My life as a gang member

by Eric Ginsburg

Law enforcement around the country has been picking up my fellow gang members on various charges, and to be honest, I’m surprised they haven’t caught me yet. My mom wanted to request my file through the Freedom of Information Act when I was in high school, especially after the FBI searched me near a protest at age 16, but she decided it might arouse suspicion.

Maybe it’s the trappings of a “successful” job, the college degree from a private institution or the suburban upbringing.

“He was always so polite,” my downstairs neighbors will say when the TV crews show up after the feds kick in my door. “We had no idea he was a violent criminal.”

The Rhino Times will say they expected something like this out of me all along, and maybe the Greensboro police will reveal a multi-year investigation, calling my disagreements with Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation leader Jorge Cornell “gang beef.” The city will use my arrest to explain why it has been dragging its feet since I filed a public-records request on myself over a month ago.

When the feds — or whomever barges up my stairs while I am sleeping at 5 a.m. — hold their press conference to show what they’ve seized, don’t be fooled by the seemingly harmless items they will present. That baseball bat may be from the Greensboro Grasshoppers gift shop, but who knows what I’m capable of?

Not to mention the black clothes I own, specifically a bandana tucked into a dresser drawer. And then they’ll trot out the most damning evidence of all — a shelf full of books about anarchism, social movements and papers I wrote in college about the Spanish Civil War and the Battle of Blair Mountain.

It would all be pretty hilarious if it weren’t so very real. We still laugh about a friend who was arrested a few years ago in Greensboro — the cops asked if he was in an anarchist gang — but it doesn’t seem funny anymore.

The state of Virginia has decided that Jeremy Hawthorne is an anarchist gang member, but it isn’t exactly sure what that means. Supporters say Hawthorne was thrown under the bus and convicted of slashing tires on several vehicles in Richmond, one of them an unmarked police cruiser, on flimsy evidence and was targeted for his political beliefs and affiliations.

After a state legislator called the anarchist collective he was a part of an armed, anti-government terrorist organization, Hawthorne said his conviction and subsequent probation were set in motion. Yet more concerning than the extremist rhetoric of a politician or even the specifics of Hawthorne’s case are the conditions of his probation.

Upon the beginning of his probation, Hawthorne was informed that the state of Virginia considered him to be a member of an anarchist gang, a new classification that was created while he was doing time. Neither he nor his probation officer seem exactly sure what that means — the gang has no name or listed members.

Hawthorne isn’t just barred from participating in “anti-government” anarchist work, but from any sort of public organizing, possessing anar-chist, anti-government or anti-police literature or wearing “anarchist” clothing such as a black bandana. And now his probation officer is threatening to lock him up again if he doesn’t move out of a building housing the Flying Brick Library.

Hawthorne isn’t the only target of government attempts to criminalize people for possessing anarchist literature — warrants for several people in Portland, Ore. specifically named black clothing and “anti-government or anarchist literature or material” as items of interest.

The case of the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation in Greensboro, with initial proceedings beginning this week, is a perfect example of how a political organization can be dubbed a gang and discredited if the media and public decide the members look the part. Like the raid on anarchists on the West Coast, feds in Greensboro seized computers, literature, notebooks and clothing.

Somehow a political organization that helped create a gang peace treaty was deemed the biggest gang threat in town, and instead of celebrating their community work the city came down on them with an iron fist.

The government has long treated movements on the right and the left differently. Somehow the feds have decided to spend their time cooking up plots and framing people for crimes their provocateurs instigated instead of bringing down white supremacists, like Sikh temple shooter Wade Michael Page who they said wasn’t on their radar.

As Newsweek’s RM Schneiderman wrote in “My Life as a White Supremacist,” a longtime FBI informant actually tried repeatedly to stop violent white power attacks rather than entrapping activists for crimes they would allegedly carry out, as is done on the left. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported last week that a right-wing fundamentalist was able to kill two sheriffs despite a long and well known history of violent threats and a well-stocked arsenal.

I’m not, of course, actually a member of any gangs, and neither is Hawthorne. Instead what we’re seeing is the criminalization of activity that the state deems threatening — he has specifically been warned he can no longer participate in Richmond’s Cop Watch to monitor police misconduct. The question then, is why certain activity — or even a mere set of beliefs or books — is a threat while the hatred and actions of others are acceptable.

“Gang” is a hollow word with no concrete definition, yet Virginia and other jurisdictions like Greensboro seem eager to use it against their political foes. Hawthorne’s real crime are his beliefs and his organizing activities — just like Cornell’s crimes aren’t spelled out in his indictment but in his public condemnation of police harassment and in solving the so-called gang problem for them.

If Hawthorne, the Portland defendants and Kings are guilty for possessing radical literature and for their beliefs, then take me too, and pry my books out of my cold, dead hands.