A note before we start: I do not know Sergey Turzhanskiy, herein referred to as “Kiki,” which is how a lot of people know them. Because I have never met this person, and acknowledging this person will be in an extremely vulnerable position, I want to say that I am not addressing Kiki’s conviction as part of a political organization, nor am I advocating for Kiki. I have had no contact with Kiki, nor would I advocate for Kiki unless I could be sure that doing so would not violate the terms of the sentencing agreement as laid out by Kiki, Kiki’s lawyers, and the federal government.
I would like to close by saying that making me think to type this preface, essentially a disclaimer, is disgusting. I am against anyone being locked in a cage, and in hopes of foregoing further punishment on the behalf of someone I wish to write about, I will recognize the byzantine nature of the system which locks people in cages. So, as an anarchist discussing someone who has agreed not to have contact with anarchists, I do not wish this to be construed as organized advocacy, although I recognize this determination is out of my hands. This was not initiated by Kiki, Kiki’s family, friends, or supporters.
And, if you are a federal official, and have read this far, please kill yourself.
On March 31, a Portland anarchist, Kiki, who was accused of an attempted act of property destruction, was sentenced to two and a half years of federal prison. Kiki was arrested for throwing a crude Molotov cocktail made from a beer bottle at a parked and unoccupied police cruiser at the Northeast Precinct in the early morning of November 5, 2012. When the bottle failed to break, Kiki attempted to smash it on the cop car one more time. This time the bottle broke and started a small fire, which did minimal damage. Apparently the attack came in the middle of a shift change, and nearby police quickly arrested Kiki. There were initial allegations that Kiki was beaten by police, although to what degree remains unclear.
Kiki was originally charged with multiple felonies, including attempted arson and possession of a destructive device, among others. The sum total of Kiki’s bail stood at $1 million, until charges were moved to federal court, and Kiki’s lawyer was able to argue for conditional release in January 2013. Part of the agreement which got Kiki released was that Kiki was to have no contact with anarchists, most notably a group federal prosecutor Stephen Peifer referred to as “Resist the NW Grand Jury,” which isn’t even a group, but the title of a Facebook page devoted to disseminating information regarding resistance to a grand jury in Seattle which was investigating property destruction during riots in that city on May 1, 2012.
Peifer also pointed to the fact that Kiki’s case had been written about on the blogs of prisoner advocacy and legal repression support groups Portland Anarchist Black Cross and Denver Anarchist Black Cross as indicative of Kiki’s “serious involvement with the anarchist activity, which is a threat to the community.”
On the night Kiki appeared in court for sentencing, Kiki was contrite, either in the face of the looming threat of years of imprisonment, or in genuine remorse for their actions (this is uncertain and it would be unfair to speculate). Judge Marco Hernandez gave Kiki two and a half years, three years of supervised release, and continued to forbid contact with anarchists. Kiki was convicted of possession of an unregistered destructive device, but, as per the agreement worked out with Kiki’s lawyers and the government, avoided the attempted arson charge, avoiding a minimum sentence of 5 years, and a maximum of 20. Apart from the sadness of a comrade going to jail, or the relative happiness that they avoided serious time, the case is reflective of some troubling dynamics at play when anarchists are in the legal system.
First, the distinction of “anarchist” is no doubt treated as suspect by the state, naturally, because anarchists advocate for the overthrow or abolition of the state itself and work in many ways towards that goal. However, the implication the state continues to repeat is that being an anarchist, by itself, is criminal, or dangerous, and it informs the way anarchists are treated when they are charged with a crime.
When anarchists go to court, what would normally be construed as protected speech (political affiliation, disseminating information, and association), is then used as a club to hold over the accused during the legal process, and some speech activities, are considered detrimental to one’s case, if not criminal in and of themselves. Former animal rights prisoners the SHAC 7 and former environmental saboteur Daniel McGowan found this out the hard way. The SHAC 7 were essentially convicted as “leaders” of a decentralized protest campaign using RICO-esque interpretations of their role in maintaining a website which chronicled a campaign to shut down a notorious vivisection lab, and McGowan was chided by Judge Ann Aiken at his 2007 sentencing for the content of his support website before slapping him with a terrorism enhancement sentence.
While anyone honest should be dubious that the government should protect speech it vaguely feels is criminal, and anarchists do not, as a rule, see legitimacy in legally-enshrined “rights” as essentially protective of freedom, increasingly the state uses the considerable threats they can exercise through the legal process to make us silence ourselves, or rethink tactics that aren’t illegal, but evidence of which can be used by authorities to determine remorse on behalf of the accused and impose sentences. The idea is that the government would prefer to strip away any political context in which a criminal act is carried out, and if you’re the accused, so a strategy of wholly disavowing the act and the politics behind it, or distancing yourself from them, is sometimes used out of genuine remorse, or to essentially plead for leniency in sentencing. This happens in every almost every criminal case, political or not. It is a theatrical process, a genuflection toward the vested power of the government, and while ideally one would want to shout their condemnation of the legal system and claim responsibility for and explain an act that was accompanied with considerable risk, when decades of your life hang in the balance, it’s hard to push for maximum intransigence when it remains very true that you face your sentence and serve your time alone, no matter what support you have on the outside.
Early after the arrest, Kiki’s attorney got a bail crowdfunding website taken down, as well as a “Free Sergey” blog chronicling Kiki’s case. This was a shrewd move, and due to Kiki’s lack of a criminal record, it was easier to demonstrate contrition in material ways that would satisfy a judge; ultimately, it worked to secure Kiki’s release prior to trial and a lesser sentence. By simple math, two and a half years is less than 20. While both have power, federal courts, when compared to county courts, have more; nearly 95% of federal cases end in a plea deal because enormous disparities between potential sentences and the ones offered in those deals, not to mention enormous costs associated with a legal defense, keep people from fighting charges. Those accused are mindful of this dynamic at all times. When 95% of cases don’t involve even arguing guilt or innocence, apology is sometimes the result when you don’t want a person in a position of enormous power to throw your life away.
Because this case was settled, and largely took place behind closed doors, there are still unanswered questions. There are many reasons why one would want to burn a police car, but speculation as to why this act was carried out isn’t forthcoming, and, in many cases in communities targeted by surveillance, speculation jeopardizes security. But to place things contextually, in November 2012, Portland’s anarchist community had been highly surveilled and targeted for federal repression in the form of a grand jury, which stemmed from the fact that some Portland anarchists were already under FBI surveillance (for what, it has never been said), and were suspected of traveling to Seattle to participate in May Day protests where some participants broke glass doors at a federal courthouse. The investigation related to this involved military-style raids in the summer of 2012 by heavily-armed FBI agents, the serving of subpoenas around the Pacific Northwest, and the indefinite detention of three people who refused to testify. In early October, Portland anarchist Leah-Lynne Plante had just been imprisoned for refusing to testify before the grand jury. (Plante would later testify, was released, and has not been heard from since.) A solidarity march in Southeast Portland after Plante’s imprisonment saw several bank properties on Southeast Hawthorne smashed, in one of the most combative anarchist demonstrations in Portland for years. (Some people detained after that march were later harassed by the FBI, who undoubtedly got their names from Portland police.) One month later, Kiki threw a Molotov at a cop car. It was undoubtedly a political act, but in relation to what, we may never know.
In January 2013, when Peifer argued against Kiki’s release, and said Kiki should have no contact with “Resist the NW Grand Jury,” Peifer said that the anarchists in question were attempting to “obstruct” the grand jury. It’s fairly obvious that the government connected Kiki’s action to the wider effort of resisting the heavy-handed repression in response to the rioting on May Day (which has yet resulted in no federal charges), and was seeking to implicate anarchists in general as dangerous and violent as a means to keep Kiki locked up.
Unfortunately for the authorities, being an anarchist isn’t itself illegal. But that hardly matters. Going back to the notion of “rights,” speaking to or being able to associate with others regardless of their beliefs are some that all Americans are supposed to enjoy, and that courts, ideally, are supposed to uphold. Yet anarchism, an ethic at least as generous and expansive as it is combative, is a bit of a scarlet letter in society, at large. If you’ve read one report by mainstream journalists of a protest, or squat eviction, they often reproduce verbatim police lines about possession of anarchist literature, clothing, political indicia like signs, innocuous materials (paint, hand tools), as fitting some sinister type. Most of the time it seems more lazy than malicious, but it has a cumulative effect in the public consciousness. In court, this type, this profile, is used to maximum advantage by prosecutors. It starts with the villainous tinge given to the word “anarchist,” referring to anarchist “activity” as “a threat to the community,” conceptualizing anarchists as inherently criminal, using one’s adherence to anarchist ethics or beliefs as a means to address a court’s prejudices. Identifying someone as such or playing on the popular implications of what an anarchist is or does is part of the process which helps prosecutors accomplish their jobs; slamming prison bars in someone’s face. In the prison system, being labeled as an anarchist means a lot more, by way of possible repression.
Kiki is still forbidden from having contact with anarchists. It is unclear as to what exactly that entails; whether certain people may write Kiki letters, for instance. In prison, this is a big deal, because political identification is increasingly being treated as a gang matter, and gang affiliation, which is determined by prison officials on evidence obtained by guards, in a process that would make a normal criminal trial look like a civics class lesson. Journalist Shane Bauer wrote about this process for Mother Jones, noting that possession of literature, or the content of drawings at California’s Pelican Bay prison could land a prisoner gang classification, and then solitary confinement. Mark Neiweem, an anarchist arrested on specious terrorism charges before the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, was put into solitary last year for having what authorities said was “copious amounts of anarchist literature.” Neiweem’s tattoos, which included the anarchist symbol of a circled letter “A”, and an encircled letter “E”, symbolizing “equality” were found by prison officials to signify “class warfare, the 99%.” McGowan and SHAC 7 member Andy Stepanian were both imprisoned in Communication Management Units, high-security prisons within prisons which heavily restrict prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world, expressly for their political advocacy. McGowan was even briefly re-imprisoned while on parole for writing an article about the CMUs.
On the law enforcement level, the criminalization of anarchism has played out, too. In an affidavit attached to a search warrant related to electronics seized in 2012’s FBI raids, an agent noted that they had talked with the Portland police to identify “known anarchists.” In 2011, the year Seattle anarchists had regularly protested a high-profile police shooting, police raided an anarchist house party, where they beat and Tasered people, with one officer wielding a shovel. In the late-90’s Pacific Northwest, a hotbed for radical environmentalism and green anarchism, heavy-handed responses to protests and wide-scale surveillance of any and all anarchist activity was the norm. We can go back to the anti-Communist police “Red Squads”. It isn’t as if any of this is new.
In the face of the increasing power of the US legal apparatus, the drastic uptick in conviction rates, the militarization of the police, the rise of the surveillance state, and America’s out-of-control prison system, however, political repression of this kind may only get worse. When taken in total, it’s reasonable to conclude that these systems of power, in concert, cannot be reformed and therefore must be destroyed. That ethical people, or those simply trying to preserve a life for themselves, have to fight back, using varied means that will be confrontational. Many militant mass movements worldwide have adopted organizing principles and tactics favored by anarchists, so there are opportunities for anarchist participation in struggles of all sorts, aside from the ones anarchists initiate.
For this reason, it’s clear that authorities have a vested interest in making it seem like anarchists are a scary threat to the life and welfare of those around them, but every time an officer kills a houseless person, a person of color, a child in a no-knock raid, or feeds the private immigration detention system a continuous succession of bodies, the “safety” which they wish to preserve is exposed as monstrous. This perverted order is the thing anarchists are a threat to, and we counter it with ideas that promote an existence where no one has mastery over anyone else, where systems of domination are abolished, where people can live a dignified existence. We do this through advocacy and actually fighting back.
Kiki’s agreement to not associate with anarchists, whether proposed by Kiki’s legal defense or initiated by the government, sets a dangerous precedent for potential repression. How do authorities make the distinction when someone is in contact with an anarchist? What does “contact” really mean, and how far can it be stretched? Once you’re out of court you’re never out of the system; probation, parole, travel restrictions and all the security and surveillance trappings that come with being convicted follow you. Your prior convictions dictate what sort of sentence you receive in the future, as well. Being legally barred from associating with others could have enormous implications for people already in legal jeopardy. While anarchists should dismiss the power of the state as illegitimate, it is vitally important not to cede it any more power than it already has. This is not a criticism for a plea taken by someone looking down the barrel of decades in prison, just an acknowledgement of a dangerous precedent.
It’s heartbreaking when someone you care about is locked up, harder still when you may be forbidden from speaking to them, and when the state forces displays of atonement, whether genuine or not, the effect is gut-wrenching. But this is how the state tells us not to fight, and warns us that if we do, they will break us. Whether they’re successful is another matter, entirely.