Elliot Madison leans back in the easy chair in the corner of his living room as Louis Armstrong plays from his tiny laptop speakers. The view from his window at night is that of a quiet residential neighborhood.
"It's the one computer we have, as of right now," he says, nodding at the PC sitting on the footrest of the chair, tapping the ashes from his coal-black wooden pipe into his hand. When you enter his home, you notice a large chunk of wood missing from the front door and a bent dead bolt, so it's easy to push open from the outside. There's no chain to pull across, no secondary lock, nothing.
"We haven't replaced the locks because we want to show what has happened to our home."
At dawn on Oct. 1, 2009, the Joint Terrorism Task Force kicked in the front door to Madison's home in Jackson Heights, Queens, an anarchist collective known as Tortuga House.
For the next 16 hours federal, state and local law enforcement agents from the task force hauled boxes of personal items belonging to the occupants, including letters that Madison had written to his wife, Elena, recording equipment, books, computers, and boxes of ammunition. They also confiscated records relating to Madison's work as a social worker, according to the Citizen Media Law Project.
The raid came a week after Madison and his housemate, Michael Wallschlaeger, among others, were arrested by Pennsylvania State Police on Sept. 20 in Pittsburgh near the G-20 economic summit for using Twitter to relay information about police movements to protesters.
Madison made news as one of the first among many arrested during the G-20 protest in Pittsburgh last fall. He and others had set up the communications office for a group called The Tin Can Communications Collective in an area motel.
He was held in Pittsburgh for the remaining three days of the protest on $30,000 bail. The charges were, in effect, that the two men had used Twitter and cell phones to alert protesters of police movements they gleaned from police and emergency scanners.
What set Madison and the collective apart from other protesters was that they could be the first people in the U.S. to be arrested for broadcasting over Twitter. Although the charges in Pennsylvania were dropped by the Allegheny County district attorney last fall, the federal government has taken a particular interest in him
The search warrant used in the New York raid stipulates that evidence was gathered toward a potential violation of federal riot law. Though he has yet to be charged in New York, Madison could face up to five years in prison if convicted of violating the riot law.
According to the Tortuga House blog, a Pennsylvania judge ruled on Jan. 15 to keep the affidavit that "authorized the Sept. 24 raid on the motel... and the arrest of our two housemates during the G-20" summit sealed for another 30 days. The blog also mentions a similar instance in New York, with the "interminable" filing of legal motions by the defense to unseal documents matched by counter motions from the prosecution. The blog states that the seal in New York was set to expire yesterday.
Tortuga House is nestled in an identical row of houses in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood with a mixture of Spanish and Asian immigrants. There are signs written in Vietnamese and Chinese next to the neon glow of White Castle's and KFC's 24-hour signs, a row of laundromats and a Mobil gas station.
"Before we were raided, we had a large (anarchist) flag hanging out front," He waves his hand toward the front of his home. "Our intention wasn't to hide anything, we were very open with the community. We still are very open about our beliefs. If we were hiding anything we wouldn't have it displayed out in the open for all to see," he adds, "but of course that was taken for evidence."
The evidence list, which is public record on several websites, is considerably long, given that the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force collected nearly 100 pieces of evidence from Madison and his housemates. Such is operating procedure in cases involving an alleged violation of federal law. But in this case, the alleged crime was perpetrated via Twitter.
Among the evidence were pictures of Karl Marx, gas masks, arm and knee pads, books written by Madison and a glass container with an unknown gray liquid along with several corked vials. And although Madison's lawyer, Martin Stolar, filed a motion in federal court to have their property returned the day after the raid, nothing has been returned. Stolar contended that the Tortuga House search was a violation of Madison's first amendment rights, but an Eastern District New York Judge disagreed.
On top of all this, Madison's a cool character. He has a penchant for dressing head to toe in black and keeps his long brown hair in a ponytail. He keeps his goatee neatly trimmed a la Guy Fawkes. He has a habit of walking and talking fast, smoking Marlboros and chain-drinking Coca-Cola. He's a vegetarian but laughs when asked if it's because of health issues (see Marlboros).
He still speaks with a heavy upper Midwestern lilt and laughs nervously after he answers each question. He's a social worker with Fountain House, a self-help organization in Midtown Manhattan. He's also an author, penning several books with the Curious George Brigade, a publishing house that serves the anarchist community.
Madison is an anarchist. More important, he considers himself a collectivist, that is to say, he supports the advancement of a group rather than individualistic goals. He was raised in Wausau, a small working class town in central Wisconsin. And though his parents were "working class Americans," both were progressive liberal democrats who often invited political discussion.
"Oh yeah, they were both very progressive," he says, "so when they learned that I was leaning more toward anarchy as I got older, they were supportive."
He has been active in the anarchist community for nearly 24 years, starting in his late teens hosting anarchist book fairs in his home and meeting other anarchists from around the U.S. to share ideas. Now he travels the world, participating in demonstrations in places like Iceland and Eastern Europe. He did, anyway, before the feds took his passport.
"In Wisconsin, during the 1980's we were busy with anti-nuclear submarine installations that were particular to our part of the country. Mind you that this was all before the huge protests at Seattle, before the anti-globalization demonstrations." In November of 1999 the protests at a World Trade Organization (WTO) conference grew so large that the protesters forced the meeting to end early. Six-hundred protesters were arrested with hundreds of others injured.
YBNY Editor Joel Silverstein contributed reporting to this story.