Anarchist probe: Jailed activists say they won’t talk to feds
SEATTLE—The federal detention center near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is usually home to suspected bank robbers and drug dealers awaiting trial, or perhaps illegal immigrants fighting deportation. These days, though, it’s taken on an air of political intrigue, as three activists who’ve refused to testify before a federal grand jury engage in an extended war of nerves with authorities.
The federal probe, detailed in an examination of the case in the Los Angeles Times, is looking at the activities of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest and damage to a federal appeals courthouse during May Day protests in Seattle on May 1.
It has apparently become a hot topic of discussion at the detention center, where Matthew Duran, 24, a computer technician and self-described anarchist from Olympia, Wash., has been jailed since a federal judge found him in contempt for refusing to answer questions posed to him by a federal prosecutor.
“They took me down to...my unit, which is the general population area,” Duran recalled in a recent interview at the detention center. “I get in there and people ran up to me and they’re like, ‘What’s your race? Who do you roll with?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not in a gang. I’m Chicano.’ ‘What are you here for?’ ‘I’m here for not snitching on people.’ They’re like, ‘That’s ... awesome.’
“In like five minutes they came back with this grocery bag full of food and toiletries, and they’re like, ‘Here, we take care of our own.’”
Duran, who grew up in Southern California, was an activist on migrant workers rights issues before moving to Olympia a few years ago. He said inmates watched the first presidential debate together. They then fell into conversation about why Duran considered himself an anarchist — what was an anarchist, they wanted to know? — and why he had elected to defy a federal judge’s order to tell a grand jury what he knew?
“They asked me, ‘Where do you stand on the spectrum?’ I said, ‘Very far left, without capitalism, without state or federal government. I think people ought to be able to organize on their own and still be accountable to their community, and to their society,’” Duran said.
“Well, there’s not a lot of cool politics up there,” he said, referring to his jail unit. “It definitely got people riled up. The guy I was talking to was a libertarian who believes the fundamentals of capitalism are absolutely necessary to keep society going. Well, to maintain the status quo, I said, I guess that is technically true.”
Duran and one of his fellow activist inmates, Olympia bartender Katherine Olejnik, wore jailhouse khakis and spoke separately in a small attorney interview room as a guard waited outside.
They seemed relaxed and cheerful, mindful that they had become celebrities in activist circles that have spread their photos across the Internet. Supporters have characterized the probe as a witch hunt aimed at quashing the radical fringes of the Occupy movement.
“I do want to protect my friends and comrades from whatever I may or may not know,” Duran said. “But this is a tool from the McCarthy era, like the House Un-American Activities Committee. ‘Are you or are you not an anarchist, did you ever subscribe to this publication, have you ever been to a political meeting?’ That type of thing. It seems like it was taken right out of the ‘50s or ‘60s. But I guess it’s more along the lines of, it never went away.”
Duran’s attorney, Kimberly Gordon, said a federal appeals court on Friday rejected her motion appealing Duran’s detention, though she has argued that it amounts to an unconstitutional fishing expedition through citizens’ political activities under the guise of probing crimes of vandalism.
Duran, Olejnik and Leah-Lynn Plante all have been offered immunity from prosecution — meaning they could not assert their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify. Federal authorities have made it clear that no one has the right to hide evidence of a crime — and damage to the federal courthouse that day and to surrounding businesses such as Niketown ran into the tens of thousands of dollars, at least.
“Matt really had no idea what they were going to ask him when he walked in there, but he was pretty resolved at that point that he did not want to be used by the government as a tool to prosecute or punish other people without his permission,” Gordon said. “He was more interested in making sure he was not used in that way than he was in keeping himself out of custody.”
Olejnik, 23, Duran’s roommate in Olympia, is studying for the law school admission test while waiting out her own indefinite period in custody. She said she is determined not to offer information about fellow activists and her own political associations, even if she has to sit at SeaTac through the end of the current grand jury’s 18-month term.
“I think it’s going to be fine,” she said. “Me and Matt are probably going to have to give up our house. But our friends are amazing. They’re going to pack up our house for us, people are raising money for a storage unit for us, they’re taking care of our cat, calling our parents, calling our employers, making sure we get mail and books.”
Duran is hoping his job at the computer company in Olympia will be waiting for him whenever he is released.
“I talked to my boss, the CEO, and they’re like, ‘Wow, we never had a case like this. But you’re a good kid, you’re smart, we invested like a year’s training and we want you back, as long as you don’t get criminal charges or anything.’”
So the wait goes on.
“I really don’t see it ending any other way,” Duran said. “I know I’m not going to talk.”
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