By Charles Lam
By R. Scott Moxley
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By HG Reza
Dressed in an orange jump suit, his red hair slicked back, he smiles patiently from the other side of a glass panel inside a second-story "visiting module" at the Orange County Men's Jail in Santa Ana. At the height of his glory days as an anarchist street revolutionary, Matt Lamont went by the nom de guerre "Rampage." He wore black, put on a hood to protect his identity, and protested police brutality and global capitalism in downtown Long Beach.
For the past year, Lamont has had a different identity: Orange County Men's Jail inmate No. 2057039. A deputy locks the door behind him, so nobody can attack him while he's on the telephone. It's a rare break from being locked in his cell all day to keep him away from the rest of the jail's population, especially the white inmates—many of whom, Lamont says, are Nazis who want to kill him.
It's not just that Lamont, who is white, has violated the Aryan Brotherhood's ban on hanging out with black inmates. It's not just that to ensure his protection while in jail, he converted to Islam, although that alone would be sufficient to put him on the Aryan Brotherhood's shit list. And it's not just that Lamont calls himself an anarchist, a member of a movement that has a reputation for getting into fistfights with skinheads.
No, these Nazis want to kill Lamont because, prosecutors allege, Lamont tried to kill a whole building full of Nazis. On April 20, 2002, the La Habra Police Department arrested Lamont on suspicion of attempting to blow up that city's Moose Lodge, where Aryan Nations members were planning to celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday.
To his supporters, most of whom know the wiry 21-year-old through the Long Beach anarchist collective where he used to live, Lamont is a political prisoner. They say his arrest and subsequent incarceration is proof that Long Beach police conspired to destroy their collective, the Info-Shop. They say police accomplished that by spying on activists like Lamont and taking advantage of post-Sept. 11 terrorism concerns to put them behind bars on trumped-up charges.
One thing that is obvious is that Lamont didn't get attached to anarchism by reading books by Goldberg or Chomsky. Instead, as seems to be the case with the rest of his cohorts, believing in anarchy simply meant rejecting all forms of authority—parents, teachers and especially cops. It translated his vague sense of frustration with capitalism and law enforcement into a way of life. Think of Mikhail Bakunin's description of a government-free society in which harmony would emerge from "free agreements," then add punk rock and a visceral hatred of cops and skinheads.
According to police, at least, it was enthusiasm for anarchy that led Lamont from Long Beach to La Habra on that April day.
* * *
Being accused of trying to kill Nazis may have boosted Lamont's credibility among some of his anarchist friends, but these days it could get him killed. Exactly how he ended up in such a predicament is a story that only he knows, and it's a tale that, for the most part, he refuses to tell. Last month, he received a three-year sentence after he pleaded no contest to charges of possessing a destructive device—a plastic jug full of gasoline that police found in the car he was in. (Since he has already been in jail for a year, however, he's likely to serve only eight more months behind bars.)
Because he's appealing the case, he won't say much, just that police pulled over the car he was traveling in because they were spying on his anarchist collective and that the traffic stop—as well as the subsequent search of his car—was illegal.
On that first point, a Long Beach Police Department incident report confirms Lamont's suspicions. The report details how police discovered that members of Aryan Nations were planning a birthday party for Hitler at La Habra's Moose Lodge. An anarchist group called the Anti-Racist Action found out about the event on April 19 and posted an Internet alert calling for activists to protest at the Moose Lodge. The report also shows that police monitored Internet conversations being carried out by "members of a small anarchist collective known as the Southern Kalifornia Anarchist Alliance (SKAA)."
The police apparently traced several of those conversations directly to the Info-Shop, where Lamont was living. "The postings were violent in tone and caused us to believe that members of SKAA were planning a violent confrontation with Aryan Nations members attending the event," the report states. The Long Beach police began watching the Info-Shop the following day.
"At approximately 1800 hours, a white Acura . . . parked in a lot near the Info-Shop," the report continues. "Two white male subjects exited the car and walked toward the Info-Shop, where they met a member of SKAA we know as Matthew Lamont (a.k.a. Rampage). . . . Matthew Lamont left the Info-Shop with the subjects in the white Acura and when he walked from the Info-Shop to the car, he was carrying what appeared to be an empty one-gallon plastic milk-type jug and a three-gallon plastic water-type jug."
The police followed the Acura to the Unitarian Church in Anaheim. "The church was hosting a hardcore punk concert, and there were numerous subjects standing around the parking lot when our subjects arrived," the report says. About an hour later, police saw Lamont leave the concert with another anarchist, Maxwell Lucas, who was driving the Acura. They followed the car to a Ralphs grocery store and waited while Lucas and Lamont went inside. When they came out 15 minutes later, one of the detectives thought he saw a bulge in Lamont's baggy pants that wasn't there when he went in the store.
From there, the officers followed the Acura north on the 57 freeway, then west along Imperial Highway. They briefly lost sight of the car but then spotted it at a gas station along La Habra Boulevard. The police report states that the detectives couldn't see if Lamont and Lucas were pumping gas into the car or something else. Either way, the police followed the car for several more minutes and concluded, "based on the path the subjects were taking, that they were going to the Moose Lodge, which was the scheduled location of the Aryan Nations party."
At that point, the police detectives contacted the La Habra Police Department and prepared to stop the Acura. But the car drove past the lodge. By the time police actually stopped the vehicle, the Acura had crossed out of La Habra and entered the Los Angeles County city of Whittier. Inside the car, the police found a one-gallon plastic jug full of gasoline and a "sponge soaked in gasoline that had two birthday-type candles stuck in it."
The detective who wrote the report added that the police "had received a newsletter put out by SKAA that had a picture of a similar device. The newsletter labeled the device a 'milk jug' incendiary device. The picture of the jug was hand-drawn and had the words 'BIG BOOM BRAND WATER' written across the front of the jug. The only difference between the drawing and the actual device was the drawing described the flammable material as kerosene rather than gasoline."
James Simmons, Lamont's defense attorney, says the traffic stop was illegal and that police failed to provide any explanation for the stop besides their suspicions about what Lamont was doing in La Habra. Anyway, he argued, the Hitler birthday party had been canceled, so there was nobody at the Moose Lodge for Lamont to harm.
"Matt and everyone else knew the Moose Lodge had denied [Aryan Nations] the right to hold the event there," Simmons asserted. "They followed him to a concert at a church, to a store, to a gas station. And as they went past where the event was to take place, they kept on going. The police were running out of reasons to stop him at that point. They had no reason other than curiosity to see what they were up to."
Simmons refused to offer an explanation for the gasoline jug and gas-soaked, candle-embedded sponges found in the Acura. But he asserted that such materials don't necessarily constitute a bomb. "Even if it was some kind of destructive device, what were they going to do with it?" he asked. "It was not a Molotov cocktail in a breakable container that, if you throw it, causes an explosion. There are laws against carrying gasoline in an unapproved container. They could have charged him with that, but they chose not to."
According to Simmons, he urged Lamont to plead no contest to possession of a destructive device so that he can challenge the traffic stop in his appeal. He thinks a jury trial would have been a mistake.
"The climate in this country is such that if you say 'terrorism' and 'bomb,' people think of Sept. 11 and Osama bin Laden," Simmons argued. "This just made us decide this is not the time to go to trial. It is truly unfortunate because, looking at the facts and the law, this was an illegal stop and an illegal search, but the judge refused to suppress the evidence from that search. Again, I think it's the political climate. Do you want to be the judge who sets an 'anarchist terrorist bomber' free in Orange County, America, at this time?"
Lamont refused several invitations to say where he was going in the Acura but was quick to point out that he was pulled over in Whittier—heading away from the Moose Lodge and La Habra. "When they pulled us over, the gang-unit detective said to me, 'We know who you are. You're from Long Beach, and you're on informal probation,'" a reference to Lamont's previous arrest stemming from an ill-fated May Day rally in Long Beach the year before.
"I told them, 'So what if we have a gallon of gas in our car,'" Lamont recalled. "'It's legal. Go ahead and arrest me.' I figured I'd be out of there in three days. I ended up being in jail for a year."
* * *
Because he's in total separation at the Men's Jail, Lamont is not allowed out of his cell on regular visiting days, which for the jail's general population run from Thursday through Saturday. It takes the deputies at least an hour to locate him to authorize a reporter's visit, then a watch commander has to sign off on the request, which tends to add another hour or two to the wait time. Such delays don't seem to bother Lamont, who counts time in weeks and months, not hours or minutes.
"In here, time doesn't really exist," he said, shrugging. "They've had me on 46-hour lockdown. I just sit in my cell all day, read and talk to other inmates through the air vents." He said he has been reading a lot of books about "political movements," including a history of the Irish Republican Army, a text called Hamas: Political Theory and Practice, and Soledad Brother: Prison Writings of George Jackson. He has even found time to read City of Quartz by Mike Davis, which he said was "a really good" book.
But most of Lamont's energy goes into not getting killed by Nazis.
"The Nazis got word of why I was arrested, and they're not too pleased with it," he said. "I've had death threats in here; they're uncountable. A race traitor is what they consider me." So Lamont discussed with a black inmate his delicate situation regarding the Nazis. His black friend told him to speak with another inmate, a member of the Rolling 90s Crips street gang, who slapped Lamont on the shoulder and told him, congratulations, he was now an honorary Muslim.
"So I've read the Koran, studied their culture and learned what I need to survive up in prison," Lamont said. "It's a good religion. It promotes classlessness, and, back in the day, it was good for women. It's more progressive than Christianity. I don't know about God, though."
Lamont's conversion may ensure that he can roll with African American inmates once he reaches state prison in a few days, but it has made him even more of a target for Nazi outrage. "They saw a Koran on my table and told me, 'You're worshipping a nigger God,'" he recalled. "They try to get you while you're eating chow. It's really easy to stick someone without anyone knowing. They can pop off a whole race riot just to get you.
"The Orange County Jail is a brutal jail," he said. He alleged that deputies had beaten him up three weeks before and later brought a skinhead to his cell. "They told him that I tried to blow up an Aryan Nations birthday party for Adolf Hitler," Lamont said.
Things have gotten so touchy inside the jail that Lamont says he's looking forward to serving out the rest of his sentence at a state prison. He says he has even gotten advice from ex-Nazis on how to avoid getting killed.
"Six months isn't much time for the Nazis to do anything," he said. "If anything happens, I'll just hit them before they can get me and spend my time in the hole and not get killed. It won't be that fun, but hopefully it will work out."
* * *
The animosity between Lamont and the Nazis is no match for the bad blood between him and the police. It's unclear how he grew to hate cops so much, because he was unwilling to discuss much of his life leading up to 2001, when he started living with other anarchists at the Info-Shop in Long Beach. But it's clear that, for a suburban-bred anarchist, Lamont had a fairly typical upbringing.
He was born on Aug. 3, 1981, to an American mother and a Scottish-born father whom he described as "Christian conservatives." (His parents declined to be interviewed for this story.) As a child growing up in a lower-middle-class suburb of Garden Grove, he used to play guns with his brother, who later joined the U.S. Air Force. The two would run around shooting at invisible enemies; Lamont says that's how he first got the nickname Rampage.
By the time he attended Santiago High School, his relationship with his parents had soured. Lamont said he was expelled from school for "making a political statement" but refused to elaborate. From there, he said, he "bounced around a lot" and lived on the streets. "I used to sell drugs and whatever to survive," he said. "Later, I learned that dealing drugs is bad for the community. But back then, I was relatively aimless. I saw a lot of fucked-up shit. I got beat up by the police a lot."
At one point, Lamont got a job "working construction on rich people's houses in Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda" but said he was fired because he "wasn't very good at the job." His next job was finding computer print cartridges for customers at an office-supply store in Garden Grove.
"There was an Asian guy working there who didn't speak much English and the boss kept making fun of him," Lamont claimed. "The guy hurt his back on the job, and his doctor gave him a note, but the boss told him if he didn't come to work, he was out of a job."
So Lamont tried to organize a union. "But when the chips fell, people got scared," he asserted. "The company scared them into voting no on the union. The people that stuck to the campaign got laid off." The layoffs included Lamont, who said he could no longer pay rent on his apartment. "So I kicked it on the streets," he said. "That's when I got involved in the revolutionary struggle."
Lamont said he first heard about anarchism from a person he met on a bus who told him that people were organizing an anarchism conference in Long Beach. "I started learning stuff, and the more I learned about the system, the more I hated it. I figured, what's wrong with fighting back? The system is starving people. It's in their interest to have a pool of surplus labor. If they're going to starve people, why not rob a bank and re-appropriate the money?"
Instead of robbing a bank, on May 1, 2001, Lamont and more than 100 other anarchists descended on downtown Long Beach to celebrate May Day by calling for an end to global capitalism. Roughly 300 police—carrying riot batons and armed with rifles—surrounded the protesters and ordered them to disperse. When the group refused, the police herded the crowd into a corner and shot dozens of protesters with rubber bullets.
"I got shot at but not hurt because I had protection on," Lamont said. "They tried to say I was affiliated with the Black Bloc gang"—a reference to SKAA, whom police believed had organized the rally. Lamont laughs at the notion. "The Black Bloc isn't a gang; it's a tactic," he said. As for SKAA, Lamont said, "To be real with you, homie, it doesn't exist. People would just throw that name around. Nobody knows who organized the May Day rally."
What about Lamont? Does he know?
"I wouldn't say if I did," he answered.
After the shooting stopped, Lamont and 91 other anarchists were thrown in jail and forced to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse. He paid a fine and went back to fighting the system. In November 2001, he helped open the Info-Shop on Redondo Avenue in Long Beach. Lamont said he used his meager construction skills to repair the building's roof. For $1,200 per month, he and several other anarchists made the center their home while they tried to organize the community. They gave out free anarchist pamphlets, established a Food Not Bombs program that provided free food to homeless people, gave out free clothes, and tried to start a Long Beach chapter of the anti-police brutality organization Cop Watch.
"We were really trying to break things down to the bread-and-butter issues: police brutality, food, housing, and shit like that," Lamont said. "That's the reason why the police came down on us. They wanted to shut us down. They tried to get us evicted. They will stop at nothing to keep people from improving their community."
It's possible Lamont became of particular interest to the Long Beach police as a result of a Long Beach Press-Telegram article that appeared shortly after the Info-Shop opened. The article featured a photograph of Lamont but identified him only as Rampage.
"The police don't like me because I believe that communities need to police themselves, not have the police coming into areas and occupying them," he argued. "The way the police operate is no different than the way the Israelis do in Palestine. It's neocolonialism. They have certain sections in this country like ghettos where they view the people they're supposed to protect as enemies. That's what I'm trying to do with my life: kick these motherfuckers out."
* * *
If anyone can relate to what Matt Lamont is going through in jail, it's his friend Sherman Austin, a freelance web developer who lives at the Info-Shop and used to run the anarchist website raisethefist.com. In January 2002, a team of law-enforcement agents from the FBI, Secret Service and ATF confiscated his computers and a stack of literature.
When he traveled to New York to demonstrate against the World Economic Forum a few weeks later, he was arrested and charged under the USA Patriot Act with distributing information about manufacturing explosives on the Internet. Austin's case is still pending because the judge rejected a guilty plea that would have given him only a month in federal prison. He faces a sentencing hearing on June 30 and expects to serve up to a year.
Sitting on a metal chair in the Info-Shop, Austin absent-mindedly twisted his dreadlocks and tried to remember when he first met Lamont. "I think I met him on May Day 2001 in Long Beach when 92 of us were arrested," Austin said. "I had heard about the Info-Shop from a friend who was part of the collective." Austin started hanging out at the Info-Shop and began working with Lamont.
"We tried to do meetings with the truckers at the port and did Food Not Bombs," Austin said. "A lot of homeless people knew him. When he was at the Info-Shop, if anyone came in, he would talk to them. He was always sharing ideas, getting into intellectual conversations. That's all he did. I'm sure he had radical viewpoints and stuff like that, but it's not like he was drawing up plans to blow stuff up."
According to Austin, the Long Beach Police Department has constantly harassed Info-Shop residents—and often its visitors. "I've seen gang-enforcement units park directly in front of the door and watch people come in and out. Cops would videotape the place. . . . Several times, I would leave the Info-Shop, and I would get followed by an officer and get a ticket."
On one such occasion, Austin said, it was clear that the officer who stopped him knew who he was and where he lived. "They gave me a bike-light ticket and had me there for a half-hour talking about why I hated cops. People would get followed to their houses or apartments if they dressed a certain way, even if they weren't affiliated with the Info-Shop. The police would search them or question them. One kid was crying because the cops had him on the ground and had a gun at his head and were asking him questions about the Info-Shop."
Austin said the last time he saw Lamont was April 20, 2002, the night he was arrested by La Habra police. "He called me later that night and said he was in jail," he recalled. "I think the traffic stop was politically motivated. He was previously targeted. If he was an ordinary person on the street, he wouldn't be in jail right now."
One of Lamont's biggest supporters—who asked to be identified only by her first name, Rosalinda—has helped organize numerous benefit concerts to raise money for Lamont's legal defense. She says she learned not to announce the nature of the benefit in advance because the cops would typically show up and shut down the show.
"I sincerely believe that Matt did not intend to hurt anybody that night," Rosalinda said. "I've known Matt for a few years, and the accusations seem completely out of character. I think Matt was targeted because he was an effective and uncompromising activist. The circumstances surrounding his arrest indicate that Long Beach detectives went out of their way to target and silence him."
Besides raising money for his defense, Rosalinda also attended Lamont's trial. "The judge herself admitted that the stop was illegal," she claimed. "Most of the 'evidence' amounted to items that anyone could be carrying in the trunk of a car on any given day. A fair trial was not possible, given current sentiment and the conservative political climate of Orange County. In light of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, many Americans are feeling ultra-patriotic, and any acts of dissent, or any 'crime' that can be misconstrued as a terrorist act, is going to be met with extreme bias."
"I knew him really well," said Lamont supporter Sheila Ketabian, who said Lamont was "one of my best friends. He got totally fucked over and is paying the consequences." However, Ketabian said Lamont was one of the most militant of the anarchists who lived at the Info-Shop, and she isn't exactly surprised that he ended up in jail. She said Lamont's poltics tended to alienate even many of his fellow anarchists. "He is definitely one of the crazy ones," she said.
"Hardly anyone in the anarchist movement agreed with his politics," Ketabian continued. "Everyone was weirded-out by the things he would say and how aggressive and militant he was. He liked to protest and provoke riots and was confrontational. He had a really good heart but was a little on the crazy side. He never really did anything, though; it was 99 percent talk. But that's what got the attention of the police. He liked to tell random people that came into the Info-Shop things like, 'Fuck the pigs,' stuff like that—crazy, aggressive things. He tended to freak people out."
Ketabian says she no longer has anything to do with the Info-Shop. "I think it has just been tainted by this whole police-repression thing," she said. "It's dead now. We can't do anything, not even good things like Food Not Bombs. I just want to finish school and forget about it for a while and do my own thing. A lot of other people have quit, too. They're just burned-out on it."
* * *
The Info-Shop, a purple one-story storefront wedged between a real-estate office and a hair salon on Redondo Avenue, recently changed its name to Reach Center. In one corner, there's a desk with a computer that offers free Internet access. Beer cans are stacked up against one of the walls of the center, ready for recycling. Flies buzz in the air, which is heavy with the odor of human urine. The back door is painted with a skull and crossbones and the motto "Dead Capitalists Tell No Tales."
Inside, a handful of anarchists pile clothes into plastic bags and inventory their bookstore, which mostly consists of cheaply produced pamphlets on anarchism and a smattering of political science and general literature paperbacks. They have to sell the books because, on May 3, they're being evicted, thanks to repeated noise complaints.
The eviction seems to spell the end for any kind of anarchist collective in Long Beach. Austin said he and other residents have no plans to reopen the Reach Center somewhere else. According to the sign on the front door, the Reach Center is already "permanently" closed. "The attorney prosecutor, hand in hand with the pigs, have gotten us evicted," the sign states. "On April 26, there will be an "everything must go sale and dance party that night."
By the time Reach Center's eviction party gets under way, Matt Lamont will be on his way to a state prison somewhere in California. The fact that the Reach Center won't be there waiting for him when he gets out left him momentarily speechless.
"It's because of these pigs, man," he finally said. "We can't do shows at the Info-Shop anymore; we can't even congregate there. It's too much heat. I guess I don't see the point of the place anymore either. I mean, what's the point? It's hard to believe how far they'll go to shut a place down and keep it from voicing dissent."
Lamont didn't seem shocked that many his fellow anarchists have dropped out of the movement and that one of his friends didn't want his name mentioned in this story for fear of reprisals by the police. "That guy won't even talk to me," he said. "But I don't blame people for getting freaked-out. People used to say the place was bugged, and I would try not to be paranoid. Then I saw in my police report that the officers were following me around with a video camera. It makes me wonder what will happen when I get out of prison."
Lamont has good reason to worry about life after prison, especially because he says he plans to step up his crusade against the police—with or without the rest of his friends from the Reach Center. "I want to get the fuck out of here and get back to work, harassing the police," he said, chuckling. "That means more articles for you and more jail time for me.
"The bottom line is this country has to change," he added after a long pause. "Time is running out for America. We're a whole new generation. Me, I'm prepared to go to prison. I'm prepared to die. I'm only 21 years old. I have plenty of life to throw away."