Activists Arrested at Liberation Weekend
from No Compromise Issue 24

By Will Potter

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 dissent.

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 overhead.

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 wearing seatbelts.

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 says.

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,” 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.”

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.