The Hacktivist

Calling himself an electronic Robin Hood, Jeremy Hammond used his computer savvy to attack a conservative group’s Web site. He called it an act of civil disobedience. The FBI called it theft.

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Hack This Zine, a publication started by Hammond

In December, a week before Hammond reported to prison, I saw him one last time at the Happy House, a dingy two-flat co-op in Pilsen that he was temporarily calling home. Spray-painted anarchist symbols covered the walls, as did slogans like “Bomb the System” and “Fuck the New World Order.” Instructions posted next to the front door cautioned what to do if the cops knocked (don’t let them in).

The night was billed as a monthly party, but it was also Hammond’s final hurrah. I found him standing in the kitchen, watching the heavy-metal band in the next room. He was wearing the same drab brown ski hat and paint-splattered black hoodie he always wore. A tuft of blond-fringed brown hair peeked out from underneath, and his bright blue eyes darted between the band and me as he talked. In a few days he was going to prison, but tonight the mini fridge in the kitchen was stocked with Busch beer and homemade hard cider.

He bragged nervously about an ongoing hack that some friends were up to against the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group he had protested in Toledo in 2005. They were scanning the group’s e-mails and files looking for evidence of hate crimes; if they found anything, they were going to publicize it. He claimed he wasn’t involved and said he wouldn’t talk more about it-with good reason. It was pretty much the same stunt that was sending him to federal prison.

Hammond had served five months when I talked to his father again. He said prison had been neither violent nor threatening, since most of the other inmates were drug offenders or white-collar criminals. “It’s not like The Shawshank Redemption; nobody is trying to kill each other,” Jack Hammond said. Jeremy was reading books from the prison library and had a subscription to the Chicago Tribune. The weekly care packages sent from home contained copies of 2600, a hacker quarterly. He was polishing his guitar skills, teaching math and GED preparation to other inmates, and playing baseball for the prison’s summer league, his father said. “He’s immersing himself in the total prison experience.”

Asked if he was proud of Jeremy, his father said yes, mentioning all the ways his son had helped the poor, whether by refurbishing old computers and bikes and giving them away or Dumpster diving to help feed the homeless. “Not that I agree with everything Jeremy does, but his social conscience, his empathy for people, his values are right where they should be. He’s an engaged young man,” he said. “How many 19- and 20-year-olds are really doing that?”

Before we hung up, Jack Hammond said his son was already thinking about life post-prison. A computer company had been nosing around with a job prospect for when Jeremy was released, which will happen in a little more than a year. Meanwhile, guards were allowing him a little time on the computers in the prison library. The machines, his father pointed out, aren’t connected to the Internet.

 

 

Photograph: Jim Newberry

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