*The article was originally published in 2011 to call attention to FBI raids against anti-war, labor, and international solidarity activists in Chicago, the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and other parts of the Midwest.
Tom Burke and his wife were at home with their daughter on September 24, 2010. They received phone calls from people in Chicago and Minneapolis informing them the FBI was raiding their homes. Burke thought the FBI might raid his house. He decided his daughter needed to get to kindergarten before the FBI entered his home. He left with his daughter.
The next thing Burke did was write a press release. He took his computer, got in his car to go find a “web cafe.” New to Grand Rapids, Michigan, he had little idea where to drive. He took two left turns and noticed a car behind him took two left turns too. It didn’t seem right to Burke. He took another left turn, and the car behind him also took a left turn too.
Burke decided the FBI was following them. He called his wife, and they agreed he should drive to the parking garage at her work. As Burke reached the parking garage, the car that had followed him sped off. An SUV sped into the road right behind him and followed him into the garage. Burke was served with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. His wife was later served with a subpoena too.
“An agent said you’re being investigated for ‘material support to a terrorist organization’ and specifically it said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP),” recalled Burke. “Myself, I’ve been the spokesman for the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera, where we protested outside the trial in Washington, D.C., of a Colombian revolutionary and one of dozens of FARC leaders who was put on trial. We don’t think he should have been put on trial in this country at all. We think they are angry at us for doing political organizing and exercising our right to free speech.”
Burke told the story of Ricardo Palmera saying he was a professor born into a wealthy family in Colombia. He attended the naval academy. In the 1960s, just before graduation, he decided to become a professor. Palmera chose to become a social activist and work to change Colombia so peasants in his country would no longer be violently exploited and oppressed. Soon friends were being tortured.
The following decade Palmera “found that almost all his friends except for one of the founders of a group called Citizen Action, [a woman], were dead.” Military and death squads killed them in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Palmera thought he had a choice between becoming a refugee and joining the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. He fought as a member of the Patriotic Union.
Palmera was captured by the Colombian government, seized in Ecuadorm and extradited to the U.S. in 2004. The U.S. government put him on trial. The first trial, according to Burke, was a “terrorist trial that led to a hung jury.” During the second one, “Federal Judge Hogan was found cheating with a U.S. prosecutor and had to step down.”
The jury could not find Palmera guilty of “terrorism,” but they did find him guilty of “belonging to the FARC” and so he was charged, mostly because he was found to have been involved in the kidnapping of three U.S. military contractors.
“That charge should have carried only a 7-year maximum sentence, but the judge gave him sixty years,” explained Burke. He is now in solitary confinement in a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, “being held as a political prisoner.”
The FARC are, according to the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera, an “independent peasants’ movement.” A description of the FARC on the Committee’s website claims “one third” of FARC fighters are women.
But the U.S., which has forces intervening in the conflict in Colombia, considers the FARC to be terrorists, not a recognized military force at war with the military force backed by the Colombian government. This means the capturing of U.S. contractors, while FARC argues this was simply an act of taking prisoners of war, was regarded as something “against the law of all civilized nations.”
According to his profile on the Committee to Stop FBI Repression’s website, Burke has most recently been “a stay home dad of a five-year old daughter. Tom grew up in the blue-collar suburbs of Chicago and received degrees from both the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois-Chicago. He then worked as a school custodian and building engineer in the Oak Park schools for 14 years, where he won an Illinois State award for service. Tom Burke was a union steward, union organizer, and elected to the Executive Board of Local 73, Service Employees International Union with 23,000 members.”
Burke shared how he and his wife have been active since the days when college students protested apartheid. He notes President Obama was part of that movement and supported Nelson Mandela, “who until three years ago was still on the U.S. terrorist list.”
“We’re proud that we were part of that successful movement to end apartheid. And we continue to be active around international solidarity. And so when were subpoenaed, we were shocked,” said Burke. “We don’t think the U.S. should have political police with the FBI, who are serving an agenda of building a U.S. empire. Activists like ourselves have a right to organize, a right to free speech, to speak out, to not have our houses searched, to not have our government demand our computers, our cell phones. We also think we have a right to not speak at a secret trial.”
A grand jury is not like trials most Americans have seen play out. Burke addressed how a grand jury works.
“As an activist or any citizen, your called to face a grand jury where there’s no judge in the proceedings. There’s only the U.S. prosecutor. It’s like a preemptive trial. So, the US prosecutor gets to pick the twenty-three jurors. There’s no one from your side in the room.” [For more info, read this post put together by a blogger at Firedoglake.]
The U.S. prosecutor guides the twenty-three through the process. Those jurors tend to want to help and identify with the prosecutor. When you enter the room, your lawyer is not allowed to be with you. You have to excuse yourself and go to the hallway to talk to your lawyer. The media is not allowed to watch it and you can’t have your family or friends in the room to support you either. All of that, and more, is why Burke and his wife decided to never cooperate with the grand jury.
Finally, Burke emphasized, “We’ve been doing solidarity work with people in other countries who get killed for doing what they do. When I went to Colombia in 2003, a labor union delegation my union local SEIU, at that time three Colombian trade unionists were being killed every single week. And that was the scariest week of my life.”
Burke was with the human rights director of the oil workers union, and all week he had to have armed security and know who was with the group and whether they were in a safe place.
“Every week, a Colombian trade unionist gets killed,” Burke declared.