Three young activists were acquitted of terrorism charges Friday, but convicted of mob action and arson-related felonies for their part in a supposed crime involving Molotov cocktails that was manufactured, both figuratively and literally, by the Chicago Police Department (CPD), and likely the FBI, in the lead-up to the May 2012 demonstrations against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The split jury-verdict was bittersweet for both sides in this widely-watched case that has lasted nearly two years. State's Attorney Anita Alvarez gambled and lost on a 12-year old terrorism law passed by the Illinois legislature soon after 9/11 which had never been put to the trial court test. Her office's failure to convince the jury that this was a terrorism case was not only a blow to her credibility, but to the CPD operation as a whole, and calls into question her motivations to prosecute such serious charges. Although the three defendants, Brian Jacob Church, 22, Jared Chase, 29, and Brent Betterly, 25, who became known as the NATO 3, avoided terrorism convictions, they still face up to 30 years in jail for the charges they were found guilty of.
From the beginning, the NATO 3 were painted as "violent anarchists," and domestic terrorists. With much fanfare, Alvarez held a press conference on the eve of the NATO summit, accusing the three Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists of terrorism-related crimes, seeking to impose $5 million bonds, but settling for still-absurdly high $1.5 million bonds, and eventually indicting them on eleven charges each. Less known at the time was the use of CPD undercover police to infiltrate the OWS movement in Chicago and scout the region for anarchists and anarchist symbols, ultimately targeting Church, Chase, and Betterly in the weeks ahead of the NATO protests. The trial revealed that CPD infiltrators Mehmet Uygun and Nadia Chikko, known to the activists as "Mo" and "Gloves," helped plan and instigate the crimes. They plied the defendants with alcohol, getting them drunk on multiple occasions, helped purchase gasoline for the Molotov cocktails, and even cut up a bandanna to use as a wick.
The NATO 3 were accused of planning to attack President Obama's campaign headquarters, the personal residence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, four police stations, and other corporate targets in the downtown area. Despite the prosecutor's assertion during the trial that the three defendants were "cold, calculating terrorists," they came off as incapable of executing such a crime. Audio recordings obtained from wires that Uygun and Chikko wore during their interactions with the defendants indicated the infiltrators' frustration with a lack of progress on the "plan," and their verbal efforts to push the NATO 3 along. The State's Attorney placed a lot of emphasis on comments the defendants made while being recorded, but in the end no Molotov cocktails were thrown at anything or anyone and little-to-no evidence was produced showing that they had conspired to do so.
Although the NATO 3 case was not tried in federal court, as most terrorism prosecutions are, it still illustrates a policing trend across the country to conduct infiltration, target hapless and vulnerable individuals, and help formulate a crime that in the vast majority of cases would never have happened but for the involvement of law enforcement. Just as with the NATO 3, infiltrators will often purchase materials for the crime and become instrumental to the "plan" in other ways. Whether it's Muslims, Arab Americans, or political activists like the NATO 3 being targeted by undercover police, FBI agents, or paid informants -- most commonly used in these types of counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) operations -- the tell-tale signs of infiltration and entrapment are usually the same.
The net cast by the CPD operation in 2012 also extended beyond the NATO 3. It was revealed at trial that Uygun and Chikko went trolling for information at cafes and punk rock shows, ran people's license plates for warrants, and even got arrested at an April 2012 Occupy Chicago action, protesting Rahm Emanuel's closure of the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic. Alvarez also used surreptitiously (and questionably) obtained information from the two CPD infiltrators to prosecute local activists Sebastian Senakiewicz, 25, and Mark Neiweem, 29. Both took plea bargains and are no longer in jail, but Neiweem was detained for more than a year and half, much of which was spent in solitary confinement, and Senakiewicz pleaded guilty to falsely making a terrorist threat, a felony, and was deported to Poland last year under the terms of his "agreement."
Because terrorism cases are so rarely prosecuted and even more rarely tried in court, the NATO 3 case represents a significant blow not only to Alvarez and the CPD, but also to the general law enforcement practice of using infiltrators to manufacture terrorism-related crimes. "This is a line in the sand," said Molly Armour, one of Betterly's attorneys, to the Associated Press after the verdict was reached. "The war on terror can't go this far."
Entrapment defenses are difficult to argue and hard to win, but can help put a spotlight on an abusive and abhorrent practice. Technically, the NATO 3 did not use an entrapment defense, but the elements of entrapment were there in plain view for the jury and the world to see. The jury acquitted all three activists of conspiracy to commit terrorism, material support for terrorism, possession of an incendiary device with the intent to commit terrorism, and other lesser felonies, instead finding them guilty of mob action, and two counts of possession of an incendiary device, all lower level charges.
The NATO 3 were represented by Sarah Gelsomino and Michael Deutsch of the People's Law Office (Church), Tom Durkin and Joshua Herman (Chase), Molly Armour, Lillian McCartin, and Paul Brayman (Betterly), most of whom are members of the National Lawyers Guild. But the NATO 3 were also supported by legal workers, numerous activists, and a longstanding committee -- Free the NATO 3 -- that has engaged in widespread public outreach and direct support to the defendants. It's possible that the NATO 3 will appeal the charges they were convicted of, but with the prospect of decades in jail they have more imminent concerns. The sentencing of the NATO 3 will be scheduled at 2 p.m. on February 28th at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, 2650 South California Avenue in Chicago.
Unfortunately for now, despite the successful challenge to terrorism charges as they were applied against the NATO 3, we can't expect these types of cases to go away any time soon. With spying on the rise, both in the more traditional law enforcement setting and in the greatly expanding area of privatized espionage, the type of CPD operations employed to entrap the NATO 3 are likely to persist for a while. However, these legally questionable, yet state-sanctioned tactics, don't have to end up in a high stakes prosecution. And, if they do, they don't have to necessarily result in terrorism convictions. To avoid these kinds of cases in the future, political dissidents can be more deliberate about who they will and won't work with, and better discern some of the tell-tale signs when they occur. Terrorism cases can also be avoided by building stronger bonds of solidarity throughout movements for social change to minimize the risk of vulnerable people being singled out as targets to exploit. But in the event terrorism charges are applied, one of the only lasting ways to fight back against entrapment is to go to trial. Without downplaying the serious risks of going to trial on terrorism charges, those defendants with privilege and support have a unique opportunity to push back against this practice. Just as the NATO 3 and their attorneys did, others can also stand up, legally, to express intolerance to this form of political repression.
Why would law enforcement prey on politically, socially, and economically vulnerable people to make examples out of them for the nefarious purpose of frightening the public, other than to justify their broader repressive actions and to cash in on the escalating security budgets that these summits bring? From this distorted perspective, the State's Attorney's office achieved its short term goals back in May 2012 by bringing trumped up terrorism charges against the NATO 3. The orchestrated effort to chill dissent in advance of the NATO demonstrations, combined with indiscriminate police brutality, and the appropriation of millions of dollars for policing equipment, including surveillance cameras, that remain in Chicago today, long after the summit delegates rolled out of town, shows that the city got what it wanted at the expense of the NATO 3. But, the OWS movement that inspired Church, Chase, Betterly, and millions of others showed us that we can and should resist these practices.
Meanwhile, the NATO 3 continue their legal struggle and could use our help.