A New York anarchist has been jailed for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about his political beliefs, his friends and the legal support he provided to Occupy Wall Street.
Gerald “Jerry” Koch, 24, was subpoenaed before a grand jury that is believed to be investigating the 2008 explosion outside a military recruitment center in Times Square. The blast damaged only the front door of the center and injured no one, but the FBI began a "terrorism" investigation of local anarchists.
Koch isn't accused of this crime – or any other crime. Prosecutors told his lawyers that they think he was at a bar in 2008 or 2009, after the bombing, and that someone else at the bar knew about another person who was involved. Koch was subpoenaed to a grand jury in 2009 – when he was only 19 – and publicly stated that he didn't know anything about it and wouldn't cooperate.
On May 21, he appeared before the grand jury again, refused to answer any questions, and remained silent the entire time. More than a hundred supporters yelled out to him as he was taken to jail.
"By the time you read this," Koch said in a statement released after the hearing, "I will be in the custody of the United States government for continuing my refusal to cooperate with a federal grand jury. This is the right thing to do."
If the government's six-degrees-of-separation logic and bar-talk investigation of Koch sounds sketchy, it should: grand juries have been used for decades as pretext for gathering information not necessarily about crimes but about the actions of social movements, including the Black Panthers, environmentalists and antiwar activists.
Grand juries are secretive by nature. Prosecutors won't even acknowledge if a grand jury exists, let alone say what is being investigated. When you appear before a grand jury, you don't have the right for your attorney to be present. Nor can you assert your First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to talk about your politics, your friends or yourself. If you do, you can be held in contempt and thrown in jail until you cooperate. They can keep you there as long as 18 months.
Grand juries are intended as a safeguard of sorts within the court system. They're meant to determine if the government has enough evidence to move forward with a prosecution. But all of that secrecy and unchecked power lends itself quite well to political fishing expeditions, and that's what is happening in Koch's case.
"Jerry was the person everyone could count on to be waiting for them outside of jail, to support them in the courtroom and to help with their legal defense," his supporters said in a statement. "It is clear that the state’s goal is not just to pressure Jerry into informing on the radical community, but to take away someone who is an integral part of our community – someone who makes us all stronger."
Koch's imprisonment is the most recent case in a growing crackdown on anarchists and other radicals, and signals an increased use of grand juries against them.
Last year, six anarchists in the Pacific Northwest were subpoenaed to a grand jury investigating vandalism during a May Day protest in Seattle.
Matt Duran and Katherine “KteeO” Olejnik are two of the anarchists who refused to cooperate and were imprisoned. They both spent five months in jail. Two months were spent in solitary confinement, treatment that the Seattle Human Rights Commission called inhumane. Eventually US District Judge Richard A. Jones released them, saying that "their resolve appears to increase as their confinement continues.”
Their resolve was only possible, the resisters say, because of the support they received from anarchists and civil rights advocates around the world. "It can't be said enough how important prisoner support is," Olejnik says. "It's what keeps people strong on the inside. It's what kept me strong. One letter can make all the difference… They are trying to break you."
Koch, who has years of experience providing legal aid to activists, is now on the receiving end of prisoner support efforts.
His partner, Amanda Clarke, recalls the 12-hour days Koch would spend at courthouses, on the phone, and in the streets helping those arrested at Occupy Wall Street protests. In one case, a group of activists were facing multiple felonies and Koch raised thousands of dollars in donations in just a few hours for their release.
"It's really scary, seeing the government go after one of your friends in this way," she says. The grand jury and Koch's imprisonment have instilled fear in radical communities in New York, but she says it has been overshadowed by support and outrage from new allies.
"I overheard someone on the subway talking about Jerry and saying, 'How can this be the law in our country?'" she says. "That's exactly it. How can you put someone in prison who is not even charged with anything?"
Will Potter is the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege.
Follow Will on Twitter: @will_potter