Standing near the corner of Market and Eugene streets in Greensboro Monday morning, Katie Yow is giving a stranger directions to Guilford County magistrate court.
“All of this stuff is a governmental complex,” she says to the woman, pointing toward a stretch of drab monoliths. Her knowledge of the place is expected; Yow, who now calls Durham home, lived in Greensboro for ten years. But what brings her to this corner on this day makes the scene comically ironic.
In less than thirty minutes, Yow, a committed anarchist and social worker, will blow a kiss to friends and supporters and walk into Greensboro’s federal courthouse, where she will refuse to testify before a grand jury that subpoenaed her earlier this month.
Despite possibly facing up to eighteen months in jail, Yow says defying the grand jury is one of the clearest decisions she’s made in her thirty-one years.
“Resisting this grand jury is one way I can show you I mean what I say and that we as anarchists mean what we say,” says Yow, who managed Carrboro’s Internationalist Books and Community Center for four years, from the courthouse steps. “My community means everything to me, anarchism means everything to me and I am strong enough to do this because of you.”
Yow was committed to the concept of grand jury resistance before receiving the subpoena July 10, even though it would be another sixteen days before her lawyer would learn the subject of the investigation: the October 2016 firebombing of a GOP office in Hillsborough. Images of the burned-out building and “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” and a swastika in black spray paint made national news. Yow says she doesn’t know “anything relevant” to such an investigation.
But in Yow’s viewand that of the community rallying around herthe subject of the grand jury’s investigation isn’t really pertinent to her decision to defy it.
The practice of grand jury resistance appears in activist literature as early as 1969, although the Communist Party was doing it amid the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The Grand Jury Resistance Project lists antiwar activist Judy Gumbo Albert first in its online registry for her 1971 defiance during an investigation of the Weather Underground and a bombing of the U.S. Capitol. Since then, members of the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican independence movement, animal rights and environmental groups, and the anti-pipeline demonstration at Standing Rock have been subpoenaed to testify and resisted.
Resisters like Yow are protesting what they view as a longstanding tradition of using the shrouded, broad powers of grand juries to map the members and activities of political movements. As such, Yow’s supporters, some of whom came from other states to be with her for her court appearance, are tight-lipped about how they know one another, when they met, and even their last names.
Because grand jury proceedings are closed, it’s hard to get a full picture of their scope and intent. But, for members of movements based on solidarity and resistance, the threat is real.
“A lot of the time when these grand juries are empaneled for political purposes, they coincide with FBI questioning of activists either at their homes or at their places of work, and the questions they ask are clearly probing questions around who people know, what political movements they’re involved in, and being able to connect dots between activists and political movements,” says Kris Hermes, cofounder of the Grand Jury Resistance Project.
Further, the secretive nature of grand juriesintended to protect the integrity of the investigationprohibited Yow’s lawyer from discussing what happened during the three times Yow entered the courthouse Monday, what motions had been filed on her behalf, or what was next for her case.
Unlike trial juries, grand juries, which usually consist of sixteen to twenty-three members, aren’t tasked with determining whether a person is guilty of a crime, only whether there is probable cause for a person to be tried. During grand jury proceedings, no judge is present, just the prosecutor, the grand jury, and the witness. A witness can leave the room to consult with her attorney between questions, as long as doing so doesn’t impede court business.
“The only really safe way to approach this is to refuse to answer everything,” says Jerry Koch, who was jailed for eight months and seven days under civil contempt for defying a New York grand jury investigating a 2008 explosion at a military recruitment center. Koch flew in Saturday evening to support Yow. (A judge who ultimately released him in 2014 balked at the notion that he had been subpoenaed “to gain access to the treasure trove that is his circle of friends or to send an ominous message to political dissidents.”)
“It’s the fuck terrifying, of course,” Koch says. “… In one way, it is kind of submitting to this inevitable thing, but in the other way, as a lifelong anarchist, I am in opposition to the state. I take that seriously, and if I am fighting back against the state, I expect they’ll take some swings at me as well.”
Grand jury resisters have a few options, including seeking to have the subpoena to testify squashed. They canbefore or after receiving a subpoenaevade the proceeding by going underground for the duration of the grand jury, as long as eighteen months. They can accept the subpoena and refuse to enter the courthouse. Or, like Yow, they can enter the courtroom, invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and refuse to answer any questions.
That’s what Yow planned to do, as supporters, underneath a towering American flag, held banners reading “NC Resists the Grand Jury,” “We Stand with Katie,” and “In Resolute Refusal,” played drums and chanted, “We will resist.”
“This isn’t just about Katie,” says her friend Molly Rose. “Katie is being used to remind us all about the existence of state repression.”
People deal with incarceration and police intimidation every day without the support she has, Yow points out.
A former elementary school teacher and librarian, Yow works with young people affected by the court system and is pursuing a master’s degree. She’s been politically involved since age fourteen and soon after learned there was a word and a movement to match her growing desire to free human potential from the confines of oppressive governments and coercive institutions.
“The most free and wild thing we have in this world is our love for each other, and we know that our health, our safety, and our liberation can only exist in a world without their cops, their courts, and their cages,” Yow says in a statement. “Our strength lies in knowing that we can provide that for each other, and that nothing they offer or threaten is worth betraying our commitment to our communities.”
As soon as Yow got the subpoena, her community quickly mobilized. A website and online fundraiser went up, a press release went out, and a workshop on grand jury resistance was organized at the Pinhook in Durham, complete with zines and a PowerPoint presentation.
The purpose isn’t just to support Yow in a stressful time and draw attention to a shadowy court proceeding. It’s also part of a larger legal strategy to essentially document evidence that she never planned to, and never will, cooperate with a grand jury. Legally, a person can only be jailed under civil contempt as long as the incarceration is coercive and meant to compel him or her to testify, as opposed to punishment for not testifying. A Grumbles motion, as it’s known, seeks to show a person can’t be coerced and therefore is being held purely punitively.
Koch, who resisted a grand jury in 2014, was released on a successful Grumbles motion. The federal judge wrote that he saw “no indication that Koch’s doctrinaire fever will break in the foreseeable future.”
Koch says he was often asked why, if he didn’t know anything about the explosion, he didn’t just cooperate with the grand jury.
“That’s still legitimizing it,” he said. “You can’t really take a middle path like that when it comes to such brutal and violent state repression. You either mean what you say and oppose it wholeheartedly or you don’t mean what you say and you cooperate and you put other people in cages.”
Yow was not held in contempt Monday and was able to leave the courthouse. According to a statement she issued later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be asking for a contempt hearing at a future date.