Seven police cars lined the street, a helicopter circled
overhead, and seven people stood in handcuffs. To a passerby,
this looked like a scene from America’s Most Wanted:
Maybe the police had caught a group of mass murderers, or
drugs smugglers, or Al-Qaeda operatives.
The outlaws, though, were a group of rogue activists who…
didn’t buckle up.
The seatbelt-less scoundrels say they were just a few of
the targets of a law enforcement harassment campaign in California
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 from varied
social movements to discuss “building a revolutionary
movement in the United States,” organizers say.
Since September 11, Bush’s War on Terrorism has led
to an increasingly harsh crackdown on civil liberties. The
string of bizarre arrests in California, activists say, are
just part of a larger, coordinated effort meant to silence
Melissa Rodriguez, a co-organizer of the conference, received
a phone call from friends in Orange County on Sunday, who
said they were being followed by unmarked police cars. Her
friends were upset, she says, so she and a group of other
activists piled in her car to go keep them company.
Soon after, she was pulled over by a Costa Mesa police officer,
along with six other police cars, and a helicopter hovering
Citing seatbelt violations, police put the bunch in handcuffs,
and led them to separate police cars for interrogation.
Police searched Rodriguez’s car, without her consent,
and confiscated a guitar. The activists were then taken to
the police station, booked, and fingerprinted—for not
A spokesperson for the Costa Mesa police department did not
return telephone calls seeking comment.
When Rodriguez left the police station to drop off activists
at their homes, several police cars followed. At the final
house, Rodriguez was pulled over by an FBI agent and told
to step out of the car. The agent said that the officers who
searched her car earlier found political posters and a propane
tank, and he asked what she was doing that weekend.
“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, adding that she had a small propane tank in the
trunk from a recent camping trip. They stayed true to their
word, and followed Rodriguez to her friend’s house,
where the agents parked outside all night.
The seatbelt crackdown wasn’t the only questionable
law enforcement act over 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. In an email, she said
she was asked by police if they were going to the conference
in Los Angeles, and she told them, “no comment.”
One of the passengers did not have identification, so they
were all taken into custody until Sunday morning; as a result,
they missed the conference.
On his way to the conference, Nik Hensey, an activist from
Los Angeles, was pulled over by the LAPD. Police, with guns
drawn, told him to put his hands in the air and step out of
the car. They said his vehicle “matched a description,”
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 a lock on his laptop, he says.
When he left the station several hours later, police followed
him to the conference. And when he left the conference, police
followed him again.
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,”
“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.”
Will Potter is a freelance reporter in Washington, D.C.
He has written for the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News,
and Chronicle of Higher Education, and closely follows how
the War on Terrorism affects civil liberties.