On the eve of the NATO summit in May, Brian Church, a 21-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and four other activists were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. Surveillance officers had infiltrated the group of “self-proclaimed anarchists”—according to a court document relating to Church, Brent Betterly, 24, of Oakland Park, Florida, and Jared Chase, 27, of Keene, New Hampshire—and allegedly had observed the men making Molotov cocktails. Cook County prosecutors also allege that as the incendiary devices were assembled, Church “asked if others had ever seen a ‘cop on fire.’ ” The accused men, now known as the NATO 5, pled not guilty.
“I’m trying to look at this as a learning experience,” Church says one Monday afternoon in August, speaking through a metal slot in the glass partition of a visitation room at Cook County Jail. His hands are cuffed in front of him, his skinny frame swallowed up by a yellow jumpsuit. “In here, I have lots of time to think and reflect,” he says. “I’ll read almost anything.” The redheaded former paramedic student says he has pored over everything from a tome about the women’s suffrage movement, which saw many of its supporters imprisoned, to Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” in which the abolitionist writes, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Most of those reading materials have come courtesy of a drive started by Occupy Chicago’s librarian Rachel Unterman. In July, as part of an ongoing NATO 5 “jail solidarity” effort—visiting the men on the inside, attending their court dates—Unterman put out a call for books on the website of the People’s Library of Occupy Chicago (“serving the literary needs of the 99%”). The 29-year-old bookworm has been shipping the donations, one padded envelope at a time.
“The books we send can only be paperback,” Unterman says. “I guess in prison hardcovers are considered a weapon.” She asks that people refrain from donating overtly political texts. “I’m avoiding things about anarchy,” she says, “anything that’s like, ‘Smash the state!’ ” However, during my visit with Church, he spoke of interestedly perusing literature sent to him by Chicago’s sect of the Anarchist Black Cross, which prides itself on its prisoner-correspondence program.
So far, Unterman has mailed almost 30 books. Three works by Neil Gaiman and two by Philip K. Dick make the NATO 5’s reading list. There’s a pair of writing instructionals: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. By request, she also sent issues of National Geographic and Rolling Stone.
“I’ve visited and written to them more, and they’re starting to come back with specific titles,” Unterman says. “Brent likes science fiction, so I’ve been sending him classics—Heinlein, Asimov. I’ve had some requests for James Patterson, one for Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg. One of the guys wants a book about Spain during the 1800s. Whatever it is, I go after it.”
Unterman attributes her dutifulness, she says, to a stinging awareness that she could’ve been jailed along with Church and the others. “My involvement in the movement isn’t significantly different from theirs: I go to actions, distribute literature—that’s all they were doing.” The NATO 5’s legal team—comprising attorneys from the People’s Law Office—argues that police entrapped their clients, who will await trial until at least next summer. Unterman says they’ll be receiving books in the mail from her for just as long.
“Reading is one of the only connections they have to the outside world, because with every book I send them a letter,” she says. “They don’t get to ask for anything in jail, but they always know they can ask me for a book.”
To donate to Unterman’s drive and for instructions on sending books to the NATO 5, visit ochilibrary.wordpress.com.