Jan 17, 2013 - Issue 500

When Government is the Bad Guys

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I looked upon the recent death of Aaron Swartz. He was the modern-day, internet-saving crusader, who at age 14, co-developed the Really Simple Syndication or RSS web protocol, the key component of much of the web’s entire publishing infrastructure. His untimely death occurred just weeks before he was to go on trial for using computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - MIT - to download millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription database of scholarly papers. 

Question here is, should he have been pursued like a natural-born killer for making information accessible to fellow Americans - and humanity worldwide? I can identify with Swartz. I was once pursued by the American government like hound dogs after a runaway slave for a bogusly minute offense. Like Swartz, I saw the overkill of U.S. prosecutors trying to “make a statement” by making an example of Americans who dare challenge a corrupt system.

A little more about Swartz: By the time he was 19, he had co-founded a company that would merge with Reddit, now one of the world’s most popular sites. He also helped develop the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system and built the online architecture for the Open Library. Swartz committed suicide last Friday. At just 26 years old, he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. The pressure was simply too much for him. I, on the other hand, chose to stay and fight.

The offended company, JSTOR, declined to press charges, but prosecutors moved the case forward. Their autocratic, unchallenged power ruins the lives of thousands of Americans each year, yet, we fail to hold them accountable. Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Who wants live under that kind of pressure? I was facing 42 years if convicted on the government’s trumped-up drug and gun conspiracy charges, and nothing right could stop them…not even the law.

I have always believed government is necessary in an order-modeled society. It protects; it serves, and yet, it can turn on you like a rattlesnake. When you least suspect your interests are at risk of being eviscerated, Government eviscerates your interests.

Swartz’s family criticized federal prosecutors pursuing the case against him, and rightfully so. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” said his family. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” they said. MIT’s president Rafael Reif said the university will conduct an internal investigation into the school’s role in Swartz’s death. But you know what internal investigations net…

I know the pressure that Swartz felt. The government versus you. The whole government! No lawyer wants to touch your case. You get appointed a public defender that virtually works for the government. He/she visits you sporadically and only brings you plea deals and not a plan of defense. It’s really just you versus The Government. That behemoth has the face of some prosecutor that you know will be sitting in the US Congress someday in the future - because of your conviction.

The difference between Swartz and me is that he was rich. He had resources and family support. Most of us who are faced with like circumstances don’t have those resources at our disposal. Much like Swartz, I was an activist at the time, fighting against a police department awash in killing Black men in a poor community. I hosted a television show at the time, focused on the conduct of the police. I rallied the poor, Black community to challenge the police Chief and his minions in their era of murder. Aaron Swartz was a vehement activist for an open Internet. Just last year, he helped organize a grassroots movement to defeat a U.S. House bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA, and a Senate bill called PIPA, the PROTECT IP Act. The entrenched interests didn’t like that.

Though my instance was a local one, the effects were the same. Approaching trial, I refused to go down without a fight. So, after I saw the government was cheating me out of a just prosecutorial process, I went on the run. July 18, 2004, I left my pre-trial detention at a halfway house - a block away from my home - and tried to get my side of the story out. The government hunted me down like a dog, finally capturing me 500 miles away in Detroit.

Though my Knoxville prosecution didn’t end in suicide, I lost more than just my hair. I lost friends, supporters and the remnants of my belief in the American form of justice. I was later acquitted of each of the government’s trumped-up claims against me, but I didn’t escape unscathed. A piece of me was lost. My spirit wasn’t broken, but the movement I worked so hard to galvanize, quickly disbanded upon my indictment. My community lost a leader. My community lost hope and change.

The government accomplished their objective by piling charges upon me, but no one was ever charged with prosecutorial misconduct. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with me that Knoxville’s prosecutors were wrong, but no one was reprimanded, nor fired. I was not compensated. I don’t know if Swartz would’ve been acquitted, but I understand his not wanting to find out. No man embraces bondage. You never know what you’ll get - no matter how right you may be - when the government is the bad guys.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Perry Redd, is the former Executive Director of the workers rights advocacy, Sincere Seven, and author of the on-line commentary, “The Other Side of the Tracks.” He is the host of the internet-based talk radio show, Socially Speaking in Washington, DC. Click here to contact Mr. Redd.