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SAIC alum refuses to testify before grand jury

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Interview by Amanda Aldinger

Since September 24, 2010, the FBI has subpoenaed 23 activists for Palestinian human rights to appear before a federal grand jury to be questioned about their activist work. Included in this group is Maureen Murphy — former F Newsmagazine editor, SAIC alum, and the current managing editor of the Electronic Infitada — who sat down with F Newsmagazine to discuss her activist work and thoughts on why she believes she was subpoenaed. The following is a transcript of that interview. For more information — and to read full-length features on both Maureen’s situation and a greater analysis of the inner-workings of the federal grand jury process — check out the February issue of F Newsmagazine or fnewsmagazine.com.

Amanda Aldinger: Can you start by talking a little bit about why you specifically have been subpoenaed?

Maureen Murphy: There’s actually nothing written on my subpoena, so I can only speculate as to why I’ve been subpoenaed. But I’m one of several other organizers with the Palestine Solidarity Group who’ve been subpoenaed and it seems that we are being investigated because of solidarity delegations to the occupied West Bank that we’ve done. I’ve helped organize these solidarity delegations, and the purpose of these delegations is to send activists from the United States to Palestine to learn about the human rights situation there, and how Palestinians are organizing to resist the occupation and to stop it. The purpose for sending people from the United States there, and to get this education, is so that they come back to the U.S. and educate people in their communities. We believe that ending U.S. aid to Israel, since our tax money basically subsidizes the occupation, is the key to ending the deadly status quo in the Middle East.

AA: How long have you been doing activist work with Palestine?

MM: I was part of a student group when I was at SAIC. I graduated in 2004 and I wrote a lot about Iraq and the situation for Palestinians when I was working for and editing F News. After I graduated I thought I would go to the Middle East and see things for myself. So in November of 2004, I moved to the West Bank city of Ramallah and I was there for a year and a half, working for a Palestinian human rights organization called Al-Haq. Then I was actually deported by the state of Israel in 2006. So I came back to the U.S., and when I came back — the time I came back was when Israel launched its war on Lebanon in 2006, and meanwhile, it was shelling Gaza, and whole families were being massacred, which really jolted me into action — that’s when I became involved with the Palestine Solidarity Group. Around that same time, I became one of the main editors of the Electronic Infitada web site. Then I actually spent some time in Lebanon in 2007 and 2008 learning about the situation for refugees there, and I’ve been back in the United States, back in Chicago organizing, since mid 2008.

AA: So what do you think spurred this particular group of subpoenas?

MM: Um, I think that they are trying to criminalize the Palestine solidarity and support movement. I put this into the context of decades of U.S. government repression of the Palestinian community in the U.S. The U.S. government formally used immigration to try to deport Palestinian activists who immigrated here after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. When Palestinians came here, they started organizing, and started educating Americans about what was happening in the Middle East and their government’s role in it. There were a lot of folks who were deported. This repression was really ramped up after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and in December of 2001, the Bush government shut down the largest Muslim charity in the US, which is called the Holy Land Foundation (HLF). The HLF gave humanitarian assistance to people in Eastern Europe, so the main activists, or co-founders, and other people involved in the HLF were put on trial. After an initial trial resulted in a hung jury, a new trial was reconvened with a new jury and sentences were issues for 15-65 years. And really, all these people did was give humanitarian assistance to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. So we’ve seen a number of other cases, where, I won’t go into detail, similarly, Palestinian Americans or Palestinian activists in the United States have been put on trial because they’ve tried to advocate peacefully for change, and also to raise money to support Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. For our case, so far there’s been no crime identified, and the U.S. government has been pretty tight-lipped about why they raided several organizers’ homes on September 24, and why they’ve issued subpoenas to 23 people across the country now.

Because the scope of this investigation grows ever wider, we’re calling it a fishing expedition. The ACLU has reviewed our search warrants and subpoenas, and what they said is that it’s clear that the U.S. government is interested in learning how we organize, and any associational information we might have — like people that we’ve met in places like Palestine, or Columbia, where other activists that have been targeted have traveled to, and where the U.S. government plays a similarly harmful role. So we can really only speculate as to why we’re being targeted. But we do think this investigation began with the Republican National Convention in 2008, because what the 14 activists who were raided and subpoenaed on September 24 have in common is that they were all organizers with the Republican National Convention protests. A number of groups and organizations in the Twin Cities and around the country were infiltrated by government informants around that time, and some of them have stuck around, and that’s where we think the investigation began.

The legal context of the investigation is important to look at, too, because in June of this year the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision called Holder vs. the Humanitarian Law Project, in which it broadened even further what constitutes material support for foreign terrorist organizations. I should add that the subpoenas in the search warrant issued on the September 24 raids said that these raids and this investigation was into material support for foreign terrorist organizations. So what the Supreme Court decided in June constituted material support includes things like: political activity done in a coordinated way with foreign terrorist organizations, or giving money to groups that are somehow with foreign terrorists organizations, but don’t actually commit any violence themselves. Their logic is that maybe this will help free up these groups to commit violence. But the impact of these laws has been described as constitutionally vague by groups like the Center for the Constitutional Right. Even Jimmy Carter has spoken out against these laws, because this makes it a potentially prosecutable offense for him to do elections training in Lebanon, and similarly, to do non-violence training with other groups that are on the U.S. State Department’s foreign terrorist list. So that’s the legal basis for this. Basically, it can be a criminal act to speak politically or to give money for humanitarian causes if the government thinks that these groups can be linked to what they call foreign terrorist organizations.

AA: Have you been talking with the other activists who’ve also been subpoenaed?

MM: We didn’t waste any time in organizing after the September 24 raids. Immediately, coalitions have been formed to, what we call, push back against this government repression. The Committee to Stop FBI Repression, which was formed shortly after the raids (the website for that committee is stopfbi.net), has a committee here in Chicago, and I’ve been one of the main organizers for that committee — even before I was subpoenaed. People around the country have been getting organized, and there have been demonstrations in more than 60 U.S. cities.

[We planned] a National Day of Action on January 25, which is when myself and eight other people [were] summoned to appear before the Grand Jury in Chicago. So people across the country [were] demonstrating in front of Federal Buildings and FBI buildings, and Chicago [was] protesting outside of the Dirksen Federal Building that day.

So far the court dates for the originally subpoenaed 14 people have come and gone, and none of them have testified before the Grand Jury. People object to this very un-democratic form of inquisition into social justice movements. The grand jury, for anyone who doesn’t know, is actually a really archaic form of justice. What it means is that if you’ve been summoned to appear before a grand jury, you’re not allowed to have a lawyer present, the jury is hand-picked by the government, and if you don’t answer any questions in the way they want, you can potentially be charged with obstruction of justice. So it’s basically been used throughout the history of this country to intern political activists, because if you refuse to testify in front of a grand jury, then you risk being jailed. And if you do testify before the grand jury, you’re basically coerced into giving information to the U.S. government about how you organize, who you know, and how the other people you know organize. So that’s why we call it a fishing expedition, and that’s why people have been refusing to participate in it.

AA: I know you guys have garnered a lot of support — obviously there are a lot of people on your side. What kind of support are you seeing?

MM: We’ve seen dozens and dozens of statements of solidarity from all over the world, and those are being indexed on the stopfbi.net website. Just last week we got the exciting news that the Chicago Teachers Union, which has 30,000 members, has issued a resolution condemning the raids and calling for an end to this investigation. They’re calling on their union to bring this issue forward to the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and also to mobilize their ranks for days of action. So far, unions representing more than half a million workers in this country have issued resolutions of solidarity with all of us facing the grand jury. We’ve seen outpouring from all corners of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, of the Anti-War movement, and other social justice movements because people believe that this could have happened to any of us and that all of us have something at stake here — people see this as an attack on our fundamental right to organize and dissent and peacefully work to change U.S. policy.

AA: I know that some of the subpoenas have been withdrawn. Yours hasn’t, correct?

MM: What’s actually happened is that no one is off the hook. People who have refused to testify — that means that your court date comes and passes, but that doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook. Three people have had their subpoenas reactivated. What that means is that when they actually get a court date — which, so far they haven’t — it’s expected, or anticipated, that they’ll be given the choice of informing the government about the activities of other people in the social justice movements that they work in, or going to jail. It’s a pretty ridiculous and un-democratic thing to have to make that choice. All 23 activists are still basically vulnerable to this kind of coercion to testify.

AA: If it does happen that some or all of you do end up in jail, is there any sort of legal action you can take? Have you thought about what courses of action you will take post your court dates?

MM: We think that our best defense is a strong and broad support movement, and we hope that no one actually gets put in jail. So what we’ve been doing is organizing and getting broad support. We’ve been organizing national call-in days to President Obama’s office and Attorney General Eric Holder’s office, and U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office to show that there are thousands of people across the country who are really concerned about what is happening and object to it. We visited Washington, so there’s been three delegations by targeted activists to Washington to meet with legislators and to try and get them to do something and to do the right thing. We are going to prioritize building a strong movement and support of the activists facing the grand jury, and meanwhile we have a really excellent legal team assembled who are going to give us support as well.

AA: Is there anything else that you want to say about this situation?

MM: I’ll just emphasize that we think that maybe one of the reasons, the motivations behind this invasive investigation, is that the U.S. government wants to intimidate people from organizing, and that it might have a chilling affect on our movement. But so far we’ve seen the opposite effect. What’s most important for people to do right now is to stand up and raise their voices, because if we lose our rights it’s really hard to get them back. We need to show that people aren’t going to be intimidated from organizing, because the more of us there are out on the streets and protesting when we feel like we need to protest, the harder it is for people to get singled out and to be politically persecuted in this way.

UPDATE: On January 25, each of the nine subpoenaed activists in Chicago refused to testify. While further action awaits, regional conferences for the Committee to Stop FBI Oppression have been organized around the country in: San Francisco, CA (2/12), Chicago, IL (2/12), New York, NY (2/19), and the Triangle Area, North Carolina (2/19). For information about this situation and how you can support the activists, go to www.stopfbi.net.

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