By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Free Speech Is Not a Crime,” read one sign pegged to a tree at an open-air news conference held Sunday afternoon by the recently formed Long Beach Anarchist Defense Committee at Long Beach‘s Lincoln Park. “COINTEL-PRO is back,” read another. As police in unmarked cars videotaped the proceedings from a few yards away, Geoffrey Kearns and Sheila Ketabian told two dozen reporters, supporters and others about the case of Matt Lamont, one of several local anarchists to be jailed in the last year. Lamont’s arrest, Kearns said, is “part of an ongoing pattern of police harassment against political activists in Long Beach.”
Last Friday, at the Orange County courthouse in Santa Ana, Lamont, a dreadlocked 20-year-old clad in an orange jump suit and shackles, pleaded not guilty to four felony charges relating to his alleged possession of an explosive device. He has been held on $100,000 bail since April 20, when he and a 17-year-old friend were pulled over in La Habra. Accompanied by Long Beach gang-unit detectives who had followed Lamont from Long Beach, La Habra police searched the car, turning up what the police report describes as “a homemade destructive device” consisting of a one-gallon milk jug filled with gasoline, a gas-soaked sponge and “two non-extinguishing candles to act as a time delay for the device.” Long Beach police claimed Lamont was en route to a celebration of Hitler‘s birthday at a Moose Lodge in La Habra, and that their surveillance of local anarchists’ e-mail postings indicated “that members of the SKAA [Southern Kalifornia Anarchist Alliance] were planning a violent confrontation with Aryan Nations members attending the event.”
Lamont, interviewed last month at the Santa Ana Jail, where he‘s been held in solitary confinement for several weeks (“Some Nazis caught wind of my alleged crime from the newspaper, and they’re not too happy about it,” Lamont explained), ridiculed the charges, saying he was carrying “gasoline for a gas-guzzling vehicle . . . That‘s not possession of explosives, that’s possession of gasoline in an improper container.” Lamont said it was his anarchist beliefs and his outspokenness about police abuses in Long Beach that landed him behind bars. He and other Long Beach anarchists helped organize a march in February to protest the killing of Marcella Byrd, a 57-year-old African-American woman shot to death by Long Beach officers in January. “I think this charge and the harassment [of other anarchists] is due to the Marcella Byrd case,” Lamont said. “There is nobody who confronts the police -- people are always too scared. Now that there‘s a group that wants to expose them, they want to shut it down before it spreads.”
Orange County Deputy District Attorney Tom Crofoot would not comment in detail about the case, but said, “I’m satisfied that what he had was an incendiary device.”
Lamont‘s lawyers are hoping the charges will be thrown out. They contend that both the initial traffic stop -- police claimed they smelled gasoline fumes from a car-length away -- and the search of the car, to which neither of its occupants consented, were illegal, and that the surveillance leading up to the arrests constitutes a flagrant civil rights violation. Regardless, said attorney James Simmons, given the context of the current “generalized hysteria” about terrorism, the charges will be difficult to beat.
Long Beach anarchists’ legal troubles began months before Lamont‘s arrest, when they staged a May Day rally last year. Riot police broke up the march with rubber bullets and batons. “It lasted maybe 20 minutes or so,” said one participant, who asked to be identified only as Echo. “People got shot, bloodied and beaten, broken arms, fractured fingers.” Almost all the marchers, about 100 people, were arrested. Most got off with probation, but one was recently sentenced to six months. Another received a three-year sentence for allegedly assaulting an officer, and a third was deported to Mexico. “There was no crime, no vandalism,” said Echo. “They just couldn’t face the fact that people were protesting in their city.”
Late last year, anarchists collectively rented a storefront on Redondo Avenue and created the Long Beach Infoshop, a combination bookshop and community center. The Infoshop hosts meetings for groups like Food Not Bombs, which distributes food to the homeless, and Cop-Watch, which monitors police and documents abuses. For the last few weeks, a note to police has been taped to the front door: “If you‘re going to raid us come back after 12:00 (noon). We’re sleeping. Thanx. P.S. Stop following us.”
Since the Infoshop opened in November, activists say it has been under “constant surveillance.” They say police idle their cars outside while staring in through the windows, and have repeatedly followed people to and from the shop. One activist says he was followed home from the shop by police, who later questioned the security guard and apartment manager at his building. Another says she‘s been followed to classes at Cal State Long Beach by police cars parked outside her home. “If you’re seen leaving here,” said Sherman Austin, a slim 19-year-old with a wispy goatee, “they‘ll follow you, and if there’s any reason they can pull you over, they will.” Anarchists have been ticketed for jaywalking and for riding a bicycle without the proper license. “Anything they can, they‘ll get you for if they know you’re affiliated with this place or the anarchist movement,” said Austin, one of two Infoshop regulars to have his car impounded after being pulled over with expired tags.