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The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Hammond: Enemy of the State

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A math and science whiz with an IQ of 168, Hammond "talked so fast it was like his mouth couldn't keep up with his brain," says one friend. At home, with no women around, the two brothers spent endless hours building cities with their immense Lego kits, or devouring the books in their dad's extensive library, which ran the gamut from Fight Club and The Catcher in the Rye to Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book and Revolution for the Hell of It.

From an early age, Jeremy was consumed by projects in which he could lose himself. In Little League, he created a virtually unhittable pitch, and by the time he was nine, he was finding innovative ways to make computers do what they weren't supposed to do – the essence of hacking. At 16, he hacked the computers at a local Apple store, projecting their financial data on every screen, after which he proceeded to explain to the experts at the Genius Bar how to better protect their information. "The look on their faces was priceless," his father recalls.

At Glenbard East High School in nearby Lombard, Illinois, the Hammond twins were part of a crowd of "very smart kids looking for something more than they'd find in high school," as one friend, Matt Zito, recalls. Politicized, like many, by the attacks of 9/11, Jeremy was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and the "blind patriotism" he saw as leading the U.S. to war. In his senior year he founded an underground newspaper to encourage students to question the conventional political narrative "and most of all think," as he wrote in his first editor's letter. "WAKE UP . . . Your mind is programmable – if you're not programming your mind, someone else will program it for you."

Hammond's mind was a hive of counter-cultural ideology, notably the modern-day insurrectionary ideas of CrimethInc, the anarchist collective and publisher of radical how-to guides, including its own take on The Anarchist Cookbook, titled Recipes for Disaster. Hammond romanticized the Sixties, says Zito, who worked with him on the newspaper. In the spring of 2003, on the first day of the Iraq invasion, Hammond led a walkout of more than 100 kids to an anti-war rally in downtown Chicago. That fall, he enrolled at the University of Illinois-Chicago and quickly became a powerful activist voice on campus – so much so, recalls his friend José Martín, that the administration once abruptly cut the mic while he attempted to give a speech. But Hammond lasted only a year at UIC. "Jeremy was fearless – or foolish, depending on how you look at it," says Pong Kay, who dated Hammond for two years. A pretty freshman, she'd met him at a campus bus stop where Hammond was writing graffiti advertising a protest he was organizing against university tuition hikes. Before long, he was taking her on expeditions to an abandoned drawbridge, which they'd scale, getting stoned at the top before laughingly making their way down.

The artsy daughter of Thai immigrants, Pong was smitten. "There was something incredibly charismatic about him," she says. "He was this young, hot-headed, hyperintelligent guy with a very low tolerance for authority, and this big heart – he had this core belief that human beings are inherently good."

Hammond was also, she adds, "trusting" – sometimes to his detriment. During the spring of his freshman year, he hacked into the computer-science department's website, identifying a vulnerability that, just as he had at the Apple store, he offered to fix. Instead, the hack earned him a disciplinary hearing and a letter from school administrators saying that he would not be welcomed back at UIC for his sophomore year.

What he learned, notes one friend, is that "if you try to work with the system, they fuck you over." And so, from then on, Hammond would dedicate himself to working outside it. Over the next few years, he threw himself into the day-to-day life of the radical community in Chicago, renting houses that quickly became crash pads for any homeless kid or traveler who happened through. Always the first to offer a toke or some food, he became famous for taking friends on epic dumpster-diving expeditions to hidden outposts like a local Odwalla plant, where, after plundering the refuse, he'd return with enough fresh juice to last a month. At night he'd settle in with "riot porn" – Internet clips of black-clad anarchists facing off with the police.

He became a fixture at virtually every major demonstration, as well as many minor ones. Clad in ratty jeans and a T-shirt "for some punk band whose biggest show was for 20 people at a basement benefit for an animal-rights group," as Muchowski puts it, Jeremy and Jason, now his comrade in anarchy, would arrive with a marching band – drums, horns, a tambourine or two – dancing and singing and generally annoying the more earnest demonstrators. "Boredom," he would later write, "is counterrevolutionary. Your movement needs to be fun . . . or no one will want to participate."

Hammond also "brought the ruckus," as he put it, in a more serious way: joining the militant and masked black bloc anarchists, getting into scuffles with cops and amassing an impressive rap sheet. Between the ages of 18 and 21, he was arrested 10 times in three different states.

But Hammond was more than just a street-level agitator. He was equally active online, part of a new, and to U.S. law enforcement, threatening generation of political activists. "These are guys who can travel seamlessly between cyberspace and meat space, without even recognizing much of a difference," says Steve Rambam, a New York cybersecurity investigator. Hammond's primary weapon, which few if any of his anarchist friends knew about, was a hacker boot camp of sorts, a website he'd developed called Hack This Site, which within two years had become a full-fledged online community with more than 100,000 members. It was here that Hammond began to meet so-called black-hat hackers who worked below the radar to take down websites for fun or profit, or sometimes both. "These people had large amounts of power – where one hacker could outsmart a whole company," he recalls. Street activists had very little power – but they had the politics to power the revolution. What if these two worlds could merge? "I thought hacking could be a tool – a weapon to disrupt abusive corporations."

Selling this idea wasn't easy. In the mid-2000s, there was little crossover between hackers and activists. Hammond wanted this to change. "Considering today's political climate, it is becoming imperative that we tune into the world around us, take a stance and give a fuck," he wrote in the first issue of a new "electronic civil-disobedience journal" called Hack This Zine, which he launched in the summer of 2004. He began to lay out an argument for international movement – "an army so powerful we won't need weapons," as Hammond put it. "If corporations and governments are out of line today, it's up to cowboys of the electronic age to turn over the system and put the people on top."

In July 2004, Hammond took his message to the annual DefCon hacker convention in Las Vegas, the largest convergence of hackers in the United States. There he made an impassioned speech praising the virtues of electronic civil disobedience as an effective tool to disrupt the upcoming Republican National Convention. "We'd like to see every method of disruption possible, whether it be shutting down the power to Madison Square Garden, or defacing 10,000 different Republican websites. . . . We'd like to see RNC delegates get harassed on the streets," he said. "Fuck 'em up! Shut 'em down!" Some people in the audience jeered, and one person asked if what Hammond was proposing amounted to terrorism. "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," he scoffed. "Let them call us terrorists; I'll still bomb their buildings."

Soon after he returned to Chicago, FBI agents who had seen a tape of the DefCon speech paid Hammond a visit to ask him if he really intended to bomb the Republican convention. Hammond said he had been engaging in a bit of radical hyperbole – though he had begun to envision a digital insurgency of sorts: an "Internet Liberation Front," which, much like the radical environmental and animal-rights groups ELF and ALF, would organize as underground cells and use nonviolent "hit and run"-type tactics to attack the "rich and powerful."

An early target was a group called Protest Warrior, a Texas-based pro-war organization that had a habit of showing up to rallies to heckle left-wing activists. In February 2005, Hammond and some fellow hacktivists breached the organization's website, gaining access to thousands of credit-card numbers they wanted to charge in order to redistribute the wealth to left-wing causes. Protest Warrior notified the FBI, which raided Hammond's apartment that March. The Bureau spent the better part of the next year building a case against him, though as Hammond would repeatedly note, he never actually charged anything to the cards.

Hammond ultimately confessed to the hack and was sentenced to two years at the Federal Correctional Institute at Greenville, Illinois, about 250 miles from Chicago. He doesn't speak very much about Greenville, but his mother suggests it was a far cry from the Cook County jail, where he had been held on numerous occasions. "The first time I went to visit him, he'd been there less than a month and he was trembling," she says. "He told me, 'Mom, when I get out, I'm going to be a better person.' He was scared. I thought, 'This is not my Jeremy.'"

By the second time she visited, Hammond was no longer trembling. He'd begun his "training," as he would refer to his time in prison, conditioning himself "mentally and physically" to become a more effective freedom fighter. He immersed himself in radical literature like Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist and the autobiographies of Black Panthers George Jackson and Elaine Brown, and read countless anarchist newsletters that were passed along through prison channels. Among his influences was the former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, who had taught at UIC when Hammond was a student. "Live your life in a way that doesn't make a mockery of your values," Ayers wrote in his memoir, Fugitive Days. "Wherever injustice raises its head, resist; the revolution is your permanent vocation."

He emerged from Greenville 18 months later a changed man. "He seemed angry and really militant," says his former housemate Scott Scurvy, who points out that before going to prison, Hammond had an almost Merry Prankster-like take on activism. Now, "he was talking about 'cracking skulls' on people he perceived as racist or homophobic. He kind of tripped me out."

The consensus among many of their friends, Scurvy says, was that "prison sort of messed him up." But others realized it as a form of clarity. "There are two paths you take after you come out of prison," says Jason Hammond. "Some people go straight and try to achieve the American dream, and others go, 'Fuck it, the whole idea is bullshit, as is the system that created it,' and they go in a more radical direction. And Jeremy took that path."

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