All photos by the author
Last night, I went to a benefit for Barrett Brown and Jeremy Hammond, who have both become symbols of the government's decade-long assault on information freedom since going to prison. Held on the 15th floor of a chilly office building in New York City's Flatiron district, the event was billed as a "variety show," featuring an acoustic music performance, recorded video messages from the likes of Alexa O'Brien, and real-life speeches from big-time whistleblower and hacker defense attorneys Michael Ratner (WikiLeaks), Margaret Kunstler (Hammond), Stanley Cohen (Anonymous), and weev's attorney, Tor Ekeland.
To cap things off, a close friend of Jeremy Hammond also delivered a speech on behalf of the hacktivist behind the Stratfor leaks. I figured I'd be among a choir being preached to, but I didn't think the evening was going to get started with a Buffalo Springfield sing-along. Well, it did.
This was a benefit, after all. And despite my love of listening to lawyers give a good lecture to the laymen, the event's musical connection stuck out most on the e-vite. The auction even included a signed guitar from Dave Navarro!
Alongside the guitar, "Free Barrett" and "Free Hammond" prints and other memorabilia were lined up on a table in a conference room. A bundle of A/V cables bisected a room of about 60 chairs, forcing late arrivals to stand and/or talk loudly in the foyer. There was plenty of wine, a spread of hummus, cheese, salsa, with a couple hungry activists eating and drinking most of it. The foyer filled with chatter until the Neil Young stopped, the lights flickered, and it was time to file in and grab a seat.
Dave Navarro's signed guitar, which sold for $750 (left), and some screen printed art (right).
First was the young Kevin Gallagher, director of Free Barrett Brown, who explained that Brown's Project PM had become a "crowdsourced research project or 'think tank,' with a wiki that was devoted to investigate the world of private intelligence cyber security contractors."
"Using leaked e-mails leaked out of HBGary Federal and Stratfor in 2011, he and others were able to identify the connection between the companies, uncovering a number of scandals in which things were being planned that were certainly against public interest and potentially illegal," Gallagher said.
Gallagher then talked about Brown, who is currently sitting in prison facing a century's worth of charges, and his ongoing impact following the government's continued crackdown on whistleblowers and journalists.
"Last year many were content to dismiss the warnings about Trapwire and Persona Management, but now, after Snowden, now after the tragically deceased Michael Hastings was showed to be taking interest in this case, people are listening," Gallagher said. "In some respects, Barrett is now regarded as a prophet of surveillance dystopia: A person who knew what was going on before the rest of us did. Someone who has been massively vindicated and redeemed. It's an abject shame, that he doesn't have his freedom, because I think he could do a lot to educate us about the incestuous revolving door between the private intelligence firms and the government these days."
Independent journalist Alexa O'Brien showed up in the room via QuickTime. Posted at Fort Meade and awaiting Tuesday's sentencing in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning (the case she's been following for three years), she spoke to the political aspect of the trials of Brown and Hammond.
"Here we have Jeremy Hammond, responsible for the Stratfor leak. Jeremy Hammond is a political prisoner," she said. "When we look at top secret America in the post-9/11 world, there is no boundary between corporate intelligence, companies that make up our national security state, and government. They have essentially led to a lack of oversight, have led to policies based on the interests of bureaucrats, and politicians."
"It is upon our shoulders to make sure that their cases do not [settle] into obscurity, or that we just sit and cheerlead for them," she continued. "We have to show what the government is doing, how it's doing it, who is doing it. It's the only way to push back against what's happening."
Next, Michael Ratner, general counsel to WikiLeaks, took the podium, and spoke more broadly about the impact of internet activism and pushback from authorities. First, he spoke about Hammond.
"I saw Jeremy Hammond yesterday, and you know I sat there thinking as I thought all along, 'What is Jeremy Hammond doing in this prison? Why isn't George Bush in here, why isn't Dick Cheney in here, why isn't Condoleezza Rice in here, why aren't the people in here who tortured my clients and others' clients at Guantanamo and around the world?'"
Calling out the Bush administration remains a popular staple in activist circles, but as Ratner explained, the aggressive clamping down on leaking and whistleblowing perpetrated by the Bush and Obama administrations is rooted in their quest to operate without oversight.
"We're talking about someone who went after the very instruments of repression in our society, and yet he is sitting in prison," Ratner said of Hammond. "And then, after that moment he writes a statement, it said, 'I believed in what I did.' Just think about that. He's facing 10 years and he said, 'I believed in what I did.'"
The core message was simple: the government is doing everything it can to shut down critical voices, and has managed to erode traditional protections of the press.
"And then there's Barrett Brown. First off, I want to say, again and again, he's a journalist," Ratner said. "Let's understand him, Barrett Brown is a journalist, and he's in prison for carrying out acts journalism. And when you think about the dividing line that there was at least for a while in this country between whistle blowers and journalists; that line is being closed like this (gestures), by the Obama administration. I happen to think neither truth tellers nor whistle blowers should be prosecuted, nor should journalists."
"To the extent that government felt it could prosecute truth tellers and whistleblowers, they are now going after the journalists."
Ratner painted a rather stunning portrait of the ire all aspects of the government have towards journalists, including the courts.
"But to the extent that government felt it could prosecute truth tellers and whistleblowers, they are now going after the journalists," Ratner said." Barrett is one of them, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are another. And then you even look at people like James Risen at Fox News, who had his records subpoenaed, because they wanted to find out his source for a story. And in the search warrant what they said is, 'He is a co-conspirator with his source, a co-conspirator in espionage.'"
"This is a journalist," he continued. "Again, closing any line between a source and a journalist. Likewise, James Risen, who has refused to testify about his source is in a current trial that's going on. The court of appeals orders James Risen to testify, and what do they say? They say that the source could not have committed this crime without the journalist; they're essentially co-conspirators."
The auction and acoustic guitars aside, that was the heaviest takeaway from the evening. We were all in attendance at a fundraiser for a whistleblower and a journalist who'd been jailed by the government for shedding light on that government's wrongdoing.
To drive the point home, Grace, a friend of Jeremy Hammond's, read aloud a statement he'd prepared for the benefit from his confinement.
"The hackers and leakers from the NSA, CIA, and FBI illegally spy on everybody, and wage cyber-espionage, viruses and hacking on foreign government systems," she read. "They put signs everywhere that say, 'If you see something, say something.' As if their extensive surveillance camera systems aren't. They want us to become additional eyes and ears for the police against our own neighbors."
"They break their own laws to try and stop us, because we're exposing the truth," Hammond's statement continued. "They're scared that if people know the truth, they will come, and they will have to answer for their own crimes. But can we trust whatever independent review panel they put together to investigate the NSA, after all lies and egregious illegality? Do you think any of them will be charged or do time? Will we ever be satisfied with any reforms they promise? The answer is obviously: No."
Hammond's statement was, at times, unwaveringly angry, which is likely a product of his current solitary confinement.
"Jeremy's isolation is complete. And it is a great honor that I get to see him, and that his lawyers get to see him," Margaret Kunstler, part of Hammond's defense, explained. "But he doesn't get social visits, so it's very important that everybody write to him. He's isolated, and it's a terrible experience. So it's important not only that we write letters to try to get him out of jail, but that we write to Jeremy as well. He needs to get books. His favorite books are autobiographies of great political leaders. That's his favorite thing to read, and that's what we should get him."
She touched on Ratner's earlier sentiment of the government's desperate attempts to silence the whistles. That as citizens, we can't take such radical pursuits as our defeat. "It's a changing world," she added. "Individuals like these great heroes make changes and can threaten the government of the United States to such an extent that they respond in this way. So all we have to do is support these people, and the world can possibly change."
Stanley Cohen, who defended Anonymous in the PayPal 14 case, wasn't the final speaker, but he definitely stole the show. His speech, which could have been a monologue in a coming-of-age movie if not for all the swearing, was so intense that I transcribed it in full, and you can also listen to it—for full effect—by clicking here.
Cohen's point boiled down to a weighty one: Regardless of what the government tries to do, it can't stop people from saying what needs to be said.
"And that's why they're so afraid of the so-called 'hackers,' or the whistle blowers, or the truth speakers," Cohen said. "That's why they are so all fucked up over those people who say, 'Yeah, I'll go to prison. Okay, but I'm gonna out you fuckers. I'm not going to let you keep the pearly wisdom to yourselves, because we don't trust you. We do not believe you. We do not listen to you, we do not follow you.' There's an old saying I learned in law school, 137 years ago: 'In the marketplace of discourse the truth will always rise.'"
"There is no such thing as protected speech, there is no such thing as hate speech, there is no such thing as suppressed speech. Speech is speech," he continued. "You let it come out, you let people make their decisions, if they don't fuckin' like it, they can turn off Fox, they can turn off CBS, they can shut down and stop listening to Cohen, and walk out the door; it's speech. Now it's easy for me to say here tonight, that 'it's just speech.' I'm not facing ten years, it's only five years or whatever the hell it is."
"It is about refusing to nod your head as others tell you, not just how to live your life, but how an entire society and world should function."
"But there are women, there are men, there are people among us that have crossed the line and said, 'We will make a stand, we will fight back, we will take the risks because it is all about truth.' And that's what tonight's event is about. It's about Jeremy, it's about Barrett, it's about Bradley Manning, it's about Mr. Assange, it's about Mr. Snowden. It's about the PayPal 14."
Cohen concluded with a crescendo that fittingly shared turns of phrase with Bill Pullman's legendary Independence Day speech.
"It is about refusing to go silently unto the night. It is about refusing to bow down to the industry of silence," he said. "It is about refusing to nod your head as others tell you, not just how to live your life, but how an entire society and world should function. And on behalf of Barrett, on behalf of Jeremy, on behalf of Mercedes, Mr. Assange, Mr. Snowden, and Bradley Manning, we have a very simple, two word answer, 'Fuck you.'"
Cohen's speech was a highlight, and drove home a message that all of the speakers shared: As much as the government has tried to limit what whistleblowers and journalists can say, it is ultimately fighting a losing battle. Edward Snowden may end up in jail, but that won't reseal the PRISM leaks. The British government may head to the Guardian to smash hard drives, but that data is already stored offline.
"Someone asked me earlier tonight, 'Michael, who do you think is winning?'" Ratner said. "I don't know if it was the right question, but let me tell you this: The government is not winning. And you can see it by the drastic use of their actions. The fact that they had to detain Glenn Greenwald's partner, the fact that they had to force down the Bolivian presidential jet. What does that tell you about desperation? Utter desperation."