The Cleveland 4

Justine Strehle was awoken on a Monday morning by a phone call from a friend. Her boyfriend, Brandon Baxter, had been arrested. It was a Cleveland spring just under five years ago.

At first, Strehle thought it was a joke. She lived with Baxter at the time and describes him today as one of the sweetest people she has ever dated.

The couple was essentially homeless back then ― living in a warehouse that the Occupy Cleveland Movement had rented with as many as 20 other people at a time. Baxter’s room was nothing more than a tent, stocked with the few possessions he had brought from his dad’s house that was being foreclosed. At one point, half of their mattress was covered in black mold, causing Strehle to become sick after nights of sleeping on it. Baxter nursed her back to health. He had paid their bills and made sure they could eat.

Then he was arrested.  

Brandon Baxter (courtesy of Justine Sterle)

Brandon Baxter (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Baxter and four others ― Douglas Wright, Connor Stevens, Joshua Stafford and Anthony Hayne ― were arrested on April 30, 2012, in what the FBI characterized as a sting operation. According to court documents, the five had been charged with conspiracy to use explosives, attempt to use explosives and malicious attempt to destroy a northeast Ohio bridge. However, Strehle believes that it was actually FBI entrapment, and that they were manipulated by FBI informant Shaquille Azir to participate in the attempted destruction of the bridge.

According to the Justice Department, entrapment is a criminal defense that argues the government has coerced innocent people into criminal acts in order to prosecute them. In the court of law, this defense can rest on “mild coercion, [pleas] based on need, sympathy, or friendship [or] extraordinary promises of the sort ‘that would blind the ordinary person to his legal duties.’”

Anthony Hayne, according to court documents, pleaded guilty on July 25, 2012. He was followed by Wright, Baxter and Stevens, who pleaded guilty on Sept. 5, 2012. Stafford took his case to trial and was found guilty on all charges June 13, 2013.

Baxter and Strehle are no longer a couple. But Strehle still cares deeply about him and the other members of the Cleveland 4 ― a name that supporters created after the arrest. Strehle said a lot of political prisoners have a name, and it was an easy way to refer to them all. She runs their support website that has updates about their sentencing and new information about their case.


Part 1: The Beginning

Baxter is blond and well built. In 2011 he had one-half of his head shaved; he would wear a bandana around his neck or sport a colorful tie-dyed shirt. Sometimes, he would go by the nickname “Scavi,” according to Strehle (this is different from the criminal complaint that indicates his nickname was “Skabby”). Baxter first realized he was an anarchist in 2010 when the Occupy Movement was just beginning. He was 18 years old and had a growing dissatisfaction with government and a drive to fight corruption. Most of the others in the Cleveland 4 identified as anarchists in 2011, according to Strehle.

“It was not an identity which I created for myself. Rather, I had an epiphany one day that government is inherently bound for corruption,” Baxter wrote in a personal statement in support of his petition for clemency, which he made in the fall of 2016.

Baxter surrounded himself with friends who felt the same and became involved with Food Not Bombs, an organization filled with activists trying to provide food to those living in poverty.

“I love to cook, and I love being on the streets meeting all of its wonderfully idiosyncratic characters,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.

Food Not Bombs provided food to those involved in Occupy Cleveland, heartily filling the stomachs of all protesters from one tent on the street. Baxter first attended Occupy Cleveland in its early months representing Food Not Bombs, and became more and more engaged in the protest.

The Occupy Movement was a protest that started on Wall Street ― commonly known as Occupy Wall Street. The goal was to fight back against big banks and the one percent that owned them ― going by the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” The movement popped up in major cities across the country ― including Cleveland and Chicago ― and protested the “corrosive power” of the big banks and corporations controlling the global market, according to the Occupy Wall Street website.

Baxter had solid friends in Occupy and Food Not Bombs, including the other members of the Cleveland 4: Doug Wright, Connor Stevens and Josh Stafford. There was a whole community. The Food Not Bombs tent was turned into a pantry that was open all day and night for the protesters to feast from. Baxter’s girlfriend at the time, Justine Strehle, was a part of this community. She rotates her hair color, but in 2011 it was bright red. She met him on her very first day of working at Occupy in the fall of 2011.

Connor Stevens sitting on the ground (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Connor Stevens (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Stevens was also involved in Food Not Bombs for a time, as well as the Anarchist Black Cross ― a movement “supporting those imprisoned for struggling for freedom and liberty,” according to their website. But he met most of the others that would become the Cleveland 4 at Occupy.

Another close friend was Gus Hurst, a protester who shared Baxter’s political viewpoints. Hurst is skinny with slicked-back light hair. A rolled cigarette sat between his gap-toothed smile during an interview last spring. While he is a bit hazy about some of the details of what happened five years ago, other memories remain crystal clear.

“They weren’t idiots,” Hurst said. “They were smart people with good intentions.”

Baxter expressed interest in wanting to help people, then and now. “I got involved with Occupy Cleveland not with the intent to terrorize and cause chaos, but to be part of something to affect [sic] substantial change for the better,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “I just had no idea what I was doing back then.”

The beginning was good, but the movement was crumbling with each passing day. According to Strehle, at the time of Baxter’s arrest, a divide was developing between anarchists and liberals within the Occupy Movement. Or, as Strehle describes it, it was a divide between those who wanted to cooperate with the police and those, like Baxter, who did not think it was necessary. But she insists this protest was never intended to be violent.

“[The members of Cleveland 4] were picked out and assembled for the ability to be alienated,” Hurst said.

According to a document released by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), the FBI treated the Occupy Movement as a potential terrorist threat and had been monitoring the organization since August 2011, at least a month before the protests actually began. In some cases, the FBI notified businesses and the public of Occupy action before the movement organizers had announced anything.

FBI spokesperson Christopher Allen declined to comment on this particular case, but said in an email that the “FBI does not investigate individuals based solely on First Amendment-protected activity.”

Although five people were arrested in spring 2012, Cleveland 4 only refers to Baxter, Stevens, Wright and Stafford. The fifth man, Hayne, is not included because he testified against the others in court, according to Strehle and Hurst. Hayne took a plea deal for a shorter sentence than the other defendants eventually received. The court rejected the original plea deal between Hayne and the government on Nov. 30, 2012. He received six years in prison and life on parole.  

Hayne was the oldest of those involved, approximately 37 years old at the time of the arrest. By testifying, Hayne lost the others’ trust, Hurst said. That is why the convicted are known as the Cleveland 4 and not the Cleveland 5, as seen on the support website Strehle runs.


Part 2: The Informant

It was autumn. The FBI had directed a paid informant ― going by the name of Shaquille Azir ― to investigate any suspicious or potentially threatening activity at an Occupy Cleveland protest on Oct. 21, 2011. It was there Azir met Douglas Wright.

Wright was in his mid-twenties; he had black hair and a mohawk. He was part of a group of men that the court documents describe as suspicious ― walkie-talkies hanging around their necks and masks covering their faces, wearing black clothes and holding anarchist flags.

Wright told Azir he had been identifying as an anarchist for the past 12 years, showing him scars of a broken nose and missing teeth from previous protests turned riots, according to the criminal complaint― a document of evidence the FBI presented to the court. The two exchanged phone numbers and, from that point on, Azir made himself a fixture in Wright’s life.

“He was always a lot closer to Doug,” Baxter wrote in an email interview in early 2017. “He met Doug first and used Doug to lure the rest of us into the conspiracy. He spent a lot more time with Doug. Azir definitely tried to insert himself as a parental figure in Doug’s life. Mine as well, but to a lesser degree.”

According to Hurst and Strehle, Wright did not have a relationship with his family. Strehle recalls a conversation she had with Wright where he had stated that being involved with Azir was the first time he had ever felt like he had had a father figure. Hurst was 16 at the time and had a very close relationship with his family, which is why he believes he wasn’t targeted like the others.

Douglas Wright sits inside a vehicle Connor Stevens sitting on the ground (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Douglas Wright (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

“Call it entrapment or not,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “The fact remains that Azir took advantage of my poverty by buying me meals, giving me money, giving me a job working directly for him, offering me a place to stay rent-free, and dozens of other promises to assist me in various ways, some more significant than others.”

Baxter first met Azir at a 24-hour restaurant in Cleveland in November 2011. Wright, who was a friend of Baxter’s, had introduced them.

“We wanted to affect [sic] tangible change, but realized our limitations,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency explaining why meeting with Azir was enticing.

According to Baxter, the Occupy encampment had been evicted downtown and there was nowhere for them to go. According to Strehle, they had been living in an abandoned church around this time. And Azir made it easy to talk with him. Right off the bat, he gave them money to cover the meal they were sharing.

“Here we were, a group of young white men, torn black jeans, tattoos, piercings, disheveled and dirty from days and weeks on the streets and on the road, a very odd lot smoking re-rolled cigarette butts and copious amounts of marijuana, sitting in a storefront diner in a decent neighborhood with a middle-aged black man dressed in crisp casual attire and studs in his ears, having what happened to be a strange business meeting,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.

Azir was a paid informant of the FBI. According to the criminal complaint, he was paid approximately $5,750 and $550 for expenses. He had a long criminal record, including one conviction for cocaine possession in 1990, another for robbery in 1991, and several more for passing bad checks. And here he was, working undercover.

Azir came with the promise of money and food, and with that a sense of hope. He offered the friends jobs flipping houses, an offer they could not pass up.

Baxter’s father was going through his second divorce and was close to being evicted from Baxter’s childhood home.

“I had taken to leaving home for long stretches at a time, sleeping wherever I happened to be that night, or not at all,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “If I didn’t have a place to crash I’d sleep outside tucked between buildings, under a bench, behind a dumpster. It didn’t matter.”

Food was sparse; sometimes Baxter would have to eat meals out of a dumpster. At the same time, Baxter was suffering from drug addiction. He would take and re-roll cigarette butts that he found in ashtrays. At one point Azir gave him Adderall.

“He signed a statement claiming that I told him I was prescribed [adderall] and had forgotten to take my dose that day, and he had a prescription and was only trying to help me,” Baxter wrote in an email interview. “But that was bogus, twisting words, something I had said along the lines about wishing that I was prescribed it because I felt that it leveled me out. And he gave me more than a prescribed dose.”

Azir offered Baxter stability. He said he was going to teach Baxter how to drive (he never actually did). But, on a bigger scale, according to Baxter, Azir offered to buy his father’s house that he was close to being evicted from, selling it back to him at a rate he could afford.

“If Azir didn’t say stuff like this regularly, his constant offers of assistance, I probably would have steered very clear of him and his talk of explosives,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.

When they first met Azir back in November, Baxter remembers that Azir wanted to know about specific actions they could take beyond just protesting. According to Baxter, he had never viewed the conversation as anything serious ― jokes at best.


Joshua Stafford and Justine Strehle (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

It was not until February 2012 that any conversations between the group and Azir were recorded after three months of contact. According to the criminal complaint, this was because Wright “did not discuss more definite or detailed plans for criminal activity.” They met up again about three months later. According to the statement Baxter wrote for his clemency petition, he did not even remember Azir’s name.

On Feb. 15, 2012, Azir picked Wright up from a local drugstore to get breakfast. Again, he asked Wright about any plans to follow through with their talk of tearing down bank signs. According to the criminal complaint, Wright had not talked with the four others for some time, and they weren’t as sure about getting involved with Azir.

By Feb. 20, the Occupy Cleveland movement was beginning to crumble. All that was left was one booth, according to Baxter, and he had nowhere to go. He felt constrained, like he could not do anything of actual significance as an activist, sensing an overall apathy among his peers.

“Whenever I hear the phrase ‘hanging out’ I imagine clothes drying on a line, being blown this way and that by the wind, not doing much of anything,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.

Azir was the guy with the money ― someone to help them out financially in ways they could not help themselves. And so, conversations with Azir continued.

At one point, Baxter recalls kidding about doing a protest at a newly opened Cleveland casino.

“I joked that we could find people to lock themselves to the casino doors and take bets on how long it would take for them to be arrested,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. He viewed this as nothing more than a joke.

The next meeting Wright and Baxter had with Azir, on Feb. 24, 2012, was the first meeting that was recorded.

Court documents suggest that Wright mentioned buying explosives at this meeting as well, but there is no recorded evidence, only what Azir told the FBI after the meeting.

Azir met two more members of the group during the third meeting: Connor Stevens and Anthony Hayne. This was the first meeting that was taped by Azir. The next several meetings, according to court documents, were about the group potentially obtaining a copy of the “Anarchist Cookbook,” which details how to build weapons and explosives.

When reading back over the transcript of the recordings, Strehle is doubtful that actual plans for violence were ever set in motion.

“They sounded like a joke,” Strehle said. “It was like reading a really bad movie plot.”

In one conversation, Wright is shown to have laughed when talking about the “Anarchist Cookbook.” 

Azir went on to ask Wright how much money they might need to make explosives, which Wright was unsure about.

“I haven’t really read too much into yet [sic], um, I’ll have to get into that,” Wright said on the tape. Azir kept pushing the need for explosives, saying, “Well you gotta get with me,” to Wright.

Baxter said he was wary of getting explosives during these conversations with Azir, but there is one piece of incriminating evidence in the transcript ― a single line ― that suggested Baxter was in favor of blowing up a bridge.

The statement was laid out plainly, easy to reach like low-hanging fruit. However, a lot of the conversation around this line is described as unintelligible by the court documents. There is nothing written down about what was said beforehand, and much of what comes after are select snippets of an incomplete conversation.  

On March 28, 2012, Azir arranged a meeting with a man who he said could supply them with explosives. In actuality, this man was the undercover FBI agent. Wright, Baxter and Azir discussed obtaining riot gear that they could take to the NATO summit protest in Chicago. The informant showed them pictures of possible explosives they could could purchase, which Wright and Baxter turned down.

“Yeah, we are going to wait on that,” Wright said, according to the court documents. “We definitely might be interested later but not right this minute.”

Baxter claims there are hours of missing conversations they had with the informant. According to Baxter, Azir would not let the idea of getting explosives go, but this interaction wasn’t recorded. As a result, it didn’t make it into the evidence provided by law enforcement.

“Azir always took the lead, while crafting the situation so as to lead from behind,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “He told Doug to make the call to the agent. He would give Doug this look, one that said, ‘I’ll let you do the talking.’ Doug looked up to Azir. Azir validated Doug. Fed his ego.”


Part 3: The Summit

Gus Hurst was also planning to go to the NATO summit protests in Chicago with Stevens. The two had bus tickets until Stevens was arrested with the rest of the Cleveland 4.

The protest was meant as an anti-war demonstration. Former President Barack Obama held the summit of NATO leaders in Chicago to discuss the war in Afghanistan in May 2012. Protesters from the Occupy Movement were in heavy attendance.

In a case that is similar in many ways to the Cleveland 4’s, three activists dubbed the NATO 3 were arrested in May 2012. The three had been charged with making Molotov cocktails – a destructive device made from a flammable substance that is normally alcohol – in preparation for the NATO summit meeting in Chicago, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune. Like the Cleveland 4, they were young male anarchist activists who had gotten caught up in an FBI sting operation that many supporters of the three men believe to be entrapment.

According to a 2014 article by the Chicago Tribune, the judge in charge of the case gave lighter prison sentences to the NATO 3 than the prosecutors had sought. All three were found not guilty of any serious terrorism charges because the judge and jury did not believe that a serious, cunning plan was ever set in motion. Instead they were convicted of “possessing an incendiary device and misdemeanor mob action,” according to the Chicago Tribune. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the two cases: The Cleveland 4 were viewed as national terrorists, while the NATO 3 were not.

According to a report from In These Times, the police and FBI were investigating numerous activists ― particularly those who identified as anarchists ― leading up to the NATO summit protest in Chicago. And it was the Occupy Movement that was targeted the most. Following the NATO 3 arrests, Chicago police officers acknowledged that undercover investigations were going on and that law enforcement was targeting anarchists. Meetings were monitored by informants or by electronic surveillance with help from Chicago police. It was an investigation that seemed like an undercover anarchist witch hunt.

According to a report by The Guardian, big banks played a role in the government’s investigation of Occupy. They worked with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and local police.

The arrests were brutal. According to The Guardian, police action was characterized by “group disruption, canister missiles to the skulls of protesters, people held in handcuffs so tight they were injured, [and] people held in bondage till they were forced to wet or soil themselves.”

This all came with the FBI insistence that the Occupy Movement was a terrorist threat.


Part 4: The Arrest

Joshua Stafford ― a friend of the others ― was unaware of any potential use of explosives until April 27, just a few days before the arrest. He went by the nickname Skelly, according to Strehle (this is different from the criminal complaint that indicates his nickname was “Skully”). He is lean with curly hair.

At that point, talks about picking up the explosives from the undercover agent were underway. According to court documents, Wright had told Stafford about retrieving explosives and Stafford had agreed to go with Wright and Azir. This delivery was originally supposed to be on Saturday, April 28. However, Wright, Stevens and Baxter all said they could not make it because there was another protest event they wanted to attend.

Azir called Baxter that Saturday, according to court documents, at which point Baxter said he was concerned with police surveillance from the protest happening later that day, but “[Baxter] wanted the plan [of bombing a bridge] to proceed.” This phone call was never recorded. It was one of several phone calls that went unrecorded that day ― another one with Baxter and one with Wright. The taping wouldn’t resume until the next day.

On Sunday, Azir picked up Wright, Baxter and Hayne to retrieve the explosives, along with vests and gas masks. Shortly after purchasing the explosives, Wright became nervous about being arrested, even turning on the television to muffle their conversation in case they were being bugged. According to court documents, Azir assured him that everything was fine.

Joshua Stafford (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Joshua Stafford (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Hayne tossed around some ideas of what they could potentially blow up, but Azir told him that they would be placing the explosives on a bridge off a highway.

As the actual threat of violence seemed more and more real, Stevens wanted out. According to court documents, he had told Wright that he did not want to be a part of this, but still wanted to work on rehabbing houses with Azir. But it was already too late.

“I played lookout the day we set the fake explosives at the bridge,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.“I never touched the devices or the detonators. You couldn’t have paid me to touch them.”

Baxter owns up to his own actions that late Sunday night, fading into early Monday morning. “I’m not saying that in the end I wasn’t there, in the middle of the night, under that bridge. I was,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “But how we got to that point doesn’t follow the FBI narrative of a simple sting operation.”

They attempted to detonate the explosives from a remote location, according to court documents.

Baxter was only 20 years old at the time of his arrest. And on May 3, 2012, the five were charged “in a three-count indictment with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction,” according to court documents.

The first count, according to court documents, charged that they “did knowingly conspire to use a weapon of mass destruction.” The second count charged that they “did knowingly attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction.” And the third count charged that they “maliciously attempted to damage and destroy, by means of explosives… real property used in interstate commerce, specifically the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge, and aided and abetted each other to do the same.”

Hayne was the first to plead guilty on on all three counts on July 25, 2012, according to records retrieved from Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER).

In August 2012, Stevens argued in court that the obtainment of his statement was a violation of his Miranda rights – that allows arrested individuals the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney – as outlined in Miranda v. Arizona (1966). The FBI agents interrogating Stevens took his statement despite Stevens saying several times he did not want to talk. The motion to suppress his statement was denied, according to court documents, because the interrogation was in the interest of public safety. However, police officials insisted in a recorded 2012 press conference that the public was never in danger during the course of the sting operation.

On Sept. 5, 2012, Baxter appeared in court. The judge told him he was not required to plead guilty

Baxter pleaded guilty to the charges. Wright and Stevens also pleaded guilty that day.

“I didn’t fully understand the law surrounding entrapment when I was awaiting trial,” Baxter wrote in an email interview.

Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency that for the first three months of his pretrial detention he was placed in solitary confinement.

Baxter feels his court-appointed attorney – John Pyle – did not have enough time to work on his case.

“When he would come to visit me in the pretrial facility in Youngstown, Ohio, he was also coming to visit up to half a dozen other prisoners he was representing,” Baxter wrote in an email interview.

Pyle, however, said that there was no shortage of time devoted to Baxter’s case. “I am very comfortable with the advice I gave him,” Pyle said in a phone interview.

In November 2012, Anthony Hayne’s testimony was presented in court. It was a petition for a plea deal that intended to give him a shorter sentence. In his testimony, he claimed there was discussion of explosives without the informant, Azir, present.

This was the moment that the Cleveland 5 became the Cleveland 4. Hayne later said in the testimony that the undercover FBI agent taught them how to use the explosives step by step.

Anthony Hayne did receive a shorter sentence — six years in prison and life on parole. According to the Cleveland 4 website, Hayne was recently released from prison into a halfway house. Strehle only found out he had been released because Hayne had messaged her on Facebook asking for forgiveness. She responded once to see if it really was him and then did not message again once she was sure. According to Strehle, she was not the only person that Hayne had messaged.  

Hayne could not be reached for comment.

According to previous court rulings ― precedents that were used in this case ― there are two things a case needs to be a federal crime of terrorism, and neither necessarily have to be considered violent. The first is that the act must attempt “to influence or affect the conduct of  government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.” The second is that it includes one of the crimes described in the “Terrorism Transcending National Boundaries” clause of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, such as assault or murder.

Wright was sentenced to 11 years and six months in prison. Baxter was sentenced to nine years and nine months in prison. Stevens was sentenced to eight years and one month in prison. All three received life on parole after release.

Baxter’s attorney argued before the sentencing on Nov. 20, 2012, that the court should give Baxter a lesser sentence based on the fact he “had a traumatic childhood, and is a reparable individual, the explosives were inert, and an FBI paid informant… played a major role in facilitating the offense.” The court agreed with many of the attorney’s arguments and sentenced Baxter to less than what the federal guidelines suggested.

Stafford went to trial, not agreeing to plead guilty like the others. The jury found him guilty on all three counts on which he had been charged. He received the second-longest sentence with 10 years in prison and life on parole.

“If I would have had half the comprehension of the law that I do today, I would have done everything differently,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “I would have gone to trial.”


Part 5: The Aftermath

Baxter has about three years and nine months left on his sentence. He spends his days studying to become a paralegal.

Baxter is quiet and maintains a soft tone when speaking over the phone. There was a mix-up over time zones as to when he was supposed to call me. He apologized profusely, despite it being my fault for not indicating I am in Chicago. But, mostly, he sounds exhausted ― almost as if the place is devouring his very being.

“Someone told me early on that this time can be used for great things. I’ve never stopped holding onto those words, sometimes for dear life,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.

Baxter believes becoming a paralegal will give him many options to pursue. He can provide prisoner support. “I can assist a criminal defense attorney, and as a former prisoner I will have invaluable experience and perspective to offer,” he wrote for his petition for clemency.  

Baxter has a bigger goal: He wants to start a nonprofit organization that is meant to help those living in poverty.

“Ultimately what I want to do is reduce the cost of living for as many low-income people as possible because I want to empower these people,” Baxter wrote in his statement for his petition for clemency. “And I  believe in the potential they can achieve if their struggle weren’t constrained by day-to-day survival.”

Baxter’s goal of helping those in poverty is not too different from what it was in 2011; he believes that it is just more thoroughly articulated now.

“When I was 19 I would say that I was still trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do, and that I was merely moving in a direction,” Baxter wrote in an email interview. “I’d say that I’m still only moving in a direction, but that that direction is more clear to me now.”

Prison has, by no means, been easy for Baxter. He wrote that resources are limited ― he does not receive the same opportunities for education as he would on the outside. But he will not let this hold him back.

“Nothing about this system is conducive to growth, and I continue to grow despite this reality,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency. “Imagine a flower growing between the cracks in concrete, then imagine how that flower can blossom into a beautiful garden once transplanted into a field with all it needs to be nurtured.”

Justine and Brandon (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Justine and Brandon (courtesy of Justine Strehle)

Baxter spends long stretches in solitary confinement ― or, as it is commonly referred to, the SHU. He once did nine months in the SHU, immediately followed by six months. He said a lot of the reason why has to do with prison politics. He said the longest time he spent in the SHU was for disciplinary action. He was accused of assaulting an officer, who Baxter said actually assaulted him.

“The assault infraction was dropped down to making a threat because there was absolutely no evidence that I had made an assault,” Baxter wrote in an email interview.

Baxter and Stevens have been moved around to different prisons quite a bit over the course of their sentences. Baxter has stayed in prisons from Indiana to California to Louisiana. Stevens is currently in Kentucky.

“[But] overall it is a deadly monotony. This is perhaps the most dangerous part of prison life: the dull, mind-numbing, soul-defacing routine,” Stevens wrote in an email interview. “This is the real threat: not so much to the flesh, but the almost imperceptible damage wrought against the soul, such that we become like automatons, cut off from our souls, our depth, the endlessly rich content of our psyches which can find no expression in outward forms.”

Stevens spends his days writing poetry. He started writing when he was 13 years old, and now most of his work is published on the Cleveland 4 website.

“I believe that at this point in my life, my poetry has been perhaps my greatest contribution to the world,” Stevens wrote in an email interview. “Which isn’t saying much, really, but I do believe there is some worth to it, and folks often tell me how it resonates with them.”

He signs his email “Warm Regards, Connor Stevens,” almost as if he is reaching through the computer screen with a heartfelt embrace.

Wright and Stafford could not be reached for comment.

Baxter has been in prison for the past five years. In 2015, he motioned to the court to have his sentence corrected. The motion was denied. According to the court documents, the judge responded to Baxter’s argument that Azir had been manipulating him with, “And I know… you want to tell me how bad the [informant] is but you didn’t ― you pled guilty, so entrapment is not a defense. The [informant] is obviously a facilitator, but a facilitator does not mean it’s a defense.”

The court also ruled that Baxter could not show that any lack of preparation by his attorney – John Pyle – affected the proceedings.

In June 2016, lawyer Amanda Schemkes says she started working on Baxter’s case. The two were connected through the National Lawyers Guild. Baxter had wanted help submitting a Freedom of Information Act request through a National Lawyers Guild support committee for political prisoners.

Baxter and Schemkes began working on a petition of clemency, requesting his sentences be commuted to time served in prison and a five-year cap on his supervised release.

The petition for clemency is made to the President of the United States. Former President Barack Obama was still in office when the petition was made last fall. According to Schemkes, dozens of friends and family wrote letters on Baxter’s behalf, as well as several people that Baxter did not even know, including people from advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as journalists and professors. Obama granted clemency to 1,927 people during his time in office, the most petitions granted since Harry Truman. Baxter was not one of them.

Schemkes said that it is not uncommon for the FBI to target vulnerable young men in the name of fighting terrorism.

A year and a half before the members of Cleveland 4 were arrested, Mother Jones released an investigation conducted with the University of California-Berkeley. In 2011, the FBI had over 15,000 paid informants working for the bureau, according to FBI records. Upon reviewing 508 prosecution cases, the researchers concluded that, of the 158 prosecutions that relied on sting operations, 49 of the defendants were led by “an agent provocateur ― an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.” In response to the Mother Jones investigation, FBI spokeswoman Kathleen Wright said, “We are prohibited from using threats or coercion.”

“It’s a pretty horrific trend,” Schemkes said, tying it to the Patriot Act ― a national security bill that expanded government surveillance on a massive scale after the 9/11 attacks.

Baxter will not give up trying to reduce his sentence, grasping at even the faintest glimmers of hope.

“I need the chance to see what it means to go from being a flower growing out of concrete to being a flower in the world,” Baxter wrote for his petition for clemency.

He’s not finished yet.

Additional reporting by Brendan Pedersen

Header image courtesy of Justine Strehle

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Baxter’s nickname was “Skabby” and Stafford’s nickname was “Skully,” as they are listed in the criminal complaint. According to Justine Strehle, Baxter’s nickname was actually “Scavi” and Stafford’s nickname was “Skelly.”