The United States in the only nation in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition that retains a grand jury system. A grand jury is the prosecutor’s tool for investigating what the government deems to be possible criminal activity. Although it has the power to bring criminal indictments as well as to compel people to testify about their activities and those of others in return for a grant of immunity from prosecution, witnesses are not permitted to have their attorneys accompany them into the grand jury room. A witness who flatly refuses to cooperate or to testify after being granted immunity can be held in contempt, and jailed for as long as the term of the grand jury. Thus, a resisting witness, not even charged with criminal activity, could spend months, even years in prison.
Grand juries have been used as instruments of political repression for decades. My parents, some family members, and their friends were hauled before a grand jury in 1950. Some, cooperated, pointed the finger at others and even helped send my parents to their deaths with their testimony. They received reduced sentences or no prison time. Those who did not cooperate, but were not indicted, were harassed by the prosecuting authorities for many years afterwards. Those the grand jury indicted, who were then tried and convicted, went to prison or were killed. While the stated purpose of the grand jury was to expose criminal behavior, it also served to sow anxiety and distrust throughout the community of activists who had any connection to my parents, as well as to spread fear among the broader progressive community. Grand juries stifle activism and dissent in this manner.
Grand juries were empanelled to combat anti-war and civil rights militants in the late 1960’s and 70’s. They were employed against the Puerto Rican Nationalists in the 1980’s and 90’s. After the turn of the millennium the government used them against radical environmentalists and animal rights activists. The same tactics were repeated. Groups of young people were investigated for political “conspiracies.” The agents of repression attempted to turn one or more of the activists against the others in return for immunity or leniency. This divided communities and destroyed lives, and in some cases the movements crumbled.
Many stood up to the grand juries. Some like my parents, who refused to cooperate, were tried, convicted and received massive prison sentences. Other refused to testify, were jailed for contempt and ultimately released when the grand jury concluded its fishing expedition. Over the years, this limited the effectiveness of some grand juries, but every instance caused distress, even panic, among some in the targeted community.
Over time, some people beset by grand juries have developed a code of conduct to thwart these inquisitions. It is simple: refuse to say anything under any circumstance. Right now there are individuals in prison who have followed this path. They are taking a brave and principled stand and deserve all the support the community can give them. The Rosenberg Fund for Children makes grants to some of these resisters who fall within our guidelines because we consider them targeted, progressive, activist youth.
But others, even those who start out intending to resist, break down under pressure and to one degree or another “cooperate.” Some of those who follow this course are vilified and ostracized by their former friends and colleagues. While this is understandable, sometimes it furthers the ends of the oppressors by spreading a circle of discord within the community. I believe that we should not presume the worst of those who do not follow the course of absolute and complete non-cooperation, especially if we do not know the details of their circumstances.
I am one of the last people on earth to defend those who turn states’ evidence and send their former comrades to prison. David and Ruth Greenglass ratted out my parents and sent them to their deaths when I was six years old. I feel disgust when I think about them. However, while I fervently hope that I could display the same courage that my parents did, until I am in the same position in which they and the Greenglasses were placed, I can’t be sure how I’d react.
My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, was called before The Rapp-Coudert Committee. This was the unofficial name of the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Educational System of the State of New York. Between 1940 and 1942, this Committee held hearings into “communist infiltration” of the New York State public school system. This hunt for witches caused dozens to lose their jobs and Abel Meeropol, who during that time taught high school English, could have been one of them.
Abel Meeropol did not refuse to testify. Instead he lied and evaded. He denied being a member of the Communist Party, but he was. I remember him telling me in the 1970’s that he “developed a very bad memory.” I suppose he could have faced a perjury charge, but he got away with it. No one ostracized Abel Meeropol because he testified. While some tactics were admired more than the course Abel took, the prevailing attitude was that as long as you did not finger others, you had acted honorably.
I think today’s activists should take the same, more nuanced view of how we treat those called before grand juries. We should let people resist as best they can. Let’s not adopt an absolute rule and have a negative, knee-jerk response to anyone who does not adhere to it. This should be particularly so for those who have not personally experienced a grand jury’s coercive power.
I hope if I ever face a grand jury that I will have the strength not to aid the forces of repression. If I avoid doing that, I’ll be able to live with however I handle it.
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