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Note: The video embedded above comes from a 2009 press conference organized to support Koch's grand jury resistance.
UPDATE 1/28/14: Koch has been released from prison. He served over 8 months for his refusal to cooperate.
In 2008, a military recruitment center in Times Square, Manhattan was bombed. Five years later, a young, self-identified anarchist who has not been accused of participating in that bombing refused to appear before a grand jury and went to prison.
Jerry Koch was first subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in 2009. He refused. He was subpoenaed again, and once again refused. A website set up to support his defiance contains a statement from Jerry, which reads in part:
I refused to testify [in 2009] based on the assertion of my First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights, as I will be doing again for the duration of this grand jury. During the first grand jury, the government informed my lawyers that it was believed that I was at a bar in 2008 or 2009 where a patron indicated knowledge of who had committed the bombing. When I was first subpoenaed to the grand jury in 2009 I had no recollection of any such incident— a fact that I expressed publicly. Now, almost 4 years later, I still do not recall the alleged situation.
No matter that Jerry hasn’t been accused of having anything to do with the 2008 bombing, the prosecutors wanted him to testify on the record about overhearing something at a bar — something Jerry says he doesn’t remember.
So why is the prosecutor so intent to interrogate Jerry before the grand jury?
Koch believes that the grand jury is being used as a political weapon, to glean information about New York City anarchists. Prosecutors “are engaged in a ‘fishing expedition’ to gain information concerning my personal beliefs and political associations,” he says.
Over the past few decades, the FBI has demonstrated a consistent pattern of harassment and illegal surveillance of anarchists and other radicals not only here in New York, but also across the country. Throughout this time, federal grand juries (incredibly secretive proceedings that do not permit one’s lawyers to be present) have played a significant role; a federal grand jury is authorized to ask questions about anything and anyone, and often the declared intention is simply a mask to disguise the actual goal of acquiring information for use in other politically motivated cases. It is my belief that these two federal grand juries—despite the pretense of investigation into the 2008 bombing—are actually being used to gain information about my friends, loved ones, and activists for whom I have done legal support. By declining to testify, I refuse to be coerced into participating in a political witch-hunt that eerily recalls those of the McCarthy era Red Scare.
I again assert that I have no knowledge of who is responsible for the 2008 Times Square Military Recruitment Center bombing, and I will once again refuse to testify to the federal grand jury in ethical resistance to participation in a fruitless exercise of fear-mongering and government intimidation. My decision to stay silent in defense of individual agency will most likely result in incarceration for a period up to 18 months. I accept this recompense, understanding that in doing so I will reinforce a tradition of defending individual rights in the face of state repression.
History of political grand juries in the United States
Peter Bohmer describes a history of political grand jury inquisitions in the United States dating back to World War II:
Grand Juries, especially Federal Grand Juries, have been continually used as tools of political repression and increasingly to jail those who refuse to cooperate with government investigations of radical movements. Right after World War II, grand juries were used most commonly against those the government called Communists or Communist sympathizers, which often meant being against the Cold War and working for racial equality at home. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, federal grand juries were most commonly used against the Black liberation movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the American Indian Movement, and against the more militant parts of the anti Vietnam war movement. With regards to the Puerto Rican independence movement many leading activists advocating for independence of Puerto Rico by any means necessary were subpoenaed to grand juries in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
In more recent history, 23 anti-war and anti-imperialist activists in the midwest were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in 2010. They all refused; thus far none have served prison sentences for their resistance. A grand jury was also convened in 2012 in Seattle, related to property destruction on May Day. Three Seattle grand jury resisters served prison time.
You can learn more about Jerry Koch and his imprisonment at his support website.