women as well as the nine activists most recently subpoenaed on 25 January “by protesting Patrick Fitzgerald and his use of the grand jury and FBI to repress anti-war and international solidarity activists” (“Join the National Day of Action on Tuesday January 25, 2011”).

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