In the summer of 2008, Hammond returned to Chicago and what was supposed to be a new life. With Jason and some friends, he moved into the fourth-floor apartment of a ramshackle house in Pilsen – "sandwiched between the two finest dumpsters in Chicago" – that they dubbed "Mount Happy," and went to work as a web designer. He was barred, by the terms of his release, from associating with anarchists or his old colleagues at Hack This Site for the next three years. And yet he was unable to walk away from his politics altogether. So he turned to mainstream activism, joining the Chicago branch of the Rainforest Action Network, where he helped organize a campaign to shut down two local coal plants. "He'd ride this rickety bike all the way across town," says Lyn Michaud, who founded the city's chapter of RAN, "probably an hour each way, to attend meetings that would last four or even six hours."
Hammond, she adds, "wasn't just anti-capitalist in words; he walked the talk. We would have a meeting at a restaurant, and Jeremy wouldn't buy food – he'd eat other people's leftovers. I'd be sitting there, like, horrified, but he'd just casually walk over to an empty table, grab like half a plate of leftover food and bring it over. He literally lived off the waste of others."
Michaud, 10 years older than Hammond, took Jeremy under her wing, inviting some of the world's most well-respected activist trainers to meet with her group in Chicago. Once she even invited Hammond's hero, Bill Ayers, to a potluck dinner. Jeremy was star-struck. "He called him 'sir,' " she recalls, laughing. "That was funny: This big anarchist who was so anti-hierarchy called Bill Ayers 'sir.'"
Ayers recalls Hammond as one of a group of "terrific and supersmart young people" who engaged in "a lively discussion about activism." But Hammond's politics were far more radical than the activists with whom he now associated, and he could be scathing with those that he felt lacked the sufficient revolutionary cred. The idea of willingly getting arrested as an act of civil disobedience puzzled him – "The revolution to me is about not getting in their jails," he says – as did the seemingly endless process of petitioning local officials and holding sit-ins that got no attention.
Hammond's adventure with "polite activism" lasted just more than a year. Frustrated, he was drawn back to militancy and, in turn, to trouble with the law. At a rally in September 2009 to protest the city's plans to host the 2016 Olympics, Hammond and his brother were arrested after engaging in a tug of war with an Olympic banner, "in which various parts were burned, right in front of the media cameras," he says. "In retrospect, it was an impulsive, poorly planned-out action with no exit strategy." Worse, it was also a clear violation of his probation. A week later, Hammond, out on bail, joined some comrades in breaking up a talk given by British Holocaust denier David Irving, where, dressed all in black, they heckled Irving and doused his books in fake blood before making their escape. But they were quickly apprehended.
Hammond narrowly avoided being sent back to prison. He accepted 130 hours of community service and 18 months of "enhanced probation," which meant he could be visited – he and his friends would say "raided" – by his probation officer and the Chicago police at any time, and his home and possessions thoroughly searched. He was unable to leave the state of Illinois, and he was put on a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew. About the only place he could still travel freely was online.
In January 2008, during Hammond's last six months at Greenville, the famously controlling Church of Scientology "angered the Internet," as it was said, by trying to remove a controversial Tom Cruise video from the Web. In response, the Internet – or more specifically a loose coalition of Internet denizens calling itself Anonymous – released its own video, where, in a computerized voice, it declared war on the Church. You have nowhere to hide because we are everywhere, the message said in part, ending with the lines that would become the collective's slogan:
We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.
At first, Anonymous seemed like little more than a group of malicious pranksters, enraged over Internet censorship. They began targeting groups like the Recording Industry Association of America, which was waging a campaign against online piracy, and the Australian government, which had proposed a filter for online pornography featuring underage girls. (Anonymous dubbed the attack Operation Titstorm.)
In Chicago, Hammond was aware of Anonymous but had dismissed it. "I didn't take them seriously. These weren't, like, super-voodoo hackers," he says. But he began to realize the political potential of Anonymous once they launched Operation Avenge Assange in December 2010, shortly after PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and several other financial institutions abruptly stopped processing donations to Wikileaks, which had come under fire for publishing the diplomatic cables leaked by Bradley Manning. Organizing online, Anonymous held what electronic-freedom activists call a "digital sit-in," encouraging thousands of people to download an online tool called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon, or LOIC, to bombard the companies' websites and knock them offline.
"This spontaneous gathering was one of the first large-scale demonstrations conducted on the Internet," says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University considered the foremost expert on Anonymous. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter for the group, "providing a paradigm for general online protest that would soon allow individuals to unite and organize to express their deep disenchantment over any and every issue."
Hammond was impressed. "They were taking on credit-card companies and banks," he says. "I thought maybe there were people there who recognized who the bigger enemy was and how to fight them."
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