Katie Yow remembers watching her hands begin to shake after the July 10 phone call. It had been her lawyer with news of a subpoena. Yow had been called to appear in front of a federal grand jury. At the time, neither Yow nor her lawyer knew what the grand jury even related to. But the North Carolina anarchist and social worker knew one thing for certain: She would meet the demand with silence. And with this knowledge unshakable, she knew that—without facing a criminal charge or conviction—she could be going to jail.
“Things are going to be different for a while,” Yow told me she recalled thinking to herself.
It was not until some days later that her lawyer gleaned that the grand jury was purportedly investigating the October 2016 firebombing of the local Republican Party headquarters in Hillsborough, North Carolina. On the side of the building, someone had spray-painted a swastika alongside the phrase “Nazi Republicans leave town or else.” No one was injured, and no suspects have been named. Yow’s subpoena does not indicate suspicion that she was in any way involved. The 31-year-old longtime activist insists she knows nothing about the event, but her resistance to testifying is about much more than this: Yow is refusing to testify because she knows what federal grand juries can do.
“I didn’t have to think at all about whether or not I would testify,” Yow told me via e-mail, “that part is obvious and what I’m doing is the only thing one can do in this situation.”
On July 31—the date that Yow was called to appear before the grand jury—she stood on the steps of the Greensboro, North Carolina, courthouse in a bright blue dress and addressed nearly 100 gathered supporters. “Whatever happens today or in the future, I will continue to resist this grand-jury subpoena,” she said, before entering the building and informing the convened grand jury that she would not be complying. Following her refusal, the assistant US attorney informed her and her attorney that the government will ask the court to hold her in civil contempt, which is not a crime but could land her in jail for up to a year and a half.
Federal grand juries are some of the blackest boxes in the judicial system. Blocked to press, public, and even attorneys for the subpoenaed, the process is ripe for nefarious state use. For decades federal grand juries have been used to investigate and intimidate activist communities—from the late-19th-century labor movements, to the Puerto Rican Independence Movement and black liberationists of the last century, to environmentalists, anarchists, and indigenous-rights fighters more recently. Grand juries are used by prosecutors and federal agencies to map out political affiliations while sowing paranoia and discord. As the Trump administration and conservative statehouses are proving eager to further criminalize dissent and demonize the far left, bad-faith investigative grand juries are another weapon in the state’s repressive arsenal.