In a rather harrowing act of modern civil disobedience, Matt Duran and Katherine "Kteeo" Oleknik refused to rat on their friends' political beliefs after being scooped up by the FBI after May Day protests last year in Seattle. They spent five months in...
Last May Day, as you might recall, the Occupy protests in Seattle ended violently when anarchists dressed in black bashed out the windows of banks, Niketown, and some government buildings, then stripped themselves of their black clothes and melted into the crowd. No one was hurt, but there were tens of thousands of dollars of damage done to property reported by businesses and corporations who bring in billions of dollars in profit each year.
Then last July, four activists were brought in to testify at a secretive grand-jury hearing involving the attacks. There was a raid of a house in Portland, Oregon, where police searched for black clothing and “anarchist reading materials.” Meanwhile, two subpoenas were issued in Olympia, Washington to a bartender, Katherine “Kteeo” Olejnik (pronounced Katie-O) and Matt Duran, a computer technician. Neither of them knew anything about the May Day raids, but they were friends with activists and may possibly have been friends with someone who might have been involved with the protests in May. Maybe. By being summoned to testify, they were granted immunity, thus not allowing them to claim their Fifth Amendment rights, and making it illegal for them to refuse to tell the secretive jury everything they were asked—who their friends were, what their friends believed in, and who their friends were friends with. I want to reiterate, they were not asked about crimes committed, but about their alleged friends’ affiliations and political beliefs.
So they didn’t testify. They decided, in a rather harrowing act of modern civil disobedience, to remain silent. And because they didn’t rat on their friends (or their alleged friends)—again, not those people’s actions, but their beliefs—they spent five months in jail, two in solitary confinement.
They were just released on February 28 and returned home, because the court found that continued incarceration would not lead them to testify, and in fact, was just strengthening their resolve. Check out the release papers here. Last week, I got a chance to talk with them a bit about their experience.
“Neither of us had any information about what happened on May Day. I want to make that very clear,” Kteeo said. Kteeo doesn’t consider herself an anarchist, though she acknowledges the system of capitalist neoliberalism is flawed, “I knew the grand-jury system was really fucked up, but it’s still shocking that it can happen to you. You think about it theoretically a lot, but when it actually happens it can be really jarring. Just like prison. I knew that prisons were wrong, innately, but actually being inside a federal prison in the United States and seeing the horrible things that happen to people every day, there are no words to describe it.”
Matt agreed. “I had an idea of how horrible it is… but there’s a difference between hearing it from somebody and experiencing it. Worlds apart. You are stripped of so much humanity, and you have become a commodity—an object—that just needs to be stored until your release date comes up. There’s nothing in the world that can describe that feeling.”
“It was made very clear from the beginning,” Kteeo went on to say, “That they were using us to try to get information as part of a fishing expedition. We were being forced to help them create some kind of web or map of political organizers, rather than investigating any political, alleged crime. I think that [they used May Day] as an excuse. They saw it as something they could claim an investigation for. In reality it was just something that they wanted to use to find out who was organizing in certain types of politics in the Northwest.”
“I’m completely speculating here,” Matt told me, “but I think it’s completely possible that because there’s something successful happening here, not necessarily just with anarchism, but with organizing in general, that the hammer has to come down. It’s completely and entirely possible that this was a retaliatory strike back over something that was successful.”
After talking with them about their experience, I was at a loss as to why this happened. It would be easy to characterize Matt and Kteeo's experience as a Kafka novel with a happy ending. But I thought that might be too simplistic. So I called a dear friend of mine, whom I trust, who works as a government prosecutor, and who wholeheartedly believes in the system. She spoke to me on the condition that she'd stay anonymous.
First thing she told me was that all of this was legal. The FBI totally had a right to do everything they did. Sometimes, in extreme instances, you have to make people testify who won’t, and that, simply, we aren’t supposed to know why—it’s secretive for a reason. And she said that, though of course she didn’t know what that was, she was sure that there was a very good reason to go to this length. It would be highly unlikely to risk a big scandal over nothing. Grand juries are reserved for politicians, serial murderers, and terrorists, so it’s likely that these people were connected to one of these serious levels of cases. That what they know is highly important, and though it seems bizarre and unfair, that the government probably has a very good reason for holding these two in custody, and that there’s some reason none of us—not even those being held—can know exactly what that is.
She went on to tell me how she, herself, had to arrest a couple people for refusing to testify—otherwise innocent people—and while it sucks, sometimes, it’s the only way to get people to talk. She told me the story of a big drug ring where a witness was scared to come forward, so they arrested him and a few days later he cracked. An abused wife who wouldn’t testify against her husband, until she was actually locked up and forced to.
I understand what she is saying, but I think this case is different.
The equality gap in this country is staggering and the rich are still getting richer and the rest of us are still staying the stagnant same. The system is broken, or appears not to be working for the people as well as it works for the shareholders. And I know, everyone is doing as best they can with the information they are given, but in the past, when people were oppressed and got angry, they bashed out windows, too. It’s not murder; it’s frustration.
I mean, really, are they wrong? I am in no way not implying that Kteeo or Matt had one iota to do with this May Day thing or sanctioning violence as an appropriate political tool.
But maybe that’s what the FBI is afraid of; that there are other, relatively “normal” people out there, who are angry and want to bash out some windows sometimes, too—as long as no one gets hurt. Maybe the government has a vested interest and really, really wants to make an example of someone, anyone, who pulled that off and didn’t get caught.
I know I sound like a nut job, and I could be completely wrong about this, but the fact is the government wanted to monitor these people so badly, that they held two innocent people in federal prison, without being charged with anything, for five months.
They weren’t looking for murderers, or people who were looking to blow up Nebraska, kill the president, or commit cowardly acts of terrorism; they were looking for people who could potentially inspire the rest of us get us off the fucking couch and give a shit.
A good thing to remember, though, is that they are not alone out there. Both Kteeo and Matt were floored by the level of support that came flooding in from their community and from the world at large. “The amount of support [we received],” Matt said, “was incredibly overwhelming. I’ve never seen people come out of the woodwork like that. I got letters from people I haven’t heard from in years just writing me saying I really hope that you’re OK. It was incredible to see that many people turn out in support. I had no idea it was going to get that big.”
Kteeo went on, “This amazing town of Olympia has had our backs so hard. For so many people it’s not about politics, it’s just about people who they love were taken away from them and they want to do everything thing they can to support us.”
When I asked them if their politics were changed by the whole experience I got a resounding “no” from both of them, and perhaps that’s the best thing to come out of the hell they went though. They left with more strength and a greater resolve to work to fix things and make the world a better place. That’s a lesson that’ll stick with me too, and I didn’t have to spend five months in federal prison because I wouldn’t rat on my friends’ beliefs.