Santa Ana resident and warehouse worker Naui Huitzilopochtli has been pepper-sprayed, kicked, threatened and insulted for recording with his digital camera. But on Dec. 28, his citizen journalism got him another unexpected treat: being shaken down and probably added to a gang database by Garden Grove police, he says.
Huitzilopochtli, whose documentation of rallies involving anti-immigration group the Minutemen has sometimes ended in near-violence at the hands of angry protesters, says he pulled out his camera after noticing a police stop in Garden Grove at around 11 that night.
Huitzilopochtli, who says he has had bad personal experiences with police officers in the past, began documenting the stop. According to Huitzilopochtli, nearly 20 officers were searching and detaining six Hispanic men in a white SUV.
When the officers noticed him filming, he says, some of them approached, searched him, made him take off his shirt, took down his information, made fun of him when he tried to assert his rights and called him a gang member.
The worst part, according to Huitzilopochtli, is that one of the officers erased the video, which, he says, is a blatant violation of his First Amendment rights.
ACLU of Southern California staff attorney Peter Bibring, who specializes in police actions, says erasing the video was clearly against the law. "There's no circumstance under which erasing the video would be legal," he says.
Garden Grove Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Todd Elgin doesn't deny Huitzilopochtli's version of events, but he does say that the officer didn't know how to work the camera and erased the video by mistake. He says police took extra precautions when one of the men in the SUV—which was stopped because one of the men allegedly waved a gun at two off-duty Long Beach police officers—indicated that Huitzilopochtli was with them.
Elgin says Huitzilopochtli was only searched because the officers needed to ensure their safety and was only told to remove his shirt to check for tattoos indicating gang affiliation, of which Huitzilopochtli has none.
But Bibring says the officers acted improperly and violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
"If they had reason to suspect he was armed, they can pat him down," he says. "Unless they have concrete reasons to believe a crime has been committed, they don't have the right to search him."
Huitzilopochtli believes the officers invented the story about one of the detainees claiming to know him as an excuse to detain him, he says. Although there were others standing around witnessing the stop, he says, it was his camera that attracted the police attention.
"The way I took it is, they were harassing me to try to humiliate me. You know, like try to scare me off," he says. "I think they were doing something wrong, or why would they come all hostile to me like that? There's more to the story."
Although Huitzilopochtli complained in person later that evening at the Garden Grove Police Department headquarters, Elgin says, he did not file a formal complaint.
"Honestly, the guy's been given every opportunity to complain," Elgin says. "I can't do anything unless I have some kind of complaint form in my hands."
Huitzilopochtli, who says he often protests for the rights of indigenous people, first got the idea to start filming such events after he was caught on film, he says. At a protest about a year and a half ago, one of the Minutemen protesters took his disposable camera, he says. Then they caught his very emotional response and posted it on YouTube, along with ridiculing comments.
Huitzilopochtli says he turned the camera back on them to expose them for what he believes they are: a fringe group of extremists.
"I try to get the other Minutemen that you don't see because they try to pretend they're this civilized, mainstream group," he says.
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One of Huitzilopochtli's "greatest hits" was a widely circulated clip of Santa Ana schoolchildren chanting "Mexico!" at a group of Minutemen last year (see Daffodil J. Altan's "What's Illegal?" May 25).
Minuteman supporter Brook "The Watchdog" Young, whom Huitzilopochtli claims attacked him with pepper spray at a September protest in Simi Valley, declined by e-mail to be interviewed by the Weekly.
"Of all the things in Southern California you could write about, you've chosen Naui [Huitzilopochtli]? You're really scraping the bottom," he wrote. "I guess the OC Weekly has to have something to fill the pages between the liposuction and escort advertisements."