“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.
An impounded car has been the least of Austin‘s worries. In January, his home was surrounded by FBI, Secret Service and ATF agents with guns drawn. His computers, from which he administered the Web site raisethefist.com, and political literature were seized. He was arrested soon after while attending the World Economic Forum protests in New York, and charged by federal agents with distributing information on the manufacture of explosives over the Internet. He was questioned for nine hours. “It was nothing you couldn’t find in any library,” Austin said. Deemed a threat to the community, he was denied bail. “They basically said I was a man on a mission who drove 3,000 miles to New York to carry out his plans and that I was going to drive to Salt Lake City to the Olympics to carry out my plan to blow shit up.” All charges were dropped because of lack of evidence, and Austin was released after 13 days in federal custody.
Long Beach police would not explicitly confirm that they were investigating anarchist activists, but police spokesman Officer David Marander did say that “Anarchist groups are typically surveilled by law-enforcement agencies across the United States, not only because of their goals, but particularly after September 11 — people expect that now. We wouldn‘t be doing our jobs if we weren’t investigating that type of group.” Asked about the selective enforcement that anarchists say constitutes harassment (the jaywalking tickets and car impoundings), Marander said, “We have to enforce the laws across the board,” and pointed out that last month was Pedestrian Awareness Month, and “one of our focuses is jaywalking.”
At Sunday‘s news conference, four unmarked cars filled with Long Beach gang-enforcement officers were parked in and around Lincoln Park. Driving to the park, Candace Khaokham, who was intending to share the podium with Kearns and Ketabian, was pulled over by police. One of her windows had been smashed during a break-in, and the officers said they stopped her because “They didn’t know if I stole the car.” Her friends were searched and she was held about half an hour, she said, long enough to miss most of the event. “I didn‘t mention we were coming here,” Khaokham said, “but they asked me, ’Are you part of that protest?‘”
While she was held up, police lingering at the edge of the park issued a citation to Matt Martinez, another Infoshop habitue, for spitting on the sidewalk. Asked why members of a gang unit were monitoring a news conference, Officer Hector Gutierrez responded, “What does ’monitoring‘ mean? This is a regular working day. We’re just cruising by.”