2011 and 2012 may go down as the years in American history when political dissent became a criminal activity. The police crackdown began with the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge and police brutality, followed by the evictions of Occupy encampments and the passage of the NDAA, which allows for the indefinite detainment of American citizens. This year has brought FBI raids, grand jury subpoenas, government-manufactured terror plots, surveillance of activists, and protest-related criminal convictions resulting in prison time. Dissenting voices are carrying loud and clear to the ears of the rich and powerful, and in turn, the powerful are waging an all-out assault against any who choose to resist.
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.
The judge, Joan Campbell, ordered the prosecution to recover all relevant emails from the police department’s technology department and subpoena the phone companies for Dowell’s texts. Judge Campbell also threatened that the case will be thrown out if the other two undercovers are not named at the upcoming hearing on September 5, and suggested that the prosecution might rather drop the charges than expose the identities of two of their undercover detectives still embedded in the Occupy Austin community. The trial is set to begin on September 17, the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
The Houston case is not the first time police entrapment has led to felony charges being levied against Occupy protesters. In Cleveland, five men were arrested on May 1, 2012, in connection with a plot to allegedly blow up a bridge in the early morning hours before the May Day protests scheduled in Cleveland. It later emerged that a federal agent working undercover at Occupy Cleveland had encouraged violent escalation among young male activists, and even arranged for the purchase of the fake explosives the five activists allegedly attempted to detonate. Similarly, two undercover Chicago police detectives allegedly encouraged Occupy activists to engage in a terror plot against the NATO summit, and when they failed to do so, planted materials in an apartment. Four Chicago activists are currently being held on terrorism-related charges as a result of this entrapment.
But the story in Texas is different because the Austin detective did not provoke the group to engage in violent behavior or property destruction; the man pressured the group to escalate their nonviolent tactics. This new strategy of escalating nonviolent tactics is leading many to ask: Why would the Austin Police Department go to such lengths just to lock up seven young activists for committing a nonviolent action?
Greg Gladden believes this is a new spin on a textbook police strategy.
“It’s getting the organization to do something drastic that will either get them locked up or marginalized by the rest of the community... Police have always done this, from Operation Chaos, to COINTELPRO, to the Red Scare," he said, referring to earlier CIA and FBI programs that monitored 60s and 70s movements--such as Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panter Party movement, Women Strike for Peace--and domestic communist organizing.
But unlike in the past, the detective couldn’t convince the protesters to try anything violent. So he had to take what he could get.
“The APD probably realized nothing violent was going to take place, so it became a matter of trying to get the most elevated charge possible,” said Will Potter, author of the book and blog Green Is The New Red, which covers the repression of environmental and animal rights movements.
“They found that there was going to be nothing close to political violence. I think that happens in a lot of cases to justify the resources that were spent. You have to have something to show for it.”
Recently, both local police forces and federal law enforcement agencies have been spending a dizzying amount of money on security and surveillance during protests. Chicago spent more than $1 million during the NATO protest; Tampa received a $50 million grant from the feds for security during the RNC. It is unknown how much the Austin police department spent overall on Occupy to date, but the assistant police chief in Austin estimated in January that department would easily spend $1.2 million on the security around the encampment alone--a figure that doesn’t include more clandestine work like undercover detectives.
Given the need to justify this type of funding at a time when all levels of government are strapped for cash, undercover officers are often under intense pressure to produce intel that leads to activists’ arrests for things like thwarted terrorist attacks or actions that damage property. But during nonviolent movements when these plots never surface, the officers often take it upon themselves to instigate and facilitate these plans.
But what the APD produced as a result of its work was an action that put the protesters’ own bodies in danger.
“[Using lock boxes] puts the activist at the total mercy of the police, of cars and trucks on the street, even pedestrians passing by,” Potter said. “To put activists in this position solely for the purpose of demonizing them and acting like they're going to do something dangerous is outrageous.”
But as detectives and their superiors in the Austin police department justified their salaries, they sent a chilling threat to activists all around the country that not only will law enforcement target individuals and try to instigate violent or destructive actions, they will also rope people into nonviolent direct actions and then push hard for the highest charges possible, whatever they may be.
"Government efforts to criminalize this movement by entrapping young people into high-risk tactics, and in this case clearly nonviolent tactics, is outrageous and unjustifiable, said Lisa Fithian, a long-time activist and nonviolent direct action trainer.
“This is a new stage in the war on dissent."