On January 25, when I was summoned to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago, I decided not to testify, even at the risk of being put in jail for contempt of court, because I believe that our most fundamental rights as citizens are at stake. I am one of 23 anti-war, labor, and solidarity activists in Chicago and throughout the midwest who are facing a grand jury as part of an investigation into "material support for foreign terrorist organizations." No crime has been identified. No arrests have been made. When it raided several prominent organizers' homes and offices on September 24, the FBI acknowledged that there was no immediate threat to the American public. So what is this investigation really about?
The activists who have been ensnared in this net, work with different groups to end the U.S. wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military aid for Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, and U.S. military aid to Colombia. All of us have publicly and peacefully dedicated our lives to social justice and a less deadly U.S. foreign policy.
I spent a year and a half working for a human rights organization in the Occupied West Bank where I witnessed how Israel established "facts on the ground" at the expense of international law and Palestinian rights. I saw the wall, settlements, checkpoints, and the ugly reality of life under Israeli occupation, which is bankrolled by the U.S. government.
Many of us who are facing the grand jury have traveled to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Colombia to learn about the human rights situation and the impact of U.S. foreign policy in those places so we may educate fellow Americans and build movements. Travel for such purposes should be protected by the First Amendment. But new legislation now allows the U.S. government to consider such travel as probable cause for invasive investigations that disrupt our movements and our lives.
The June 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project expanded even further the scope of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 to include first amendment activity such as political speech and human rights training. Even former President Jimmy Carter feels vulnerable under these laws because of his work doing elections training in Lebanon where one of the main political parties, until earlier this winter a member of the ruling coalition, is listed as a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department. "The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom."
Former FBI officer Mike German, who now works with the American Civil Liberties Union, told "Democracy Now!" that the subpoenas, search warrants, and materials seized from activists' homes indicate that the government is interested in "address books, computer records, literature and advocacy materials, first amendment sort of materials."
Witnesses called to testify to a grand jury have no right to have a lawyer in the room and the jury is hand-picked by government prosecutors with no screening for bias. It is the ultimate abuse of power for a citizen to be forced to account to the government for no other reason than her exercise of constitutionally-protected freedoms of speech and association.
This is why these grand jury proceedings are a threat to the rights of all Americans and why those of us who have been targeted call it a witch hunt. There is a long history of abusing grand juries to launch inquisitions into domestic political movements, from the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement to labor activists advocating for an eight-hour work day to the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years. The grand jury has been scrapped in virtually all countries and more than half the states in U.S.
The U.S. government didn't really need to call me before a grand jury to learn my activities and my beliefs. I have often appealed to my elected representatives to take a principled stand on foreign policy issues, protested outside federal buildings, and written countless articles over the years that can be easily found through an Internet search.
It is a dark day for America when people face jail for exercising the rights that we hold so dear.
Maureen Murphy is a journalist and Palestine solidarity activist who lives in Chicago. This article first appeared on commondreams.org.