By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Coyotl Tezcalipoca wanted to wrap up his speech with a dramatic flourish, and a police chokehold helped him get there more quickly.
On Jan. 3, Tezcalipoca, a 25-year-old from Santa Ana, stood before the Costa Mesa City Council and berated them for approving a motion that would allow the city's police to check on anyone's immigration status. Proponents and other opponents of the ordinance also spoke that night. Most used the full three minutes Mayor Allan Mansoor allowed for public comments.
But just a little over two minutes into Tezcalipoca's speech, Mansoor cut him off. "I'm not finished," Tezcalipoca protested. Three officers quickly surrounded the podium; Tezcalipoca turned to leave but stopped short when one of the officers grabbed his arm. "Don't touch me!" Tezcalipoca told the officers. The stand-off lasted briefly, until Costa Mesa Police Chief John Hensley, dressed in something like a baby blue Hollywood Suit Broker ensemble, leaned into the little circle and said something to his men. The three officers suddenly, forcefully grabbed Tezcalipoca and removed him from the council chambers. KABC-TV video shows they placed him in a chokehold and dragged him into the Costa Mesa Jail (conveniently located next door) as an officer kneeled on Tezcalipoca's back (see video of the incident here; link courtesy of immigrationwatchdog.com). Officers booked him on suspicion of disturbing an assembly, interfering with a council meeting and resisting an officer.
Tezcalipoca faces a Feb. 3 court date in Orange County Superior Court. That same day, Los Angeles resident Hugo Sarmiento will appear for a trial-setting hearing. He's charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor for allegedly throwing a full Shasta Cola can at police officers during a May 25 protest in Garden Grove following a speech by Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist.
Local activists and the Orange County chapter of the ACLU are monitoring both cases closely. They fear that a conviction in either will chill the growing number of young Latinos who counterprotest anti-immigrant groups like the Minuteman Project across Southern California. But it may be too late: as the stories of both Sarmiento and Tezcalipoca show, law-enforcement officials are already working hard to squash the movement before it blooms.
The evidence that such an effort is under way includes police statements. On Dec. 12, Garden Grove police officer Charles Loffler appeared in Orange County Superior Court for his deposition. He was there to testify against Sarmiento as the district attorney's sole witness.
Under oath, Loffler told the court he "watched [Sarmiento] and stayed with him" throughout the protest. "I was his shadow," he boasted. Loffler even ran alongside Sarmiento when police officers chased protesters.
How did the six-year veteran cop escape the notice of the protesters? He was masquerading as one of them that night.
"I was in the crowd dressed in plainclothes along with several demonstrators that were there that day," Loffler told Deputy District Attorney Marc Lebreche. Five to 10 other Garden Grove officers were also undercover, according to Loffler. Loffler justified his department's actions by noting his department was briefed on a May 14 demonstration in Baldwin Park where someone allegedly threw a water bottle at an elderly white woman.
Under cross-examination, Sarmiento's lawyer, Tom Stanley, asked Loffler if he engaged in any protest activities—if he chanted, for instance, or raised his fist in the air or held signs. Deputy DA Lebreche objected. Judge Nho Trong Nguyen overruled. Stanley asked Loffler again. Lebreche objected. Judge Nguyen overruled.
"I think if the officer tried to enrage the crowd and entice the crowd to participate in what the officer did as a demonstrator," Judge Nguyen told Lebreche, "that is entrapment."
Stanley asked Loffler again.
"I believe at one point [protesters] were chanting or saying 'No justice, no peace,' and I think I did actually say that in my role in an undercover capacity," Loffler admitted.
"How did you speak?" Stanley asked Loffler. "Did you speak with the same tone of voice as the demonstrators?"
"As everybody else," Loffler replied.
"As everybody else?"
"And the same words and same conduct, basically?"
It's believed to be the first time an Orange County police department has admitted to its officers posing as activists, a revelation that doesn't surprise Duane Roberts.
Roberts, a longtime county activist, helped organize the May 25 protest and acted as a liaison between demonstrators and the police. He's used to dealing with undercover cops at rallies. "In a lot of demonstrations that I've organized, we've been able to root out individuals on clothing, appearance and behavior that we've determined to be police officers," says Roberts. "I think in many respects the police overreact and they tend to go overboard and they have these illusions and fantasies that people involved in these demonstrations are terrorists."
Roberts was also the liaison between activists and police officers at the Jan. 3 Costa Mesa City Council meeting. The police response still has him shaken. "During the past decade, I've been to more than 200 meetings of city councils, school boards and other public bodies, and I have never seen anybody so forcibly removed," he says. "Never. It's clear to me that Mayor Mansoor felt threatened by Coyotl's presence. I get the impression that Mansoor doesn't like if people oppose the policies that he put forth. He took personal offense at this."