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
Joshua Thomas Connole is a 6-foot-4 string bean of a man with a lilt in his walk that makes his chin-length brown hair, which turns up at the ends, bounce with every step. He’s 25, but seems younger, in part because he lacks a certain cynicism associated with maturity. After his arrest last week in connection with the August 22 arson fire at a West Covina Hummer dealership, he guilelessly invoked the style of his sneakers in his defense: The perpetrator captured on the car lot’s surveillance video was not wearing Connole’s trademark Vans.
Several people, including Connole’s lawyer, William Paparian, presented the sneaker defense as a political statement, claiming that Connole refused to wear any sneaker made by Nike, a company activists have targeted for its labor practices. (“That’s something the authorities wouldn’t understand, right?” said Paparian.) Connole’s own story, however, was much simpler. “I told them, ‘Look, that guy’s shoes have a rubber flap on the toe!’ And Vans neverhave a rubber flap on the toe.’”
On Monday night in front of the Citrus Municipal Court in West Covina, where Connole’s fresh-faced, patchouli-scented friends and supporters had gathered to protest his arrest amid burning sage and tribal drumbeats, Connole’s shoes once again became an issue. A conscientious vegan who objected to being served Salisbury steak while in custody, Connole borrowed a pair of leather loafers after losing the paper slippers he’d worn in his cell. When one young man with a shaved head and a “Screw the Patriot Act” T-shirt nearly tackled Connole with a hug, Connole felt compelled to comment on the shoes. “You made it! You’re a free man!” shouted the friend.
“And I’m wearing leather shoes,” shrugged Connole cheerily, throwing his long arms in the air and smiling broadly. “What can you do? I’m just glad to be out.”
The release was unexpected: On that same morning, Connole had been given a new wristband and told he was being transferred to county. Then all of sudden, at 4:30 p.m., “they said ‘Grab your stuff, you’re out.’” The West Covina police stated they would not have sufficient evidence to present a case to the district attorney within 48 hours of Connole’s arrest, as required by California law. So here was their suspect, in his white paper jailhouse jumpsuit, working the crowd at the very rally organized to demand his release.
Among those celebrating were several members of the Regenerative Cooperative in Pomona, where Connole has lived since July. “Regen V,” as it’s called, along with the “Tortoise House” next door, is a community founded on the principles of the late Cal Poly Pomona Professor John T. Lyle, who came up with the name “regenerative” to denote a way of living that produces more natural resources than it consumes. Regen V generates enough electricity from solar power that it sells some back to the grid; its residents conduct workshops on composting and organic urban gardening.
The night of Connole’s arrest, the FBI “embargoed” the house and then ransacked it, emptied it of computers and documents and left it in shambles. “I don’t understand it,” said Emily Lutz, a soft-spoken young woman with straight brown hair and wide blue eyes, who is one of Regen’s original founding members. “Our politics are not extreme. We believe in promoting positive values. Many of us are students. Two of our members moved out recently because they’re going on to Harvard Law School.” Lutz also complained that the Los Angeles Timeshad made several erroneous claims about the Regen House, including a report that stated the FBI had found a gun and ammunition in their search. “It was a BB gun,” Lutz said dryly. “It’s Matt’s BB gun. Matt is one of our residents. It’s the BB gun he’s had since he was a little kid.”
Connole is known in activist circles as the man behind many of Orange County’s anti-war protests, including a recent one in which he carried a sign declaring George W. Bush “A Nazi Corporate Fascist Pig.” The rally crowd believed that Connole was targeted because of his history as a rally organizer. “It’s true and I’ll tell you why,” said Paparian. “In the Oakland Tribuneon May 18, Mike Van Winkle of the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center gave a definition of terrorism that goes like this: ‘You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest.’” The article went on to claim that the organization has “quietly gathered and analyzed information on activists of various stripes since its creation.”
But if authorities were collecting evidence on Connole he didn’t know it: When a black Mustang began tailing him in late August, he still had enough faith in the system that he turned to the police for help.
“I drive an electric golf cart,” Connole told me. “It only goes 25 miles per hour, so it became really obvious what was going on — I mean, most of the time in L.A. if you’re going that slow people are like, ‘Get out of the way!’” At one point, Connole even had the Yorba Linda police run the offending vehicle’s plates. “But it turned out the plate number didn’t exist, which probably meant it was a government official.”