Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner

On November 29, FBI agents arrested hacker and cryptocurrency developer Virgil Griffith. His alleged crime: Talking.

Yes, really.

The FBI alleges that Griffith “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Griffith, a US citizen who lives in Singapore, gave a talk at conference on blockchain technology in April. Because that conference took place in North Korea, the US government deems him guilty of violating US sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime.

But last time I checked, the First Amendment protected Virgil Griffith’s right to speak, without exceptions regarding where or to whom.

And last time I checked,  the US Department of Justice’s jurisdiction didn’t encompass Singapore (where Griffith lives), China (which Griffith traveled through), or North Korea (where Griffith spoke). The charges against him include traveling, while outside US jurisdiction, to places the US government doesn’t like.

In what universe is it the US government’s business where an individual travels to or what that individual says while he’s there, inside or outside the US itself? Certainly not any kind of universe in which America remains a free society.

What kind of state arrests people for going where they please and saying what they choose without that state’s permission? A police state.

Griffith’s arrest is wholly illegal under the US Constitution and wholly unacceptable to anyone who holds freedom as a cardinal value.

Virgil Griffith is just the latest political prisoner of the US government to come to public notice.

The US government imprisoned US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, journalist Barrett Brown, and others for telling us the truth about that government’s conduct, and would love to do the same to Julian Assange,  Edward Snowden, and others for the same reason.

The US government imprisoned Ross Ulbricht for running a web site on which people bought and sold things that government didn’t want them to buy and sell.

The US government has held, and continues to hold, too many political prisoners to name in a single column.

The US government increasingly attempts to dictate where all of us may go, and what we may say while there, on pain of arrest and imprisonment.

That’s not right. That’s not freedom. That’s not America.

Virgil Griffith and the others I mention aren’t the criminals — their persecutors are. At some point, we must bring them to justice if human freedom is to survive. Until then, resist much, obey little.

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Thankful in 2019

A political writer’s annual Thanksgiving column can be easy to write, or incredibly difficult to put together. It can also be inspiring or banal. The two are probably connected. It’s always a difficult one for me; its quality is a matter of your opinion. But hey, Turkey Day is just around the corner and it’s time to talk about being thankful. Please bear with me.

Yes, like you, I’m grateful for family, friends, neighbors, the absence of bankruptcy or prison time, yada, yada, yada. All in all it’s been a good year for me, and I hope it’s been a good one for you as well.

On the political end … well, I’m grateful for pretty much everything in my life EXCEPT politics.

I can remember a time when political writers used “fatigue” to describe “this too shall pass” events such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

These days, “fatigue” seems to be the one American political constant.

Political campaigns used to start the day after the previous election for candidates and campaign staff, but the rest of us got a break.

Now, every election becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIMES the day after the previous one.

Some of us are tired of waking up every morning wondering what Donald Trump did now.

Some of us are tired of the whole two-and-a-half-year impeachment trail going back to “Russiagate.”

Some of us are tired of year-plus-long presidential clown motorcades full of presidential wannabes, like the 2016 Republican primary field or this cycle’s Democratic pack.

Some of us are worn out from all that and more. And political writers aren’t immune.

Speaking to a crowd of Democratic donors on November 21, former president Barack Obama said “everyone needs to chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind whoever emerges from this process.”

My Thanksgiving advice is to “chill out” entirely over the holiday weekend and set the “ginning up” aside for later.

Yes, we’re really allowed to do that.

We can turn off our televisions, or at least watch something other than “news.”

We can set aside political emails mail for a few days. They’ll wait.

We can talk about sports or movies over our holiday dinners instead of arguing about politics.

For all of which I am indescribably grateful. If it was up to me, politics would play a much smaller part in all our lives, even if that meant I had to find a different line of work.

My Thanksgiving weekend plans involve three days of camping and music with a bunch of hippies, hopefully with minimal political speechifying from the stage.

I wish you as happy a Thanksgiving as I anticipate for myself and mine.

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America’s Sovereign States: The Obscure History of How 10 Independent States Joined the U.S.

It is often said that before the Civil War, the United States “are,” but after the War, the United States “is.” This is a reference to the formerly theoretically sovereign nature of each state as compared to “one nation, indivisible.”

More than just the theoretic sovereignty of the individual states, the territory now comprising the U.S. has a rich history of sovereign states outside the control of the federal government. Some of these you’ve almost certainly heard of, but a lot of them are quite obscure. Each points toward a potential American secession of the future.

Vermont Republic (January 15, 1777 – March 4, 1791)

Current Territory: The State of Vermont

The earliest sovereign state in North America after the Revolution was the Vermont Republic, also known as the Green Mountain Republic or the Republic of New Connecticut. The Republic was known by the United States as “the New Hampshire Grants” and was not recognized by the Continental Congress. The people of the Vermont Republic contacted the British government about union with Quebec, which was accepted on generous terms. They ultimately declined union with Quebec after the end of the Revolutionary War, during which they were involved in the Battle of Bennington, and the territory was accepted into the Union as the 14th state – the first after the original 13.

The country had its own postal system and coinage, known as Vermont coppers. These bore the inscription “Stella quarta decima,” meaning “the 14th star” in Latin. They were originally known as “New Connecticut” because Connecticut’s Continental representative also represented Vermont Republic’s interests at Congress. However, the name was changed to Vermont, meaning “Green Mountains” in French.

Their constitution was primarily concerned with securing independence from the State of New York. Indeed, the state was known as “the Reluctant Republic” because they wanted admission to the Union separate from New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire – not a republic fully independent of the new United States. The genesis of the issue lay with the Crown deciding that New Hampshire could not grant land in Vermont, declaring that it belonged to New York. New York maintained this position into the early years of the United States, putting Vermont in the position of trying to chart a course of independence between two major powers.

The Green Mountain Boys was the name of the militia defending the Republic against the United States, the British and Mohawk Indians. They later became the Green Mountain Continental Rangers, the official military of the Republic. The “Green Mountain Boys” is an informal name for the National Guard regiment from the state.

In 1791, the Republic was admitted to the Union as the 14th state, in part as a counterweight to the slave state Kentucky. The 1793 state constitution differs little from the constitution of the Republic. The gun laws of Vermont, including what is now known as “Constitutional Carry,” are in fact laws (or lack thereof) dating back to the days of the Green Mountain Republic. The constitution likewise included provisions outlawing adult slavery and enfranchising all adult men.

Kingdom of Hawaiʻi / Republic of Hawaii (May 1795 – August 12, 1898)

Current Territory: The State of Hawaii and the Johnston Atoll

Hawai’i as a sovereign state is almost as old as the United States itself. Its origins were in the conquest of the Hawai’ian island. Western advisors (and weaponry) played a role in the consolidation of several islands into a single kingdom under Kamehameha the Great, who conquered the islands over a period of 15 years. This marked the end of ancient Hawai’i and traditional Hawai’an government. Hawai’i was now a monarchy in the style of its European counterparts. It was also subject to the meddling of great powers France and Britain, in the same manner of smaller European states.

The Kingdom was overthrown on January 17, 1893, starting with a coup d’état against Queen Liliʻuokalani. The rebellion started on Oahu, was comprised entirely of non-Hawai’ians, and resulted in the Provisional Government of Hawaii. The goal was, in the manner of other states on our list, quick annexation by the United States. President Benjamin Harrison negotiated a treaty to this end, but anti-imperialist President Grover Cleveland withdrew from it. The failure of annexation led to the establishment of the Republic of Hawaii on July 4, 1894.

In 1895, the Wilcox rebellion, led by native Hawai’ian Robert William Wilcox, attempted to restore the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The rebellion was unsuccessful and the last queen, Liliuokalani, was put on trial for misprision of treason. While convicted, her prison term was nominal. She was sentenced to “hard labor,” but served it in her own bedroom and was eventually granted a passport to travel to the United States, which she used to extensively lobby against annexation.

When pro-imperialist President William McKinley won election in 1896, the writing was on the wall. The Spanish-American War began in April 1898, with the Republic of Hawaii declaring neutrality, but weighing in heavily on the side of the United States in practice. Both houses of Congress approved annexation on July 4, 1898, and William McKinley signed the bill on July 7th. The stars and stripes were raised over the island on August 12, 1898. And by April 30, 1900, it was incorporated as the Territory of Hawaii.

Continue reading America’s Sovereign States: The Obscure History of How 10 Independent States Joined the U.S. at Ammo.com.

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Messaging as Manslaughter: Massachusetts Modernizes the Salem Witch Trials

In July of 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy killed himself in Fairhaven, Massachusetts by pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck. In a bench trial, a judge convicted Roy’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Carter, of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 2 1/2 years in prison.

In May of 2019, 22-year-old Alexander Urtula killed himself in Boston, Massachusetts by jumping from the top of a parking garage. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Inyoung You, has likewise been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In both cases, the charges hinge on the content of text messages in which the women encouraged, even “ordered,” the men to commit suicide.

You is a South Korean national who has since returned home. The treaty governing extradition between the US and South Korea requires that the charge involved “be recognized as a crime in both jurisdictions,” so unless text messaging is illegal in South Korea, You may avoid playing her part in yet another re-enactment of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.

Text messaging isn’t manslaughter, any more than it’s rape, robbery, or driving 60 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone. Nor is possession of a doll or a mole or birthmark “witchcraft” as fantasized in 17th century Puritan New England.

Hanging 19 men and women for witchcraft, and crushing another man to death for refusing to plead to charges of witchcraft, didn’t bring an end to imagined “molestations from the invisible world.” It merely sated an outbreak of mass hysteria.

Imprisoning Michelle Carter or Inyoung You for sending text messages may sate the desire of a few families for retribution. It may advance the political careers of a few grandstanding prosecutors.

It won’t  bring back Conrad Roy or Alexander Urtula, nor will it erase the irrefutable truth: These two adults knowingly and intentionally took their own lives.

Are Michelle Carter and Inyoung You “bad people?” Maybe they are.

Are they (or at least were they) controlling and psychologically abusive? It seems likely, and their relationships with Roy and Urtula were obviously mentally and emotionally unhealthy on both sides.

Not everyone who’s broken can be fixed before something awful occurs. Sometimes horrible things happen, and we’re left looking for answers as to why, and for ways to prevent the next such tragedy.

Imprisoning people for text messaging is not one of the right answers. It merely compounds tragedy with error, with evil, and with comforting lies, at the expense of additional victims.

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Building a “Family Wall” Against Oppression

In Forty Autumns, author Nina Willner tells a beautiful family history of life in a family divided by the wall between East and West Germany.

Particularly interesting were the coping tactics of her family in the totalitarian socialist East Germany. Her grandmother watched as this family weathered the arrival of the Soviets and the rapid transformation of East Germany into a surveillance prison state.

Neighbors were forced to spy on neighbors. And worst of all, children were trained to report on their own fathers and mothers. As a physical reminder of East Germans’ imprisonment, a border wall went up to keep citizens from escaping to the free West – best remembered in the form of the Berlin Wall.

In the face of this walled society, the family’s matriarch Oma begins guiding her family in building what she called a “family wall”: whatever politics might have prevailed outside, they weren’t allowed in the family. Even though Oma’s children were pushed through the Soviet-influenced youth programs and teacher training, within the Willner family itself there was none of the mutual distrust and betrayal and fear that hummed in the background of East German life.

Oma and her family put family – and doing the right thing – first, and it kept them sane and united until at last Germany reunited in relative freedom.

We can learn something from the Willners about surviving and resisting totalitarianism.

Organization is an important tactic for resisting totalitarianism, and the family is both the smallest and easiest group in which to organize resistance – even if that resistance is only psychological and internal. “A cord of three strands is not easily broken,” as the proverb says. It’s no wonder that family is always one of the first institutions to come under attack by those who would take power.

So it’s worth considering how to cultivate deep trust with those closest to you, even under better circumstances than those in East Germany. If you know you can trust a few people to put your wellbeing above ideology, above politics, and above even fear of an all-powerful state, you are better off than a great many people.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Negroes With Guns: The Untold History of Black NRA Gun Clubs and the Civil Rights Movement

Black NRA Gun Clubs

With the violent crime rate increasing disproportionately in urban communities, it’s no surprise that a recent phone survey of black voters found that 80 percent felt gun violence was an “extremely serious” problem. However, it seems this surge in violence actually has many in the black community changing their views on gun ownership.

In 1993, 74 percent of African-Americans favored gun control. Fast forward to 2018, and a Crime Prevention Research Center report found that concealed carry permits are on the rise – especially among minorities. In Texas alone, the number of blacks with permits has grown by almost 140 percent since 2012. Overall, this growth in the number of permits for blacks is happening 20 percent faster than for whites.

This increasingly positive attitude toward firearms might not be a new paradigm, but rather a return to form.

In this three-part series on militias in America, Early American Militias: The Forgotten History of Freedmen Militias from 1776 until the Civil War and American Militias after the Civil War: From Black Codes to the Black Panthers and Beyond provide detailed looks at the history of militias in early and post-Civil-War America. This guide takes a final look at how militias played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement, an important piece of America that’s missing from our history books.

Robert F. Williams and Armed Black Self-Defense

Few are aware that weapons played a pivotal part in the American Civil Rights Movement, specifically through Robert F. Williams. A curious figure in American history, Libertarians are quick to lionize him and his radical approach to black self-defense, but they’ll quickly cool when they learn of his longstanding association with leftist totalitarian politics and governments. Conservatives likewise might initially find themselves infatuated with a man who did not wait for “big government” to deliver his people, but rather leveraged the Second Amendment. Liberals, for their part, might find something to admire in Williams’ notion of liberation, but will recoil in horror when learning that his preferred vehicles for change were the NAACP (great!) and the NRA (terrible!).

Williams was many things, but chief among them was a harbinger of things that would come long after he had fled the United States for what he considered greener pastures in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He stands across the divide, separating the non-violent, electoral, protest-oriented phase of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s from the later, more militant and direct-action-oriented phase that would arise in the mid-to-late 1960s as the movement became more frustrated (particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King).

Born in North Carolina in 1925, Williams’ experience mirrors that of many African-Americans of his generation. He moved to Detroit as part of the Second Great Migration, where he was privy to race rioting over jobs. He served in the then-segregated United States Marine Corps for a year and a half after being drafted in 1944. Upon returning to his North Carolina hometown, Williams found a moribund chapter of the NAACP. With only six members and little opposition, he used his USMC training to commandeer the local branch and turn it in a decidedly more military direction. The local chapter soon had over 200 members under Williams’ leadership. If nothing else, his leadership was effective at building the movement from the ground up.

Black NRA Gun Clubs KKKAn early incident is particularly instructive in how effective these new tactics were. The KKK was very active in Monroe, with an estimated 7,500 members in a town of 12,000. After hearing rumors that the Klan intended to attack NAACP chapter Vice President Dr. Albert Perry’s house, Williams and members of the Black Armed Guard surrounded the doctor’s house with sandbags and showed up with rifles. Klansman fired on the house from a moving vehicle and the Guard returned fire. Soon after, the Klan required a special permit from the city’s police chief to meet. One incident of self-defense did more to move the goalposts than all previous legislative pressure had.

Monroe’s Black Armed Guard wasn’t a subsidiary of the Communist Party, nor an independent organization like the Black Panther Party that would use similar tactics of arming their members later. In fact, “Black Armed Guard” was nothing more than a fancy name for an officially chartered National Rifle Association chapter.

His 1962 book, Negroes With Guns, was prophetic for the Black Power movement to come later on in the decade. But Williams is noteworthy for his lack of revolutionary fervor, at least early on. Williams was cautious to always maintain that the Black Armed Guard was not an insurrectionary organization, but one dedicated to providing defense to a group of people who were under attack and lacking in normal legal remedies:

To us there was no Constitution, no such thing as ‘moral persuasion’ – the only thing left was the bullet…I advocated violent self-defense because I don’t really think you can have a defense against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.

Robert Williams

Williams himself is an odd figure, not easily boxed into conventional political labels. While often lauded, for example in a PBS Independent Lens hagiography, it’s worth noting that Williams spent a number of years operating Radio Free Dixie, a radio station broadcast from Communist Cuba that regularly denounced the American government. He urged black soldiers to revolt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Williams personally praised the Watts riots in 1966, simultaneously invoking “the spirit of ‘76.” Radio Free Dixie ceased operations in 1965, when Williams relocated to Red China at the personal request of Chairman Mao Zedong (hardly a proponent of freedom). Williams happily accepted, and this is where he remained for the rest of his exile from the United States – avoiding dubious charges of kidnapping white activists, Williams claimed he was defending from Klan attacks.

However, it’s not entirely fair to brand Williams a pliant, party-line Communist, either. Even while hobnobbing with the elite of the Chinese Communist Party, Williams regularly denounced the U.S. Communist Party as “Gus Hall’s idiots.” To some degree, this reflects internal divisions in the international Communist movement at the time, with national parties and internal factions lining up between Moscow and Beijing. But he also refused to rule out any sort of deal between himself and the federal government – or the far right, for that matter – on the grounds that he would do anything to avoid prison. He gave speeches in China denouncing the United States, including one where he associated Robert Kennedy with an alleged system of international white supremacy.

Upon returning to the United States, Williams was put on trial for the alleged kidnapping and was extradited to North Carolina from Michigan. By the time his case went to trial in 1975, it was a cause celebre among the American far left and the charges were soon dropped. His later years were marked by a lack of political activity. He received a grant from the Ford Foundation to work in the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. He seemed to have little interest in leading the more militant, Black Power incarnation of the Civil Rights Movement that had emerged in his exile. The title of his New York Times obituary is rather telling: “Outspoken and Feared but Largely Forgotten.”

Williams is a confusing figure, one that’s hard to figure out and even harder for people of any political persuasion to take a hard line in favor of. An iconoclast and a malcontent, he was simultaneously capable of self-sacrifice, exiling himself from his homeland, as well as blatant (and almost certainly appropriate) self-interest, ready to cut any kind of a deal to keep himself out of jail. No matter what your opinion is of Robert F. Williams and his role in bringing together blacks and guns, one thing’s for sure – we won’t be seeing him on the front of dollar bills any time soon.

Continue reading Negroes With Guns: The Untold History of the Black NRA Gun Clubs and the Civil Rights Movement at Ammo.com.

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