Life Interrupted

Hearing that your son was sentenced to eight years in prison is not normally a cause for celebration. But after a federal judge imposed this term on his 21-year-old son, Connor Stevens, for his role in an FBI-inspired plot to bomb a Cleveland-area bridge last April 30, 2012, James Stevens said, “I felt relief.”


James realized it could have been much worse given that prosecutors were asking for 19 years. “The judge was very fair and lenient,” Stevens said from Cleveland by phone following the sentencing on November 20. “It’s a burden off our shoulders. We can move on to the next phase of Connor’s life and our lives.”


For Gail Stevens, Connor’s mother, the outcome is a mixed blessing. “On one side it’s a victory because they got so much less time than what the government wanted. On the other it’s a ridiculous, ridiculous long time given what happened and the government’s responsibility for this. The government has taken these years of their lives away from them.”


Also on November 20, U.S. District Court Judge David D. Dowd Jr. sentenced Douglas Wright, 27, to 11 and a half years and Brandon Baxter, 21, to 9 years and 9 months in prison for participating in the failed attempt to use plastic explosives to topple a highway bridge crossing the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Anthony Hayne, 36, who pled guilty July 25 on 3 charges as part of a deal to testify against his 4 associates in exchange for leniency was sentenced to 6 years in prison. One other man awaits sentencing, Joshua Stafford, 23, who is being evaluated for mental competency.


Terry Gilbert, Stevens’s defense attorney, told the media that the sentences were, “A big rejection of the government’s position.” The prosecutor demanded far longer terms for Wright and Baxter too, 30 years and 25 years, respectively. Dowd reportedly said afterward that the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendations were “grotesque” and “doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”


The U.S. government described the five as hell-bent on sowing terror to fulfill their “violent anarchist ideology.” In reality, the FBI supplied ten  pounds of inert plastic explosives to drifters, suicidal, drug addicts and emotionally troubled. Like hundreds of post-September 11 cases against Muslim-Americans, the FBI conjured up the terrorism it takes credit for pre- venting.


The FBI’s most valuable asset was a paid informant and con artist, Shaquille Azir, who played father figure to the lost men, molding their childish bravado and drunken fantasies into a terrorist plot. Azir drove the five around—who lacked cars and drivers’ licenses according to friends—and provided them with jobs, housing, beer, pot and prescription drugs. Every time the scheme threatened to collapse into gutterpunk chaos, Azir kept it on track.


FBI tapes reveal Azir led the brainstorming of targets, showed them bridges to case out, pushed them to buy C-4 military-grade explosives, provided the contact for weapons, gave them money for the explosives and demanded they develop a plan because “We on the hook” for the weapons. At one point, Azir burst out in frustration at their ineptitude: “Every time we meet, we leave saying, we’re doing some research. And then get back together and go back to square one.”


The enterprise was comical at times. Wright told the FBI agent posing as an arms dealer that he could pay for the explosives by borrowing money to deal drugs, and Baxter suggested that during the getaway they could throw tacks out of the car, “If they get in a chase.” The group was nabbed at an Applebee’s after futilely using cell phones to detonate the charges, as they had been instructed.


Political Neophytes


Shortly after their arrests, activists formed a defense committee to support the families, raise legal funds and publicize the case of the “Cleveland 4.” (Support was withdrawn from Hayne after he turned on his co-defendants.) Gail Stevens says, “The support has been a lifeline. I don’t know where I would be without them.” At the same time the committee has struggled with its other tasks, scraping together less than 20 percent of the $80,000 it sought to raise.


Cleveland lacks prominent media and extensive anarchist networks, which hampered supporters’ attempts to replicate the “massive amount of publicity” generated for anarchists currently resisting grand jury probes in the Pacific Northwest.


The five were neophytes without connections to political movements that could rally to their side. Lea Tolls, a 46-year-old mother and self- described “Occu-mom,” says, “Except for Connor, they were destitute. They are angry, some have mental illnesses, and there is alcoholism and abuse in their families.” None had the prominence of Daniel McGowan who, facing more than 335 years in prison for eco-sabotage, drew on years of activism to mobilize legal and public support that brought the government to the bargaining table, resulting in a 7-year sentence. One writer argues that the FBI strategy had evolved since McGowan’s case, to target “disconnected young people” because that, “Dramatically decreases the resources that will be mobilized to support them.”


With Hayne prepared to testify against them, the situation was grim for the remaining four. On September 5, Wright, Baxter and Stevens accepted guilty pleas, hoping to avoid terrorism enhancement charges that could have resulted in decades in prison. But in a pre-sentencing hearing on November 5, Judge Dowd applied the terrorism charges.


That’s why the sentences were a surprise. Gail Stevens says her son Connor, “Was in pretty good spirits after the sentencing. He thought it went the best that it could have.” Gail says for every year of good behavior, Connor’s time will be reduced by 54 days and if he can get into a drug and alcohol counseling program he will get another year off. Counting time served, Stevens could be released in a little more than 5 years. But he will be on probation for the rest of his life, as will Baxter and Wright.


Everyone who has met Connor Stevens speaks highly of him, even Judge Dowd. All three defendants gave statements explaining and apologizing for their actions. Dowd said Connor gave “the best allocution I ever heard. I have a hunch that kid is going to turn out okay.”


Speaking of the emotional conflict between parental pride and Connor’s imprisonment, Gail says she was “oddly elated” by Dowd’s comment. “I am proud that the judge said this is the best statement he ever heard.”


Life Interrupted


Until the Bureau of Prisons assigns him to a new prison, Connor will remain in the Corrections Corporation of America facility in Youngstown, Ohio, he was confined to following his arrest. The only way to meet Stevens is to schedule an appointment with the Bureau of Prisons. The CCA facility is the antithesis of modern architecture: hard windowless blocks wrapped in metal fences. Unseen guards decide if you’ll be buzzed past remote-controlled gates. Then you submit to an airport-style security check, follow a guard single file through grey steel doors and enter a waiting room bristling with cameras. If the prisoners aren’t locked down, you get one hour with the prisoner, speaking to them by phone.


In a visit in mid-October, Connor was wearing orange scrubs, nestled in a mesh cage behind a thick panel of soundproof glass. When asked what he misses most, Connor said, “Exercise, nature, the fresh air, earth, sky, sun.” He said when he gets out, the “First thing is hug my mom, hug Nevaeh, my niece, spend time with my grandfather, if he’s still around, spend a lot of time in the woods, enjoy the sounds, the smells. I get a feeling of calm and harmony. We have a lack of intimacy with nature and hence each other.”


The conversation repeatedly circled around to “the sheer stupidity of what happened last April.” Connor doesn’t let the Feds or Azir off the hook for his predicament, and he holds “a bit of a grudge” against his two cellmates, Brandon Baxter and Douglas Wright as well, but mostly he blames himself for “my own failures and obvious errors.”


“The only reason I was associating with Shaq at all was to make money and various other benefits. In April I was working for Shaq, drinking immense amounts of alcohol, using drugs, pulling night shifts at the Occupy Cleveland tent, and I had an intimate relationship.” He says what happened “strongly confirmed the fact that I need to be sober.”


It was a month before his sentencing and Connor was in limbo, having pled guilty but not knowing his fate. He said he was trying to, “Focus on good things rather than succumb to self-pity or depression.” But when he talked about his lack of relationships, he said, “Dante defines hell as proximity without intimacy.”


Looking at the world, he said, “Ecocide seems inevitable and most people don’t give a fuck. All we have is how we carry ourselves day to day.” Unlike when he first was imprisoned he said, “I’m not reading the Bible as much. I don’t like the idea of getting into spirituality or religion in a time of crisis.”


Connor does manage to nurture hope in the harsh, dark environment. “There’s a reason why I and the others are here. It’s to make small changes that point back to nature instead of warring with it.” For now, Connor says, “The most important things are letters from outside, even if they are total strangers.” Gail Stevens says, “More than ever Connor needs to stay connected and know that he’s not forgotten and alone in there. He’s written more than 350 letters since May. All he does with his commissary money is buy stamps.”


As they await Connor’s transfer, the Stevens are angry. Gail, who is separated from James Stevens, says Azir is “Worse than a sexual predator. My anger and frustration at the system has only increased after hearing the ludicrous things they say, the out and out lies, how they twist things.” In a pre-sentencing statement, James said he “Kind of lashed out. Man, I called the government guilty…. I was talking to the prosecutor and FBI. I said this is illegal, this is immoral, this is entrapment. The attorneys couldn’t say it, the defendants sure as hell couldn’t say it, but as the father, I could say it.”


The experience has “been completely heart wrenching,” says Gail. “I still feel really numb. The time hasn’t sunk in. It’s impacted my life in every way, mentally, emotionally, physically and financially. It’s hard to put into words being a mother and watching your child go through something like this. I think about him first thing in the morning. I think about Connor all day long. I go to bed thinking about him. Things that used to matter no longer matter. When people talk about having a bad day, you don’t know what it is to have a bad day.”


“Not Your Garden Variety Terrorism Case”


In an interview, attorney Terry Gilbert pointed to three factors in the lenient sentencing. “I think the judge recognized this was not your garden-variety terrorism case.” Also, Gilbert says, the FBI did not appear to take into account “public reaction,” referencing articles in the national media that detailed the Bureau’s role in instigating the plot. The third factor was “aggressive defense lawyers.”


The defense hired a military expert who calculated that ten pounds of C-4 explosives would have only caused “surface” damage to the bridge, whereas to “breach or severely damage” the reinforced concrete foundations would have required a minimum of 3,719 pounds of explosives. Gilbert says, “I think the judge put a lot of stock in the military expert’s testimony that it would take nearly two tons of explosives to bring down the bridge.” He explained the inept planning by the five indicates they were incapable of carrying out the plot without constant FBI hand-holding. A little internet research would have alerted them to the fact that 10 pounds of C-4 could sever an 8-inch steel beam, a far cry from the 20-foot-thick columns at the foot of the bridge.


Gilbert says that while the defense counsel argued against imposing terrorism enhancement, this may have been a tactical maneuver on the judge’s part. “My take on it is that Dowd wanted to craft a reasonable sentence that gave the government less opportunity to challenge it on appeal.” Nonetheless, despite the relatively lenient sentencing, Baxter, Stevens and Wright are appealing the case hoping to eliminate the terrorism enhancement and lessen their punishment.


The case is part of a national trend, claims Gilbert. The FBI dispatched Azir to an Occupy Cleveland event on October 21, 2011, “Based on an initial report of potential criminal activity and threats involving anarchists.” Gilbert questions why the feds would send “a plant into a peaceful demonstration with a very ambiguous claim of criminal behavior.” He says, “Once you get an informant in there they have every motive to get a case. They are trying to make money or are working off a criminal case.” This profile fits Azir: he has a criminal record stretching 20 years, was indicted twice for passing bad checks during the investigation, and has filed 9 bankruptcy petitions in 12 years.


In a memo dated November 14, Judge Dowd undercut the rationale for the investigation. The FBI’s first report from Azir stated that Doug Wright and a group of unnamed white males at the Occupy Cleveland event “Were expressing displeasure at the crowd’s unwillingness to act violently.” In actuality, Dowd found that Baxter and Wright “joined the others in the nonviolent approach.”


Gilbert speculates that the initial report of potential violence may have not been a random tip, but, “Something coming down from Homeland Security. These federal and local police networks have a lot of time on their hands and are pro-actively looking for something. I do think there was an eye toward Occupy.”


Dowd also rejected the Bureau’s initial description of Wright as being in the “planning phase” to topple a bank sign from a 947-foot-tall skyscraper in downtown Cleveland, finding that he was merely expressing his “fascination with the idea of pulling pranks by using spray paint, stink bombs and smoke bombs which he heard about in the Anarchist’s Cookbook.” Dowd noted as well that Azir “facilitated the criminal conduct of the defendants.”


Three weeks after the Cleveland arrests, five men affiliated with Occupy Chicago were seized in another operation involving police infiltrators and were hit with charges ranging from explosives to terrorism. On March 2, a federal grand jury was empanelled in Seattle that has honed in on anarchists, apparently in relation to broken windows and other damage to a federal building in Seattle on May Day.


While the police boot has come down hard on Occupy around the country, the main target appears to be anarchists. The government’s sentencing memorandum for Baxter, Wright and Stevens claims that what united the “brothers-in-arms” was “hatred of the government, and shared anarchist background” in pursuit of their “already decided upon goal to carry out an attack that would, in their minds, lead to a larger civil war.” A recently unclassified FBI document paints anarchists as “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities,” and warns they are engaged in “experimentation with new tactics, weapons.” Then again, just as the sentencing memorandum claims, “anarchists see the government and business as two heads of the same beast,” the national security apparatus probably views Occupy and anarchists as inter- changeable.


Ironically, Anthony Hayne was staring at the longest sentence, after negotiating a minimum of 188 months for cooperating with the prosecution. Gilbert says, “The government has him at a higher level than the guys who refused to cooperate.” He chuckles when mentioning that Hayne’s lawyer filed a motion the same day to withdraw the guilty plea. “We did a whole lot better. These guys can hold their heads high and will never be labeled a snitch who turned on their fellow defendants.” 


Arun Gupta is a co-founder of the Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal. He is writing a book on the decline of the American empire.