In 1970, American students shut down hundreds of schools and universities across the nation after the illegal U.S. bombing of Cambodia and the killings of four young people at Kent State in Ohio and two in Jackson State, Mississippi. The year marked a new decade of war in Vietnam, the FBI targeting of civil rights leaders, and a president who called students bums and drew up an “enemies list.” It also marked a new phase for the growing lesbian and gay liberation movement.
That year, some wouldn’t wait for a mass movement to stop the violence, repression, and imperial excesses of the United States. Hartford native Susan Saxe, Katherine Power and a handful of others decided to rob a Massachusetts bank in 1970 “for the revolution.” A police officer was killed by one man in the group. Saxe and Powers went underground.
The FBI organized a nationwide dragnet for the fugitives. The feds invaded women’s groups and swept through lesbian communities in Hartford, New Haven and around the country with a newly sharpened tool– the Grand Jury.
Originally developed in old English law as a shield against arbitrary action by the king, grand juries were being used by the government against political activists in over thirty political cases across the nation.
If you were called to testify, whether or not you knew anything about fugitives, you could not refuse to answer a prosecutor’s questions. This gave the government full license to collect information on all activists and movements, whether or not they had any connection to illegal activity.
William Kunstler, famed defense attorney, came to Connecticut to tell the public that grand juries were being used by prosecutors as “tools” to strip citizens of their rights. “They are running wild over this country,” Kunstler warned.
In Connecticut, women activists found this out the hard way. Ellen Grusse, Terry Turgeon, Diana Perkins and Marianne Palmer were subpoenaed in March,1975 by the prosecutor, but refused to talk to a New Haven grand jury. Perkins eventually provided limited testimony; Palmer’s case was dismissed. The legal action sent a chill through feminist and lesbian organizing efforts.
“They are being sent to jail, not for failing to giving information about the fugitives,” charged radical Hartford attorney Mike Graham, “and not for committing any crime, but for refusing to divulge the names of their own friends and groups to which they belonged.”
Ellen Grusse and Terry Turgeon initially spent 28 days in jail for refusing to cooperate with the feds.
The two women and their lawyers were pretty sure the FBI was bugging their phones. The feds insisted they were not. (In 1977, a local newspaper revealed that 3,000 Connecticut residents were wire tapped since 1970 in the course of a Black Panther trial. Over one thousand of them were later awarded damages by a court.)
Grusse and Turgeon were recalled to the grand jury in 1975 and once again refused to name names. “We don’t want to go to prison, but we will, Grusse said. They spent seven months in the Niantic State Prison, the length of the grand jury’s operation. The National Council of Churches filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the pair’s fight against abuse of the grand jury system.
After five years on the run, Susan Saxe was arrested in Philadelphia, when a bank security camera photo surfaced showing her cashing a check in Torrington. Saxe eventually pled guilty, with the proviso that she would not testify about any other person. She served eight years in prison. In 1993 Katherine Powers turned herself in after 23 years underground and was incarcerated for six years.
Not one National Guardsman or police officer was convicted of the deaths of the unarmed Kent or Jackson students. No U.S. army or government official was prosecuted for war crimes in southeast Asia.
Terry Turgeon and Ellen Grusse were released from prison on December 20, 1975. Their courage and principles proved stronger than the federal government’s threats and vindictive actions.
Two months later, grassroots activists and progressive lawyers in Connecticut organized the “Committee to Defend Our Democratic Liberties” which exposed grand jury abuses and the new push by President Ronald Reagan to consolidate and ratchet up the federal criminal code in order to dismantle opposition communities, repress labor rights, quash the free press, and curb the right to privacy.