Seven police cars lined the street, a helicopter circled overhead and seven people stood in handcuffs looking like a scene from “America’s Most Wanted.”
The “outlaws” were a group of activists who didn’t buckle up. They claim they were targets of a law enforcement harassment campaign surrounding Liberation Weekend, a conference of grassroots activists at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law. The conference, May 15 – 16, drew activists to discuss “building a revolutionary movement in the United States.”
Since 9⁄11, Bush’s war on terrorism has led to an increasingly harsh crackdown on civil liberties, largely targeted at grassroots groups. Houses have been raided, activists have been followed, and, as happened last month, they have been arrested and accused of “terrorism.” The arrests in California, activists say, are part of a larger, coordinated effort to silence dissent.
Melissa Rodriguez, a co-organizer of the conference, received a phone call from friends on Sunday who said they were being followed by unmarked police cars. She and a group of activists arranged to meet them. On the way, Rodriguez was pulled over by a Costa Mesa police officer accompanied by six cars and a helicopter hovering overhead.
Citing seatbelt violations, police handcuffed the bunch and led them to separate cars for interrogation.
Police searched Rodriguez’s car without her consent and confiscated a guitar. They took the group to the police station, where, she says, “I kept asking for the cuffs to be taken off, and they said, ‘No you’re still under arrest and there’s still an investigation.’” The activists were booked, fingerprinted and questioned about Rodriguez and the conference. A representative for the Costa Mesa Police Department did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the arrests.
Several police cars followed Rodriguez as she left the station to drop off the activists at their homes. At the final house, she was pulled over by an FBI agent, who questioned her about her plans for the weekend, and the political posters and propane tank police had earlier found in her car.
“I just kept asking if I was detained, and he said ‘no,’ and he said they would just follow me wherever I went,” she says. The small propane tank in the trunk was from a recent camping trip. The agents remained parked outside the house all night.
The seatbelt crackdown wasn’t the only questionable law enforcement act during the weekend. On Saturday, Brook Hunter and a group of activists were pulled over on the way to the conference for a faulty brake light. Police asked if they were going to the conference in Los Angeles and detained them when one passenger couldn’t provide identification.
David Agranoff, an organizer with Compassion for Farm Animals, says the FBI visited his home while he was at work but his wife did not answer the door when she recognized one of the agents.
“To me this is all kind of indicative of how much they’re worried about what we have to say, and how much they want to squash out dissent,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. They may say these are traffic violations or whatever, but it’s no accident they chose to do it all that weekend.”
With guns drawn, L.A. police stopped Nik Hensey on his way to the conference, and told him to put his hands in the air and step out of the car. They said his vehicle “matched a description,” says Hensey. “A subordinate later indicated that I was being watched and they were told to engage me.”
Hensey was taken into custody and his car was impounded and ransacked. Police opened his mail, dumped out the contents of his backpack and picked the lock on his laptop, he says.
He was followed by police to and from the conference. When he approached one of the cars that had been following him, the driver told him that he “knew my politics and that they wanted to keep me from breaking the law,” Hensey says.
“I felt guilty that we might have to invade another country to sustain the fuel consumption required for seven units to tail me throughout L.A, so I encouraged them to return tomorrow with hybrid vehicles,” Hensey says. “Officer Doug said he’d work on it.”