Thursday, October 14, 2010

Interview With Jess Sundin

On the morning of September 26, 2010, the FBI raided Jess Sundin's home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The FBI ransacked her home in order to search for possible connections between her activism and alleged terrorist organizations in Columbia and Palestine. Similar raids were carried out at the same time in the homes of other activists in both Minneapolis and Chicago. All of the targeted activists did work around issues of peace and justice in Palestine and Columbia. After the invasion of their homes, Sundin and the other targeted activists were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Chicago. They stood accused of "giving material aid to foreign terrorist organizations." The actions of the FBI have sparked outrage throughout progressive circles and have resulted in thousands of people across the country expressing their solidarity with the targeted activists and calling for the Obama administration to adhere to the restraints of the U.S. Constitution. A few days ago, I contacted Jess Sundin and asked if I could interview her for JuliusSpeaks. Conducting this interview by email, the following is what transpired.

1. Where are you located and what is your occupation?

I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have been a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota for eleven years.

2. How long have you been an activist?

I became active in high school, protesting the 1991 Gulf War. It’s been nearly 20 years, all of my adult life.

3. Tell us about the organizations you are involved with? What are the issues you work around?

I am most active with the Anti-War Committee, which I helped found in 1998. I have also done work around economic justice, especially with my Union, AFSCME 3800. I’m a lesbian mom, and have participated in local actions to defend the rights of families like mine. My anti-war activism is most focused around Iraq and Afghanistan, but I also have worked in solidarity with Colombia and Palestine, two places where U.S. military aid has funded repressive regimes which violently target their own people.

4. Before the FBI raid on your house, did you have any inclination that you were under surveillance?


5. Would you agree that the raid on your home along with other incidents that have occurred since the passage of the Patriot Act signal that COINTELPRO has been legalized and is officially sanctioned?

I don’t know whether a new, formal and secret program like COINTELPRO has been reestablished, but I share the concern that these actions signal that the so-called war on terror has been turned on activists here at home. The early sign of this was the repression of Arab and Muslim communities, or here in Minneapolis, the Somali community. The coordinated raids on homes and office in Minneapolis and Chicago, the grand jury subpeonas for all those raided, and several others, including in Michigan, and FBI attempts to question others from North Carolina to California, all of this was a massive undertaking, and was certainly approved at the highest levels of government. This operation shows a blatant disregard for our constitutional rights to speak and associate freely, to voice opposition to government policies, and to support humanitarian causes abroad. All of this should be a concern for anyone actively working for progressive social change.

6. Explain what happened when the FBI came to your home.

At 7am, I woke to the sound of a bang at my door. My partner and daughter were already awake. By the time I joined them downstairs, 7 federal agents were beginning to go through all of our belongings. They showed a search warrant authorizing them to search and sieze anything related to my anti-war organizing or international travel, which might be evidence of “material support to foreign terrorist organizations.” We were told that we were not being detained, but were not allowed to make or receive phonecalls. We demanded the right to make one call to an attorney, and we stayed at our house to have some sense of what they were doing to our home.

Agents spent the next five hours going through every room of my home. They went through my daughter’s toys, the personal archives of my grandfather who died earlier this year, everything. They left my home with several crates full of papers, books, CDs, computers, my cell phone, photographs, notes and paper files, financial records and checkbooks, my passport… and they gave me no indication of when my property might be returned.

Before they left, they gave both myself and my partner subpeonas to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago.

7. How do you plan to fight against these violations of your constitutional rights?

Our greatest defense is a broad, public campaign to denounce the FBI repression, and call off the grand jury. Each of us caught up in this investigation is well-known in our communities, and we’ve received an outpouring of support. Before the FBI left my home, supporters had already started to gather on my front lawn. Later that afternoon, a hundred people joined myself and others raided for a press conference in front of my home. That evening, more than 200 people gathered at a nearby church where we began making plans to protest these actions, and support the folks called before the grand jury. Activists in Chicago had the same kind of support.

The following week, protests were organzied at more than 60 FBI offices and federal buildings around the country. Thousands of calls have been made on our behalf, to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. We’ve received more than 100 statements of solidarity from organizations – from Minnesota’s statewide AFSCME council, to an indigenous community in Colombia. These demonstrations and messages give us a lot of strength, while putting pressure on those with the power to call off the FBI and the grand jury.

While we will continue to speak publicly in our own defense, and also continue our very public work opposing US wars and militarism abroad, we will not speak to a secret grand jury. We also appreciate that several of our friends and associates have not cooperated when the FBI has come to their homes or workplaces to ask about us. (More about this on a later question.)

8. What have been the ramifications of these raids on your life? Have there been threats to your employment or have any other civil or criminal actions been threatened?

The most difficult personal impact has been on my role as a parent. As I explain later, there is a very real possibility that investigation could result in both myself and my partner being imprisoned for our political work. We have made arrangements and signed legal papers authorizing someone else to look after our daughter if we are jailed. That decision, and talking to her about it, are the hardest things we’ve ever had to do. I cannot imagine being separated from her, and I hate that a 6-year old has to worry that she may lose her mothers this way.

I am currently on a medical leave from my job, though several of us are University of Minnesota employees. The University’s central administration, when asked to comment on our case, said that while they have no comment now, in the case of an indictment, they would look at this again. Some of our folks are teachers, and while not out of work, certainly face more scrutiny every day at work.

The stress of this situation, and the huge commitment of time and energy that we’ve made to defend ourselves, creates a great deal of stress. As someone with chronic health problems, all of this is taking a heavy personal toll.

9. What has been the community response there in Minneapolis to these raids?

As I mentioned before, we have had a huge outpouring of support. Even the local news stations, were shocked. When first reporting on the raids, they pointed out that Minnesotans know us. We are outspoken community activists, doing our anti-war and social justice work in the most-public ways, never believing there was anything to hide. Parents and teachers from my daughter’s school have gone out of their way to extend their support to us. As much as people want to believe that the government wouldn’t attack us just for speaking our minds, this case has called all of that into question for our co-workers, neighbors, friends and families.

10. What are the charges that have been filed against you?

No charges have been filed against any of us. Isn’t it incredible that you can have your home searched, your property seized, and be ordered to testify in court, when there’s no charge against you? The grand jury process happens in secret, and neither the FBI nor the prosecutor have indicated who they hope to catch on this fishing expedition.

11. I've heard that you don't plan to cooperate with this subpoena. What do you plan to do as a course of action?

We have a team of attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild helping us through this process. All 14 of those subpeonaed have, through our attorneys, informed the prosecutor that we will exercise our 5th amendment right not to testify. So far none of us has been offered immunity, and instead the prosecutor has left us on hold. (Immunity is a legal procedure where you are compelled to testify, in exchange for a promise that what you say cannot be used against you. It does not necessarily mean that you will not be prosecuted based on the testimony of others. If you still refuse to testify, you can be held in contempt and sent to jail.)

Of course this is just a guess, but I believe they are waiting for the FBI to finish going through all the things they took from our homes, and attempting to interview anyone else that might help them make a case against someone. After that, I believe that all 14 of us could be indicted, or called before the grand jury again, and forced to choose between testifying and jail time. Some people believe that will happen after the November elections, but we really have no way of knowing – it could be weeks, months or even years.

It is our hope that public pressure will force them to shut down this grand jury with no indictments. We believe that none of us has done anything wrong, and that all of our activities should have the protection of constitutional and international law.

12. How do you think this period compares to the 1960s and 1970s and the harassment of such groups as the Black Panthers? Do you see your situation as comparable to progressives in that era and what they experienced?

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading a lot about that period in our history. Not only the case of the Panthers, but in Minnesota, I think of the American Indian Movement that was targeted, and our Chicago friends remember the campaign against the Puerto Rican independence movement. Clyde Bellecourt, an AIM leader, spoke at the first demonstration we had in Minneapolis. He told us that we are today’s Indians. There’s some wisdom in that, though I don’t want to be misunderstood as saying that our situation is equivalent. It is not.

Our leaders have not been assassinated, or framed up on murder charges. Not one bullet has been fired on us, and of course, for now, none of us has been imprisoned, or forced to live in exile. For now, our case is on a much smaller scale, though we are certainly the targets of the same forces that terrorized the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, as well as white progressives, socialists or communists of that era, before and since. We are humbled, as we stand on the shoulders of giants. And we have a great deal to learn.

I believe our situation is a test – not only for the forces of repression, but also for progressive forces. For them, they want to see how far the public will let them go, how far they can stretch existing laws, to sweep away resistance to US wars. For us, we have to stand up to this, and prove that people will not be silenced by the scare tactics. Instead, this will make us stand up twice as strong, twice as loud, and 100% determined to defend our democratic rights. I believe that they have over stepped their authority, and that we can unite with enough strength to push them back. We have to.

13. Do you think the United States now has a repressive government?

Well, if I didn’t before, I certainly do now!

Of course, as an anti-war activist, I have witnessed the violence carried out by our government in other countries, I’ve opposed our government’s support of the worlds most-repressive regimes. With bedfellows like Colombia and Israel, the U.S. cannot be understood as a government that embraces democratic values. Of course, we are taught from a very young age that we do have democratic rights, including the right to dissent. And so, most Americans believe in democracy. Many believe that our government guarantees that. I believe that our government acts mainly in the interests of the rich and powerful, and when democracy poses a risk to the powerful, then repression is a tool they will use without hesitation.

14. Any other comments you'd like to make?

Thank you for your interest in our case. While this situation is something I would never have wished for, I welcome the opportunity it gives us. It is important that we stand up to defend the people whose homes were raided, the 14 who’ve been subpeonaed and the several who’ve been harassed by the FBI in relation to this case. But not just those of us directly touched by this witch hunt, we must stand to defend all of us, and defend space for political opposition, our rights to speak freely, to travel and associate with whoever we wish, our right to extend our solidarity to political movements of people just like ourselves, struggling for progressive social change in other countries. We welcome any venue where we can speak about our case (invite us!), messages of support and solidarity, and financial support to help us pay for our defense. People who want to get more involved can follow our case on-line at

In solidarity,

Jess Sundin