September 21st, 2006 by Will Potter
Many people have emailed me to ask why I still haven’t posted a recap of the SHAC 7 sentencing, and I don’t know what to say. That’s the problem. Every time I have sat down to write about last week’s sentencing of the SHAC 7, I’ve failed. I’ve become paralyzed. I’ve tried dumping all my thoughts onto the page and not worrying about form or content or style, but I can’t. I simply do not know what to say.
I still don’t, and that terrifies me. The terrorist rhetoric, the roundups, the blacklists: I’ve reported on all of this and the main problem I’ve faced has been time, not a lack of words. But sitting in Trenton, N.J., watching the spectacle take place, watching the six 20-something defendants in their thrift-store court clothes comfort their mothers while standing tall, shoulders back, for their friends… it broke me.
As I sat in the overflowing courtroom, sandwiched between a New Jersey activist and a mustached local reporter, I felt like I was watching history. I don’t mean that in the Red Scare kind of analogy that I often use in my work, although that is clearly applicable. I mean that a surreal feeling struck me. In 10, 20, 50 years, young people will look at this trial, just as we look at past eras of repression, and wonder: "How did you let this happen?"
How did we let this happen?
Here’s how a sentencing hearing for a federal case usually works. The judge makes a statement about the federal sentencing guidelines, if they apply, and their parameters. The prosecutors then generally ask for sentences somewhere in the middle or on the high end of those guidelines. Defense attorneys respond with a series of nitpicky points about the sentencing recommendations, using legal jargon the defendants and family members don’t understand, and argue that their client should receive a reduced sentence. Sometimes they submit letters from friends or family members saying that Johnny is a "fine young man" or that Jane is an "upstanding person who made a poor decision." Sometimes defendants say they have seen the light, and realized the error of their ways. Sometimes they cry.
Here’s how a sentencing hearing for animal rights activists convicted of "terrorism" charges for running a website works. The judge made a statement outlining the outlandish sentencing guidelines—higher than most rapists and violent criminals face. The government asked the judge to throw the book at these "extremists." One by one, the defense attorneys fight for a month here and a month there, anything to keep these activists from spending their 30s in prison. The defendants stare ahead blankly. The defense attorneys don’t just submit letters of support, they submit tomes. The judge raises a bound book submitted by Jake Conroy’s attorney, with letters from professors, friends, and activists that say they have been inspired by Jake’s compassion. The judge says she has rarely seen anything like this in any case.
The prosecutors don’t give an inch. Charles McKenna, the chief assistant U.S. attorney for New Jersey, who was the prosecutor in the case, rises from his seat after each speech by a defense attorney, and lets his voice reach a nearly vitriolic fervor.
Some activists laughed, others simply shook their heads at the absurdity of it all.
"Kevin Kjonaas was drunk with power."
"[Lauren Gazzola] had the bullhorn and was clearly the person in charge."
"Jake is not a man of compassion."
Pressed up against activists in the back row, I could feel their muscles tense. A man across the aisle with a freshly shorn head and a sharp three-button mod suit bit his clenched fist and flexed the muscles in his left hand. I kept the corner of my eye on him, waiting for him to jump from the pew and disrupt this spectacle.
He didn’t. The spectacle continued, with McKenna saying that Jake and the others had "good homes, good schools," and they "chose to throw it all away." He sounded like he was describing bank robbers or meth addicts, not individuals using their First Amendment rights.
Activists lurked around the courtroom after the sentencing. Those that were turned away from the overflowing courtroom rushed in to ask what happened. Nobody seemed to know what to say.
The defendants put their game faces back on. They pressed the flesh and thanked everyone for coming. They did their best to remain strong and lift everyone’s spirits. "It could have been worse."
The local press rushed the defendants and prosecutors with skinny notebooks in hand. I felt like such a horrible reporter. What do you say to someone who has just been sentenced for "terrorism" charges? It reminded me of working the cop shop at The Chicago Tribune, and having to write about murders and dead bodies found in storage lockers, and having to ask people how it made them feel. What a ridiculous question, but reporters always ask it.
Instead I told Josh and Jake that I strongly disapproved of their pastel colored shirts. Josh, who had his sentencing postponed until the next day, asked if I knew someone who had a tie: he ran out of clean court clothes. I started to take off mine, but he just laughed. "Dude, skinny ties are for skinny guys. I’ve got a little bit more to love."
Outside the Trenton courthouse was part press conference part family reunion. Reporters kept asking activists to talk to them about the case and how they felt.
"Are you a reporter? I’m not going to answer any of your questions."
"Why?" they always responded.
This case is all about guilt by association. The defendants are not accused of breaking any windows or rescuing any lab animals. They merely vocally supported those who did. In this Green Scare, they said, who would want to have their picture in the paper at an "eco-terrorism" trial? Who would want to be the next victim of this green baiting?
Activists gave their farewell hugs and it-was-great-to-see-you-agains, with the obligatory, "Maybe next time it will be under better circumstances."
I tagged along with Lauren, Jake and some activists from New York and Los Angeles to Wild Oats, a grocery store 15 minutes away with the best vegan options New Jersey had to offer. We ate tempeh salad, hummus and non-dairy ice cream with chocolate swirls in little plastic cups, like elementary school students get on special occasions in the cafeteria.
Lauren moved from table to table cracking jokes. She blamed it on a sugar rush from an Izze natural soda, but that’s just Lauren. She flexed her upper arm muscles and told us, "On the upside, I’m totally going to come out of prison like Sarah Connor in the Terminator. I’m going to be totally ripped."
An activist from New York took photos with a camera phone. The defendants posed with their supporters in the grocery store "café," and an attorney from California took a group shot. A woman squeezed and sniffed loaves of French bread while her toddler begged for a chocolate chip cookie. "Is this some kind of going away party?"
Silence. "Yes," the attorney said. "I guess it is." She smiled politely at the woman, and walked away without explanation.