Matt OttoBy all accounts, the protest in Newport Beach's West Oceanfront neighborhood during the late evening of Aug. 21 was a disaster. Almost as soon as it started, a scuffle broke out between environmental activists and several neighbors, and an unidentified group seized the opportunity to smash several windows at David Eadie's beachfront home.
Chaos ensued and as protesters scattered, police rounded up nine minors and seven adults, most of them members of Orange County Earth First!, a radical environmental group formed a year ago to protest upcoming real estate development in San Juan Capistrano. Eadie is the president of the Newport Beach-based Rutter Development Corporation, which plans to replace 56 acres of old-growth oak forest in Trabuco Canyon with high-priced homes.
Although the minors were released to their parent's custody, five adult activists spent four days at the Orange County Jail, where they staged a hunger strike. They were released on Aug. 24 after prosecutors declined to file charges of vandalism, citing lack of evidence. The seven adults could still be charged in the melee, said Newport Beach Police Sergeant Steve Shulman.
"This wasn't a protest," Shulman said. "This was a group of people going out to a residence to do damage. They surrounded the house, banging on the walls. Several windows of the home were broken, including a garage door window. Then the police showed up and they ran . . . People who come to Newport Beach to destroy property are going to go to jail."
Melissa Rodriguez, 23, spent four days behind bars. She said the protest was intended to kick off a weekend of rallying activists to the cause of saving Trabuco Canyon from bulldozers. On June 21, an Orange County judge threw out the Rural Canyon Conservation Fund's legal challenge opposing the development.
"They will bulldoze between 500 and 1,000 oak trees," Rodriguez said. "The area is so crucial because it provides a corridor between the Trabuco Canyon wilderness area and the Cleveland National Forest. These CEOs have no idea what their projects mean to the community. I thought if we went there with our signs and chants we'd be able to get the message across in a peaceful way. That was our intention."
"I was there to make sure everything was under control," said Nicholas Hensey, 25, an amateur videographer and activist, though he claimed no membership in Earth First! "I was taking up the rear with the video camera because there were stragglers and aggressive neighbors. By the time I got to the front, I heard windows being broken. I saw people running and people looking confused. There was a neighbor struggling to grab the megaphone."
Hensey said whoever broke the windows had already run away by the time police arrived and that several police officers tackled him and pushed his face to the ground, smashing his camera in the process. After handcuffing him, police called an ambulance and he was taken to Hoag Hospital, where doctors put six stitches in his chin.
Later, Hensey joined Rodriguez and three other activists—20-year-old Paul Barron and 19-year-olds Timothy Wright and Hector Ventura—at the Orange County Jail. Rodriguez and Hensey say police pressed them for information about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an underground organization that years ago split from Earth First! and has more recently claimed responsibility for a string of arson attacks against Southern California Humvee dealerships and real-estate development firms in California and Arizona.
"They kept calling me the master elf—as in ELF—because I am 25 years old and most of the protesters were just teenagers who had never been at a demonstration before," Hensey said. "I said, 'You would be lucky if this is the way the ELF operated.' This was a public protest. If somebody wanted to take out Eadie's house, it wouldn't be there."
Rodriguez said police also accused her of being a member of ELF. "It is just their way of politicizing everything so they can come after us as terrorists," she said. "People think the money for fighting the war on terror is being used to fight people who blow up buildings, but it's being used against us."
Rodriguez and Hensey are friends with Josh Connole, a former Brea resident who was arrested by FBI agents last September—and then released without charges—in connection with vandalism at Humvee dealerships in the San Gabriel Valley that the ELF later took responsibility for. Rodriguez and Hensey were also involved in Orange County Earth First!'s ill-fated May 15-16 Liberation Weekend, which was cut short after Costa Mesa Police arrested Rodriguez and several others on their way to a protest and charged them with not wearing seatbelts (see "Buckle Up For Terrorism," May 28).
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"Since Liberation Weekend, the cops are always at my house, and the FBI has been heavily involved," Rodriguez claimed. "At the protest in Newport Beach, there was a guy in plain clothes who said he was in charge and wanted to know everybody's names. Nobody would talk to him because he wouldn't show his badge, so he walked off."
Prosecutors can still press felony charges of vandalism and conspiracy to commit vandalism against the seven adults who were arrested at West Oceanfront. But Rodriguez and Hensey said they planned to continue to organize protests to protect oak forests in Trabuco Canyon and welcome law enforcement to try to stop them.
"Maybe the police will scare a few people into inactivity, but most of us have just been strengthened in our resolve," Hensey said. "I hope they screw with me more because they will come up with nothing and not go after the people who are really doing something. It's that much less money going after people who are engaging in illegal activity—and who I whole-heartedly support."