Leah-Lynn Plante and Portland's Anarchist Grand Jury Resistors
On May 1st, 2012, an initially peaceful march in Seattle turned violent when dozens of black-clad protesters brandishing sticks, poles, rocks, paint bombs, and homemade incendiaries joined the demonstration. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn declared civil emergency that afternoon, and by the end of the day, the clash between police and protesters resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in damage to private and city property and multiple arrests for assault, pedestrian interference, and vandalism.
On July 25th, 2012, the FBI raided three houses in Portland, Oregon. According to one search warrant, officials were looking for black clothing, sticks, flags, diary entries about the protests, and “anti-government or anarchist literature or material.” In the wake of those sweeps, members of Portland’s anarchist community including Leah-Lynn Plante, Dennison Williams, Katherine “Kteeo” Olejnik, and Matt Duran were subpoenaed to testify in front of a federal grand jury about their knowledge of the May Day action.
A grand jury is an opaque affair, consisting of a panel of citizens who decide whether the evidence presented makes it “more likely than not” that a crime was committed. The members of a grand jury are not screened for bias, and a judge does not oversee the proceedings. Grand jury sessions are described as secret because they are closed to the public, but the information gathered can be used to attack the credibility of a witness who later testifies in open court. So while these sessions ostensibly protect witnesses, they can also be used to coerce individuals to speak against their will, with lasting consequences for themselves and others.
The federal government has never accused the Portland anarchists of committing a crime—in fact, Leah-Lynn was not even in Seattle at the time of the May Day protests. Instead, each of the subpoenaed activists was granted immunity from criminal charges even though they never asked for it. This is a common tactic used by federal investigators. By removing the specter of criminal prosecution, prosecutors preclude “immune” witnesses from invoking their 5th Amendment right to remain silent in order to avoid self-incrimination. It’s a way to make people talk.
But the Portland anarchists, being anarchists, chose not to cooperate and refused to answer questions about their friends, social activities, and political beliefs. They were jailed and charged with contempt of court, which could lead to sentences of up to 18 months in federal prison. Matt has been in prison since September 26th; Kteeo has been in prison since September 28th; and Leah-Lynn, who was jailed on October 10th, was released two weeks ago.
An October story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed that the Portland anarchists were under surveillance before the May Day riots. That fact, coupled with the warrant’s mention of “anarchist literature,” indicates that the government is acting as “thought police” in the name of counterterrorism.
As Seattle’s the Stranger reports, Emily Langlie of the Western District of Washington’s U.S. Attorney's office has repeatedly insisted that “we do not prosecute people for their political beliefs.” But Leah-Lynn, the most visible of the resisters with her polished video messages, dyed-black hair, pale features, facial piercings, and idealistic tattoos (her forearm is inked with the words “strive to survive causing least suffering possible”) has described the process as a “witch hunt.”
Like any other ideological community, anarchists are heterogeneous in their beliefs. Although some do advocate the violent overthrow of the government, legions of others are committed to bringing about change through peaceful means such as community organizing and resistance. A basic tenet of anarchist theory is that authoritarian systems corrupt freedom absolutely, so liberties granted by the government were never real liberties to begin with. So while it seems contradictory to criticize the State for violating civil rights it has established while simultaneously desiring the dissolution of that same State altogether, for many anarchists this criticism is key to confronting the false freedom of an authoritative system.
Leah-Lynn has become cause-célèbre among anarchists and a wider community of concerned citizens thanks to Tumblr. Predictably, media coverage of the grand jury indictments and the uncooperative witnesses has focused more on her looks than on her philosophical basis for resistance, or on the fact that Kteeo and Matt remain in federal prison and could be kept there until March 2014. Leah-Lynn is not speaking to the media at this time, and the reason she was released remains a mystery. But we spoke to Chris Marckesano from the Committee Against Political Repression, a Portland-based organization supporting the anarchists subpoenaed by the grand jury, about the complicated legal, ethical, philosophical, and political aspects of this case.
VICE: I first wanted to ask you what your association is with everything?
Chris Marckesano: I got a text message early in the morning on July 25th that several houses had been raided, so within a few hours I met up with some other people who wanted to provide support work with the folks after the FBI finished searching those houses. We waited for them to calm down and re-gather themselves, then we figured out the work that needed to be done to get them the support they need.
When the raid happened, was it clear what was going on?
Yes and no. After we got a chance to look at some of the warrants and see the fact that they explicitly said to seize black clothing and anarchist literature, it became apparent pretty fast that they were targeting anarchists in the Northwest area.
It seems like a lot of the focus has been on Leah-Lynn Plante. I was wondering why that is considering three people were arrested and two of them are still imprisoned.
I think it can be a combination of things. The objectification of Leah-Lynn is something out of anyone’s control. But from day one both Leah and Dennison, who are the two people that were subpoenaed in Portland, decided that they wanted to be as public and outspoken about the issue as possible. I think Matt started being public shortly before he was incarcerated and Kteeo waited until the day she knew she was going in. There was just more priming and narrative building leading up to Leah’s incarceration.
You mean on her part?
Yeah between Leah and her immediate support team. She gave us the go ahead to really try and push both her individual story and put her name out into the public, which I think helped the general narrative a lot. Dennison had also taken the same approach but pretty shortly into the process his subpoena was dropped. At first, that sounded like great news, but then based on the questions that had been asked to Leah-Lynn at the grand jury, we realized that it was because they were targeting Dennison now in the investigation instead of just asking him to testify.
They didn’t want to grant him immunity?
No they did not. He refused to show up to his first appearance and then they dropped his subpoena and pretty shortly after, it became clear that he was added to the list of targets.
What do you mean by “targets.” Do you guys believe that these subpoenas are related to the vandalism and violence on May Day?
Five people from Portland were tailed up to Olympia. The state is saying this is all about May Day, but the people that they were going after were already under surveillance. That leads us to assume that this is definitely a targeted investigation not on the actions of indivuals but on the political beliefs of the people in question.
Your organization recently put out a statement saying it would no longer give material or organizational support for Leah-Lynn. Why was that decision made?
I can’t get much into the internal decision-making process-—we can’t give much more information. After Leah was released from prison after another hearing, she was not forthcoming about what kind of questions were asked or answered. Because of that lack of information we’ve suspended support for her. What that looks like for the time-being is that we’re suspending doing any media support work, putting out any of her statements or anything like that until we can get a better picture of what’s going on. It’s unfortunate but we’re a small organization and there are two more people in prison and another newly subpoenaed.
We are doing our best to not speculate what happened until we get information from Leah—we want to keep people from making wild assumptions. When people randomly speculate that doesn’t help the resistance that we’re trying to build support for.
Have you ever had to rescind support in the past?
This is the first time. It’s happened with other support organizations, but this is the first time we’ve made the decision.
Have you had any communication with Leah?
There’s been no official communication between the organization and Leah. I don’t know if individuals have spoken to her.
If it turned out Leah did not collaborate with the grand jury would your organization support her again?
Yes, we would support anyone who is not cooperating or resisting.
How do you support resistors?
Doing press work, soliciting donations, keeping money in their commissary.
If it turned out that Leah was released because she cooperated, do you think she would lose the support of the community too?
In the past, snitch-jackets have ripped movements apart. So we don’t want to speculate on what happened until something concrete comes out.
Can you give us a basic rundown of the type of anarchism you advocate for?
It’s hard because there are so many different strains under the general heading of anarchy: people who are opposed to the state; opposed to all systems of oppression; anti capitalism; and other radically different visions of people coming together based on their shared beliefs as opposed to hierarchical situations.
Do you think the government’s surveillance, information gathering, and legal strategies in this case are borrowed from responses to Islamist terrorism in the U.S?
If you look at the some of the most recent examples of the counterterrorism that’s going on, the ones being trumpeted by the state are based solely on entrampment. “Hey this person might be a terrorist.” When actually, there’s also an FBI agent that was really trying to dig up dirt. The FBI imprisoned a person from that mosque because he didn’t actively shut the undercover FBI agent down. We seen this kind of manipulation happen time and again, especially in the anarchist, environmental, and animal rights organizations.
Going back to the objectification of Leah: Is that consistent with gender dynamics in the anarchist movement?
We definitely prioritize feminism and equality, but it’s no surprise that knuckleheads post inappropriate things on the internet. Unfortunately, it’s a sign of the system that we live in.