Buckle Up for Terrorism

Multi-agency sweep results in major arrests . . . for not wearing seatbelts

Photo by James BunoanCall it a major victory in the War on Terror.

Over the May 15 and 16 weekend, a multi-agency surveillance operation involving the FBI and the Costa Mesa Police Department successfully prevented a group of radical animal-rights activists from staging a picnic at an Orange County park. In the process, several Costa Mesa police officers captured a car full of teenagers and charged them with a most heinous crime: conspiring to flout our nation's seatbelt laws.

Take that, al-Qaeda!

The anti-terror operation focused on Liberation Weekend, which included a conference at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law that drew anarchists and environmental activists from around the state. In Riverside, FBI agents arrested Robert Middaugh, an anarchist who goes by the nickname "Ruckus," as he drove to the conference with a tape recorder. Another activist, Nick Hensey, also missed the conference while being detained for several hours after police pulled over his car in Hollywood.

On May 16, the day after the conference, several activists drove to Hart Park in Orange, where they intended to have a picnic and play soccer. But upon arrival, a group of them discovered police had blocked off all entrances to the park. So activists decided to regroup at the Native Foods eatery in Costa Mesa.

Melissa Rodriguez, a 23-year-old activist from Anaheim who helped found an Earth First chapter in Orange County several months ago, said FBI agents followed her and other activists all weekend. "There were two undercover agents inside the restaurant," she said. While there, the group decided to cancel further events, and Rodriguez offered to drive several teenage activists to their homes.

But several minutes later, Costa Mesa police swooped down on Rodriguez at a nearby Chevron gas station. After ordering the occupants out of her car and confiscating a guitar case, the officers arrested three underage passengers for not wearing their seatbelts, two others for sharing a seatbelt. Police also cited Rodriguez for not wearing her seatbelt, unsafely loading her vehicle and failing to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of a home-address change.

"Technically, they were arrested," said Lt. John Fitzpatrick, a media relations officer with the Costa Mesa PD. "But the only reason they were taken into custody is that they didn't have identification. Once their parents were notified, we released them."

"It looked like a car full of hippies," said a waitress at a local bar who witnessed the arrests. "All these 16-year-old kids got of the car, and the police made them sit on the curb. One cop was screaming at the kids, yelling at them. It was ridiculous." The waitress said police handcuffed five of the passengers and put them in separate squad cars.

"There were seven or eight cop cars there, and we heard a helicopter above," she said. "It was like the police had caught a mass murderer or something. But when people found out they arrested these kids for not wearing their seatbelts, they were mocking the cops because they were acting like such fools. A couple of guys in the bar went outside and [sarcastically] started clapping for the cops, saying, 'Good job, officers!'"

According to Rodriguez, because some teen passengers were not carrying identification, police took them to the Costa Mesa police station, where they were held for several hours. Once they were released, she offered a ride home to five activists, while Jerry Friedman, a law student who helped organize the event, drove two others back to Los Angeles. After dropping off one activist in Antelope Valley, Rodriguez says she was on her way up to Crestline when she noticed seven cars were following her.

"We were almost to the top of the mountain, and they were really close to my car," she said. "Finally, they put on their red lights, and I heard, 'Melissa Rodriguez—pull over!' So I pulled off into a parking lot, and they surrounded my car."

When two FBI agents knocked on her window, she demanded to see their badges.

"They said they'd been following me all day and asked me why I was driving all over. I asked if I was being detained, and he said, 'No, but if you leave, we're following you.' They lived up to that promise and followed me all the way back to Jerry's house in Hawthorne and camped out there for the rest of the night."

Following the events of Sept. 11, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the War on Terror would extend to all groups that advocate violence, foreign or domestic, including animal-rights organizations perceived to be radical. A press relations official with the FBI's field office in Los Angeles refused to comment for this story, citing the agency's policy of not commenting on investigative activities.

"Everything amounts to an FBI conspiracy to suppress political activists, but we don't know that yet," said Friedman, who added that he is not a member of the animal-rights movement. "I don't find it surprising for the FBI and police to conduct surveillance. If they want to send agents to the conference, that's fine. But when they harass and arrest aboveground activists, that's going over the line. The FBI followed Melissa all night and interrogated her at 2 a.m. That would scare anybody."

Rodriguez said she believes the Costa Mesa arrests and the FBI tails were part of an ongoing effort to harass animal-rights activists that began last September, when the FBI arrested former Brea resident Josh Connole—and then released him without charges—in connection with an Earth Liberation Front arson of a local Humvee dealership. Although Rodriguez said she and other Earth First activists sympathize with whoever torched the auto dealership, they aren't personally involved in violent action.

"Those of us in the aboveground movement think the underground movement is helping realize our goals," she said. "We are definitely not critical of them, but none of us are engaged in anything like that. It would be so stupid because we're under so much surveillance. It is clear from the repression we witnessed during Liberation Weekend that the FBI wants to make it as difficult as possible for legitimate activists to organize for social change."

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