By Alexander Reed Kelly
What kind of person puts himself at the mercy of the law for the benefit of the public year after year? Political activism is not always as selfless and sacrificing as it is sometimes thought to be. Forms of activism can become ways of life, complete with social communities, cultures and a satisfying sense of purpose. Many protesters will tell you they simply have fun. Children who spike their hair and listen to political punk rock in their pleasure-seeking youth would confirm this.
Many of those children acquire conservative concerns as they grow up. At some point around their early 20s, they have bills to pay and the accoutrements of adulthood to buy. Conventional dating is expensive, and few will endure the anxieties of poverty if they sense a chance to escape it. Employment in the corporate world is such a chance. With few alternatives to support themselves otherwise, many if not most people take it.
Jeremy Hammond is among the exceptions. A Chicago native, Hammond was programming video games by age 8. He won a first place science award for computer programs he designed while a student at Glenbard East High School. Hammond had a moral sense in addition to intelligence. He organized a walkout the day George Bush invaded Iraq and started a student newspaper opposed to the war. Impressed by the way he dealt with the administration while organizing the protest, his principal later described him as “old beyond his years.”
In 2004 Hammond entered the University of Illinois in Chicago on a full scholarship. In the spring of his freshman year, he found a vulnerability in the computer department’s website while hacking it. He brought the flaw to the administration’s attention and was thanked by being banned from returning to the school for his sophomore year.
“I was still dancing with the prospect of being a white hat hacker,” Hammond told the Chicago Reader. A “white hat hacker” tests a network’s security vulnerabilities and tells the administrator what he discovers. “I had found this vulnerability, and I had notified them. ‘Here’s how it’s vulnerable, here’s how you go about fixing it, here’s where I put the back door. You guys can talk with me, and maybe I can work with the webmaster.’ They didn’t take too kindly to that at all. In fact I was called before the department chair. He said they almost went to the FBI. I’m pretty sure the guy who developed the Web site, one of the professors there, took it personally. This was a slap in the face. Some punk kid was able to get into the site. So they disciplined me instead of hiring me.”
Permanent suspension did not endear Hammond to authority. Instead of returning to college, he took up work as a Mac technician in Villa Park, Ill. He also did Web development for a Chicago-based advertising agency and brand consultancy. According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, his boss at that firm in 2010 wrote that Hammond was “friendly, courteous and polite and while we suspect he has a low tolerance for corporate posturing, he has never demonstrated any contempt for business in the workplace.”
Sometime around the end of his stint in college Hammond ramped up his political activism. A string of arrests followed: the Republican National Convention in 2004, a physical altercation with anti-gay activists that same year, a 2005 protest in Illinois’ Wicker Park, and a demonstration against neo-Nazis a few months later.
In December 2006 he was sentenced to two years in federal prison for breaking into the computer system of Protest Warrior, a group that aggressively targeted anti-war activists, and copying its database, which included information for some 5,000 credit cards. Hammond served his term at the Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Ill.
In March 2010 Hammond was arrested for his involvement in an aggressive confrontation with a Holocaust denier. He and a number of others stormed the man’s restaurant and turned the place over, driving out the guests. Later in the year, he was arrested again for tearing down a banner in protest of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
This week Hammond pleaded guilty to hacking into a computer network in 2011 used by the private intelligence firm Stratfor as well as other institutions, including the FBI. Along with a group of hackers, Hammond retrieved a claimed total of 5 million emails among Stratfor employees, government officials and businesspeople and gave the records to WikiLeaks. Like other disclosures made by the whistle-blowing site, the records stand as proof of government and corporate deception and wrongdoing. In one, a Stratfor analyst claimed that up to 12 members of Pakistan’s intelligence agency knew of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden before his capture. Another claimed the terrorist leader’s body was not dumped at sea, but sent to an Air Force base in the United States.
The Israeli news site Ynetnews reported on an email between Stratfor employees showing that Israel gave Russia codes for unmanned drones Israel had sold to Georgia during 2008, around the time of a conflict between Georgia and Russia. According to BusinessInsider, in an email between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Stratfor Vice President Fred Burton, Netanyahu threatened the assassination of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and declared intent to unilaterally start a war with Iran. The international edition of the newspaper Correo del Orinoco wrote that more than 40,000 documents regarding Venezuela showed U.S. involvement in efforts to topple the country’s democratically elected leader, Hugo Chavez.
Dow Chemical was shown to have used Stratfor to spy on protesters of the 1984 Bhopal plant disaster. Coca-Cola was revealed to have done the same to potential demonstrators against the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada.
Earlier this year, leaked emails divulged that the U.S. had issued a sealed indictment on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Others suggested the rape allegations against Assange were concocted.
For helping to bring those revelations to the global public, Hammond faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. He has already served 15 months, including weeks of solitary confinement. In a statement, he said he accepted the plea deal in order to avoid a more aggressive prosecution that could have resulted in a sentence of up to 20 years. There is no doubt that Hammond, like Bradley Manning, is another young person who is being punished by the government for acting out his commitment to justice. Around the time of the trial, Hammond’s attorney, Sarah Kuntsler, pointed out that the U.S. government decides whom it prosecutes and when, and that “choosing to prosecute Jeremy Hammond for exposing corporate secrets and government spying is nothing if not a political decision.”
Had activism merely been a way to get kicks, as it no doubt partly was during Hammond’s time in high school, he would not have risked spending years in jail as a consequence of his actions as an adult. For sacrificing himself for the benefit of public knowledge, we honor Jeremy Hammond as our Truthdigger of the Week.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.
Protesters hold a banner with Hammond’s image in front of the federal courthouse during his arraignment in May.