by Upstate NY
Thu Sep 20th, 2007 at 05:43:27 AM EST
I am too late to include this post in Migeru's excellent airport secret legislation diary, but I wanted to alert Tribuners to an organized operation to secretly push the bounds of anti-terror legislation into the realm of mundane and banal acts.
This is a story that is local to me in Buffalo, and to my work at the University of Buffalo as an academic and artist.
Last week, I went to a fundraiser for the defense of artist/academic Steve Kurtz, which was held in a church owned by the singer folk artist Ani DiFranco. At the fundraiser, we watched the film STRANGE CULTURE (starting Tilda Swinton) which is about the FBI's Kurtz case. (As an aside, Kurtz will be at the Oct 20 Festival Neurotica in Madrid to discuss his art, the movie and his case.)
[I've given some background on the Kurtz case in the extended copy below.]
After the movie, we listened to Kurtz and his lawyers discuss the case. It became apparent as we listened that the Feds are using this as a test case. They are trying to criminalize certain mundane cases of so-called "mail fraud" in order to vastly expand the powers of the Federal gov't. If Kurtz loses his case, then a new precedent will be set. In the US, if you incorrectly fill out your warranty card for your TV, for instance, that may land you in jail. Fill out a wrong date, be sent to the klink, etc.
Diary rescue — promoted by Migeru
Background: Strange Culture
Lots of articles can be found at these links. I'll try to summarize as best I can after the links:
Kurtz is an outspoken critic of corporate influence in American politics, and especially on agribusiness and GMO foods. Kurtz's wife died unexpectedly a few years ago. Upon entering his home, local authorities found test tubes and the like, part of Kurtz's art project (he was working with benign ecoli cultures at the time; an explanation of his art project can be found here):
The FBI was brought in, and the nightmare began. Long story short, after confronting Kurtz about emails and his political views, he was initially charged as a terrorist for his art project materials, but when the materials were determined to be benign, he was later charged for mail fraud (i.e. receiving a shipment of cultures by mail over state lines when they were purchased by someone else). In addition, his collaborator, a biologist and geneticist at the University of Pittsburgh, has also been charged. This is something professors around the US do regularly in collaborative research. No one has ever been prosecuted for it, mail fraud in collaborations, that is. Mind you, this isn't a safety concern at all. If Kurtz had actually purchased the cultures himself, he would have been fine. But his collaborator in the same project purchased them and mailed them to Kurtz. The actual indictment contains absolutely no charges related to the cultures themselves since they were benign, the stuff of everyday high school lab projects. NY State has officially declared the cultures harmless.
Strictly speaking, the mere fact of sending the package over state lines is what makes it illegal. It's not illegal to purchase cultures for someone else. It's not illegal to give cultures to someone in another state. It's only illegal to mail them over state lines unless you are the company that produced the cultures. And it's not illegal to mail them from one colleague to another within state lines. This is a technicality. Formerly, this was a civil offense. You'd pay a fine. In the FBI's Kurtz case, they are making it a criminal case under the Patriot Act. Mail fraud treasonous terrorist crime. The actual charge of mail fraud is so broad intentionally because this way, ANY ACT of mail fraud whatsoever may fall under the Patriot Act's purview.
After the film, Kurtz indicted academics, intellectuals and scientists for giving in all too often to the thug tactics employed against him. Instead of rising up, academics and artists are self-censoring themselves, according to Kurtz. The Feds have already won. The local arts paper interviewed Kurtz this week. This is the interview, but you may want to skip to the key quote pasted below:
Artvoice: Given that legal proceedings continue, how much can you talk about? Can you talk about the disposition of your case?
Steve Kurtz: I can talk about that. Except I'm in an airport so I have to be a little delicate. [He laughs.] We're in a sort of neutral zone, where the first round of motions has ended and the second round is about to begin. So there's really at this particular time nothing interesting to say about it. I'm just in this slow, bureaucratic grind. The judge I have is very elderly and prone to illness these days, and that throws even more of a wrench into the time table.
AV: Do you feel that dragging this out is part of the prosecution's game plan--that this long embroilment is part of your punishment?
SK: Well, yeah, but I don't think it's personal to me. It may be somewhat personal at this point, because you know the Department of Justice has gotten so much flack because of this case. They won't even talk about it anymore. But it's not really personal to me; I just happened to be the example. It could be you, right? They could have arrested you and decided to make you the example, but it happened to be me. They're hoping to intimidate academics and artists and journalists and anyone else they possibly can with this. Saying, "Yeah, don't think we won't put you in jail if we can, if you continue with any kind of dissident agenda."
It's working, too. It's win-win for them, whether they win or lose this case.
AV: Why do you think it's working?
SK: A lot of people are scared, particularly in the sciences, where they have so much money on the line. Researchers have to be able to stay in close with the National Science Foundation. Academic scientists, they're just screwed, their careers would be over if something like this was done to them.
It's had an effect on distributors of perfectly legal goods. They are now much more cautious and have put restrictions on things because they don't want the FBI on them. It's affected cultural institutions, in that they are not as willing to participate in the kind of live projects than they might have before this case--and that one is maybe more particular to us, to Critical Art Ensemble.
I generally find that there is a palpable chill. It hasn't gone the way that I had hoped, that people would become more adamant and more radical about what they wanted to show and support.
AV: But this event at Hallwalls represents a rallying of the troops, and you've had successful fundraisers and exhibits and screenings of the film. Isn't there a lot of support for your cause?
SK: There is and there isn't. There is in the sense of helping with fundraising, showing Lynn's films, showing Critical Art Ensemble's films, having us out for talks--there's been tons of that. Everyone is real supportive of that. But if you say, "Let''s do a real project," everyone says, "Oh, no, no..." That's when next thing I know there's a lawyer in the room.
AV: In other words, it's okay for you to talk about the case, about past projects that led you into this situation...
SK: Yeah. "We can talk about that, and we'll show images of what you do, just don't come do it."
AV: Just don't show up yourself to present new, critical art that might draw additional heat from the feds or from donors.
SK: Yeah. "Go and make a video of it and bring it back and we'll show that."
One of the places that we used to buy reagent from has pretty much stopped selling to amateurs; you can't call them up and say, "Send out some food-testing kits." They won't do that anymore. What's really kind of strange about is they're not even an American company, they're a British company. That's how far the rings of this have spread out...it has gotten international attention. And we do know the FBI investigated them.
In the process of defending himself from ridiculous charges of mail fraud, Kurtz has come to understand a great deal about federal prosecutors and how they operate. For instance, he believes they are under orders to find any means of trumping up anti-terrorist measures under the Patriot Act, and they are hell bent on expanding their powers by pressing test cases into areas never before tried.
Kurtz's is one such test case. He's not only being muzzled for his political views, but he's being used to further a law which will be used to muzzle all dissidents (academics, artists, ordinary people). This isn't necessarily a personal vendetta against Kurtz, but a programmatic attempt to reel in dissident voices, especially from the academic and arts community.