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Exposed: Undercover Agents at Occupy Austin Entrapped Protesters, Endangered Activists

How far should the police go for a conviction?

Activists with Occupy Austin revealed Wednesday that an Austin Police Department detective’s entrapment led to the seven arrests on Dec. 12, 2011, during the Gulf Port Action in Houston, Texas. The seven protesters are facing up to two years in state prison, and one activist, Iraq war veteran Eric Marquez , has been in jail since December as a result of the charges.

The nationwide December 12 action originated in Oakland, when Occupy activists called for the shutdown of the ports to show solidarity with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which was embroiled in a labor dispute. In Houston, 20 people chose to lie down at the entry to the main office of the port. Seven of these protesters used lockboxes called "sleeping dragons," which are segements of PVC pipes used to link their arms together. Lockboxes, which originated during the early environmental movement, are a common tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience that is used to slow down arrests and prolong blockades since lockboxes force officers to cut protesters out with power tools.

The Austin arrests drew national attention because the police placed a large red tent over the seven activists as they were extracted from the lockboxes. Activists and their lawyers asserted that law enforcement used the tent to conceal their actions from the media, while Houston officials claimed the tent was used to contain sparks produced as the lockboxes were sawed apart. Activists also claimed that both inside and outside the tent, officers illegally covered their names and badge numbers with tape. 

The seven activists involved in the lockdown were initially charged with a Texas state felony, unlawful use of a criminal instrument , which carries up to two years in state prison. The charge is an antiquated and little-used Texas law that the state wrote in efforts to shut down movie theaters showing the X-rated film Deepthroat in the early 1970s. According to National Lawyers Guild attorney and former Texas ACLU president Greg Gladden, the charge was designed to turn the movie projectors showing the illcit film into “criminal instruments.”

In mid-December, a judge dismissed the charges against the seven activists, ruling that the lockbox does not meet the legal requirements in order to be considered a criminal instrument. Later that month, the Houston District Attorney brought the case in front of a Harris County grand jury that re-indicted the seven on the same felony charge.

As the activists awaited their court date, they received an anonymous email about an Occupy Austin member they knew as "Butch." Received on February 2, the email stated that Butch was actually an undercover cop named Shannon. Ronnie Garza, one of the seven protesters arrested during the Gulf Port action, started researching possible APD detectives with that name. Using various Web sites, public records and even old yearbook photos, Garza discovered that Butch was actually an Austin police department narcotics detective named Shannon G. Dowell.

Garza remembers Dowell's presence at Occupy Austin before the port action. 

“He was coming around to General Assembly and pulling people aside individually and saying stuff like, we need to stop debating and start acting. He was looking for action. Then once the port planning started he just began going to those meetings."

Most damningly, Dowell was intimately involved with the use of the lockboxes during the port action. 

"Butch got the materials for, assembled and dropped off the lockboxes with protesters to use in Houston," says Garza.

National Lawyers Guild attorney Greg Gladden, who represents Garza, subpoenaed Dowell for court on August 27. During the hearing, Dowell admitted that he had worked with two other undercovers and several officers above him. Dowell provided just one page of notes, claiming he had also brought a thumb drive with pictures relevant to the case but had lost it in a gutter on the way to court. He also admitted to deleting the emails related to the investigation. As for other evidence, Dowell claimed that he had written no police reports about his undercover work because the police department was not conducting a criminal investigation. 

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