Sherman Austin is looking forward to a year in federal prison with the kind of equanimity that most people reserve for a trip to the doctor's office.
The 20-year-old anarchist was charged with distributing information about
Molotov cocktails and "Drano bombs" on his Web site, Raisethefist.com. Under a
1997 federal law championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it
is illegal to publish such instructions with the intent that readers
commit "a federal crime of violence."
During the floor debate over the legislation, which the Senate approved
unanimously, Feinstein said children "are getting instructions for
making these explosives from the Internet...In February, in upstate New
York, three 13-year-old boys were charged with plotting to set off a
homemade bomb in their junior high school, using bomb-making plans which
they had gotten off of the Internet...My amendment gives law enforcement
another tool in the war against terrorism, to combat the flow of
information that is used to teach terrorists and other criminals how to
Austin appears to be the first person so far convicted under the controversial law, which some First Amendment scholars say may violate the right to freedom of expression. Earlier this year, Austin pleaded guilty, and last week a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him to one year in prison.
CNET News.com interviewed Austin by telephone from a guest house where he
is staying in Long Beach, Calif.
Q: When do you enter prison?
A: Basically, I wait until Sept. 3, I go to the downtown Los Angeles
federal building and I surrender myself. I might go to the Lompoc federal
prison. It has three different facilities: a camp, which is low-security;
a medium-security unit; and a high-security unit. I'm told that sometimes,
they'll screw with you. If they want to screw with me, they'll keep me at a
What's going to happen to your Raisethefist.com Web site?
Right now, I'm trying to get my things together. I'm trying to make sure
that Raisethefist.com will stay up. It's also a direct action network. I
want to make sure that continues to exist.
How are you feeling with just a few weeks of liberty left?
I'm in pretty good shape. Psychologically, I'm staying focused, not letting
myself get scared or anything like that.
You sound remarkably calm.
I'm definitely pissed off. The reason I'm calm is that I've gotten used to
it. I've become more passive toward it. I'm encouraged to be less scared
about what's going on. I've gotten used to the fact that they'll do
whatever they want to do to set an example, set a precedent.
What kind of legal fees do you have?
I have a public defender. I have a $2,000 fine. We're trying to have
benefit shows to raise money and ask for donations. So far, we've raised
There's at least one mirror of your site run by Dave Touretzky, a faculty member in
the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon University. But he
hasn't been prosecuted by the government. Neither have people selling
how-to books like "Silent Death."
The fact that bomb-making information is readily available on the Internet
doesn't concern the feds.
The fact that bomb-making information is readily available on the Internet
doesn't concern the feds. If someone were to use a bomb to do something
illegal, there's plenty of information out there, including in
libraries. The only reason they went after my site is because it was
getting more popular and was promoting autonomous organizing. It was
promoting not just that, but autonomous thinking--people going out in
their local communities and taking the initiative. That started
happening. Raisethefist.com wasn't just a Web site but was developing into
a direct action network.
Do you know of anyone else who's faced similar charges?
I don't know anyone else who was charged under this law. My lawyer said
he's never handled any case like this--that this
is the craziest case he's ever dealt with.
So why do you believe the government singled you out and ignored the
same bomb-making information on other Web sites?
Apparently, distributing that information isn't illegal. Having the intent
to use it in a crime of violence is. That's the iffy part there. There are
tons and tons of Web sites out there that have information about how to
build bombs and use explosives. Even assassinations and credit card
fraud. How do they prove intent? It's nothing more than thought crime.
Why did you agree to a plea bargain instead of going to trial?
I wasn't going to risk 20 years in prison. At first, I wanted to go to
trial. But when I found out the terrorism enhancement (from the USA Patriot Act) applied to my case, I changed my mind. If I knew it was
going to be a year in jail, I probably would have taken it to trial.
You didn't know how long you'd serve?
I knew that the sentencing range was 6 to 12 months, based on what the
prosecutors recommended and what the U.S. probation officer recommended. I
thought that's what I'd be sentenced to. But the judge saw it differently.
Have you ever been in trouble with the law before?
I came to videotape a demonstration on May 1, 2001. I was there when,
unexpectedly, police started a brutal attack. I was shot twice.
With rubber bullets?
With a 12-gauge shotgun shooting plastic shells. I had penetrating wounds
in my calves. I was in the hospital for nine hours. I still have one in my
leg. After that I was taken to jail and spent three nights there.
Is that what radicalized you?
I was already an activist. That incident motivated me even more. It
inspired me to take it to much greater levels.
You say you're an anarchist. So you advocate violence?
I don't really use the terms violence and nonviolence...I wouldn't say my
site promotes violence. I'd say my site promotes self-defense. Everyone
agrees that if you're being attacked, you have the right to defend
You've bragged to reporters that you've hacked into computer systems,
defaced Web sites, launched denial-of-service attacks and so on. While
you weren't charged with those offenses, the government's affidavit
mentions those claims. Did you do it?
They just put a bunch of crazy stuff in there to make the search warrant
look pretty. There were a lot of allegations about that, like using credit
cards and stolen stereos. None of it was ever proven. They never provided
After you get out, your probation conditions place restrictions on you
using computers. Are you going to try to keep running Raisethefist.com
after your prison term is up?
I'm going to try to. Apparently, one of the conditions of the probation is
that I can't associate myself with anyone who espouses violence as a way
of accomplishing political change--like an anarchist organization or a
socialist or communist or anyone involved in a progressive organization.
If they're going to say I'm not allowed to associate with someone, I'd
like to see them come out and prove it. I'd like to fight it. I don't know
if I myself will run Raisethefist.com. But I'd like to keep the site up
I don't have any feelings of accepting responsibility. What do
I have to accept responsibility for?
The FBI seized your computers and has not returned them. Did you have
any encrypted files or e-mail messages on them?
I don't think I had any encrypted data on my computers. I didn't encrypt
my Web site, since it was public information, and I didn't have anything to
hide. I was using PGP a little to send e-mail. I'm using it now.
Do you have any regrets?
I don't have any regrets for running the Web site. When I first started
the site, my first objective was to make it a big site, a forum. I have a
huge support base behind me. Not just my voice has been heard but others
have been heard. I don't regret running the site. Despite what's been
happening, better things will come out of it.
The federal sentencing guidelines generally give you a shorter prison
term for accepting responsibility for your actions. Have you?
I'm angry. I don't have any feelings of accepting responsibility. What do
I have to accept responsibility for? It seems like they only go after political dissidents, beating people down, stopping them, harassing them. Where's the responsibility
there? They talk about accepting responsibility--and where are the people
at Enron who haven't even had a slap on the wrist? Where's the