Olympia resident shares his story of blatant police misconduct and persecution
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King, Jr
I still remember where I was when Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man was shot at point blank range by a transit cop while he was lying face down on the cement of an Oakland, California Subway. It was New Year’s Day 2009, two months shy of Grant’s twenty-third birthday, when he was pronounced dead. I was working on my first album, “Love & Rage,” when a member of my hip-hop crew, Thought Crime Collective, rushed over to tell me the news. This extra-judicial murder ignited my growing anger at a justice system that professes equality under the law but prioritizes people according to race, class, sexuality, gender, and politics. In the following months as the death toll escalated at the hands of police, I realized I had a responsibility to rally others even at the risk of my own comfort and convenience. If I didn’t stand in solidarity with the slain, publicize the causes of structural violence, and fight for accountability, then society whose technological advancement was fast outstripping its conscience would eclipse any hope for social and economic justice.
So on April 8, 2010, I took to the streets of downtown Olympia as part of a protest called the “West Coast Days of Action Against Police Violence.” We marched downtown chanting and handing out flyers about the dangers of unchecked power, white privilege, and the prison industrial complex. Eventually we were surrounded on all sides by a heavily armed phalanx of Olympia Police and arrested in a coordinated takedown. Amidst shouted orders to “get on the ground” we locked arms on State Street and were kettled in a darkened parking lot, greeted by baton blows and pepper ball guns fired inches from our faces. It was during this lightning-quick takedown that Officer Sean Lindros (now a detective) lied and stated I had punched him in the face. He made this claim without a single witness to the alleged assault and without another officer on the scene corroborating his story. The Olympia Police Department (OPD) seized all cameras and recording equipment, and refused to return the cameras until three years later in the summer of 2013, when my lawyer, Larry Hildes, won a settlement against the city.
In 2012, Sean Lindros lost a wrongful arrest lawsuit that my attorney brought against him on behalf of Evergreen student, Loren Klyne. According to court documents, Lindros has been referred to by his superiors as a “cops’ cop, who manages to make an above average amount of arrests and criminal referrals.” He has received a total of eight citizen complaints and two disciplinary actions in the past five years, engaging in “threatening or intimidating behavior towards the public” on multiple occasions, even “brandishing a gun on a traffic stop.” Lindros has three excessive force complaints including a well-known encounter where he slammed Ms. Peralta’s (a.k.a. Pony Black’s) face into the ground in downtown Olympia in 2010. Most recently in 2013, Lindros used a “lateral vascular neck restraint” on a suspect, a maneuver that restricts the flow of blood to the brain and is linked to so many deaths, its use is restricted by the Los Angeles Police Department and was banned by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police in 2011.
In the short video clip used as evidence of my alleged crime, I am in the center of a group, surrounded by twenty-nine people, on my knees with a banner in my lap several feet away from where Sean Lindros claimed he was standing when he was allegedly struck in the face. In his police report, Lindros misidentified the color of my bandana, and in the pictures he took of his “injuries” after the protest, his face showed no visible marks or bruises. I was charged with assault, even though I was simply engaging in my first amendment right to protest and in spite of the fact that I was not in a location where I could have physically struck Lindros. As we were turning onto State Street, I was handed the march banner by a stranger who was not arrested, but had shown up at my house a few weeks prior to the protest. After the takedown, Sean Lindros identified me as “the kid with the banner,” and I was arrested for felony “assault on an officer.”
The details of my criminal case were unfortunate but not uncommon. I was railroaded by my public defender into taking an Alford plea (which asserts innocence but still counts as a guilty plea) and served a two-month sentence in Thurston County Jail for a crime I did not commit. Lacking proof at the time that I had been targeted in retaliation for my activism and music, I was smeared in the media and unable to convince people of my innocence. All of this became too much to bear. Although I have no prior history of depression, I was severely traumatized by this chain of events. Combined with the fear that I would be unable to participate in my graduation at the Evergreen State College, I had my first and only nervous breakdown. Shocked by the ease with which the authorities framed me, and convinced that I would become the victim of an “accident” once I reported to jail, I attempted to take my own life. At my wits end, I isolated myself from the only support system I had, my friends and community. Now after years of committed direct action and much reflection and growth, I am taking the struggle to the next level by suing the Olympia Police Department for false arrest, false imprisonment, excessive force, harassment, and violations of my first, fourth, fifth, and fourteenth amendment rights.
Those who have followed protests closely in the United States for a span of time can confirm that charges ranging from “assault on an officer” to “obstruction of justice” or “resisting arrest” are often fabricated as a way for law enforcement to cover up their own brutality and wrongdoing. Alleging false charges allows the police to spin news coverage, siphon-off public sympathy from protesters, and pre-empt questions about police overreach. Even if the charges are never brought before a judge, the police can garner sympathy in the court of public opinion and deny responsibility for escalating or mishandling a situation. Unless there is video evidence to contradict an officer’s allegations, or multiple witnesses who attest to a person’s innocence, the blame is shifted to the victim because of the inherently unequal power dynamics. Courtroom battles in these scenarios often deteriorate into a “he said/she said” stalemate, where law enforcement has home team advantage.
For example, on March 5, 2013, Evergreen professor Peter Bohmer was charged with “assault on an officer” while defending a homeless encampment in downtown Olympia. Only after video footage confirmed that Washington State Patrol had lied about Bohmer’s actions were the assault charges dropped. [The video may be viewed on youtube: “Peter Bohmer Arrested as WSP Removes Homeless Youth and Activists”] In 2007, a veteran community organizer named Pat Tassoni settled with Washington State Patrol for an undisclosed sum after he was handcuffed, searched, and cited on June 3, 2004 for “failing to produce a license while operating a motor vehicle.” His criminal charges were dropped because he was distributing flyers on foot, walking home from a rally against the Patriot Act at the time he was stopped by a State Trooper. Similar treatment was meted out to local legend Long Hair David (Fawver), founder of the Emma Goldman Youth & Homeless Outreach Project (EGYHOP), who was accosted in 2004 by members of the Washington State Patrol and erroneously charged with assault after lighting sage incense in Sylvester Park.
Then there is the case of Scott Yoos, whose shocking treatment at the hands of the Olympia Police Department made this pattern of mendacity explicit. On June 1, 2011 he was throwing paper towels away in a public dumpster when four officers arrived, he was thrown to the ground, placed in painful compliance holds, and arrested for “trespass”. When publicity about his brutal treatment provoked a groundswell of support, the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged him retroactively with felony “assault on an officer” and “resisting arrest” two months after the original charges were filed.
When cops, who are sworn to impartially uphold the law, enforce it in a discriminatory manner that tramples people’s civil rights, protests become a minefield wrought with unspoken threats and lasting danger. This was demonstrated in the dwindling participation rates in the aftermath of a mass-arrest during anti-war protests organized by a group called Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) in Olympia, Washington. On November 13, 2007, forty-one women, who planned to engage in a non-violent blockade of a military convoy, were charged with “attempted disorderly conduct,” by officers who insisted they knew the groups intentions based on spying. Julianne Panagacos, Andrea Robbins, Julia Garfield, and others arrested at the Port, are now suing the United States Military. Their civil suit alleges that John Towery, a man who the Army paid to infiltrate their anti-war group, supplied law enforcement with intelligence that lead to their pre-emptive arrests, civil rights violations, cruel and demeaning treatment in the jail, and a campaign of harassment that continued long after the protests were over.
Jeff Berryhill, a former PMR organizer and member of Students for A Democratic Society (SDS), is another plaintiff in the civil suit against John Towery. He was subjected to a similar pattern of police profiling, false charges, and pre-emptive arrest. Jeff was singled out at the March 2007 Port of Tacoma Protests, shot by a rubber bullet in the leg at point blank range, and then arrested for assault. In July of 2007, Berryhill was hanging out in downtown Olympia when four cops detained him because he “fit the profile” of someone they claimed had committed a burglary in the area. That night, the cops showed up at his house and arrested him for “disorderly conduct” after he demanded that they cease harassing him. Long-time Works In Progress contributor Wally Cuddeford was tased three times and dragged across the pavement during the same anti-war port protests in Tacoma in 2007. He also received fabricated assault charges after being assaulted by the police. Two years later in January of 2009, Wally was accused of “riot” even though he had merely brought anti-police brutality signs to a march in Olympia. His case was dismissed when the state withheld exculpatory evidence during discovery and Wally argued eloquently in his own defense against the specious notion of “associative culpability.”
This deliberate pattern of targeting those considered “high profile” and influential members of social movements was also carried out against Brendan Dunn, a founding member of the Evergreen Chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a member of Port Militarization Resistance (PMR), and the Olympia Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Dunn settled out of court after assault charges were fabricated against him at a “World Can’t Wait” Rally in Seattle in 2006. Dunn and two associates became known as the “Flag 3” after they refused to hand over an anarchist flag that an officer claimed was a symbol of violence.
It’s difficult to understand the coordinated nature of this campaign of repression without discussing the escalating tension between members of law enforcement, the military, and the local anti-war movement. In order to get a better grasp of why certain individuals were targeted and singled out by officers, it is crucial to discuss the role of John Towery in more depth. In 2009, through independent research done by Drew Hendricks and public records gained by Brendan Dunn, it was revealed that a man who posed as an ally to the anti-war movement in Olympia was actually a member of the Army’s Force Protection Intelligence Unit at Fort Lewis under the Directorate of Emergency Services (DES). From March 2007 until July of 2009, when John Towery’s real identity was revealed, he mapped associations and provided detailed information about protest groups to the United States Military and the Washington State Fusion Center (an intelligence sharing network between local and state law enforcement like OPD and the Washington State Patrol, as well as federal agencies like the FBI, NSA, Department of Homeland Security, and the military).
John Towery’s job was to specifically target Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other groups at Evergreen State College as well as infiltrate the Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) movement. Towery befriended people under false pretenses, attended meetings and potlucks, and gained administrator access to the movement’s list-serves. He conducted this activity regardless of the fact that these groups were engaged in non-violent direct action against illegal and unjust wars, and despite the fact that his spying was in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which states “it shall not be lawful to employ any part of the army of the United States…to execute the state’s laws.” In 2007, according to public records, Lt. General Charles H. Jacoby Jr. gave John Towery a “Certificate of Achievement” for:
…exceptionally meritorious achievement while providing crucial police intelligence during the Third Striker Brigade redeployment from the Port of Olympia to Fort Lewis… Mr. Towery demonstrated outstanding professionalism and devotion to duty by rendering up to the minute reports that clearly stated the intentions of anti-war protesters at the Port of Olympia. This vital information was relayed to the local law enforcement agencies which assisted them in ensuring that the convoys were conducted safely and without injury to soldiers or damage to military equipment.
Larry Hildes, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, who is bringing my suit against the Olympia Police Department, is also suing John Towery and the US Army over these revelations. Towery’s trial is set for June of 2014 and will raise important questions in regards to the Army’s campaign of illegal spying and the trampling of civil liberties by a deliberate pattern of false arrests, citations, imprisonment, excessive force, and harassment.
The case against John Towery was strengthened in 2010, when Hildes secured a $417,000 dollar settlement on behalf of Phil Chinn, a graduate of Evergreen State College, and another member of SDS and PMR. Though he was driving three miles under the speed limit, Chinn was pulled over by Washington State Patrol on his way to an anti-war protest at the Port of Aberdeen. He was falsely charged with DUI, and, as he was led over to the patrol vehicle, he noticed a picture of his parent’s car that he had driven the day before sitting on the trooper’s dashboard. After criminal charges were dropped for lack of evidence, it was revealed through radio traffic that Detectives with the Aberdeen Police and Washington State Patrol had been watching Chinn’s movements and put out an “attempt to locate” code on his vehicle because there were “three identified anarchists” in the car who were considered “the biggest threat.” (Seattle Weekly, “Watching the Protesters: These spies may have known too much.”)
This is where the plot thickens. Even after John Towery was forced out of the movement in July 2009, e-mail exchanges reveal that Towery’s supervisor, Thomas Rudd of the Force Protection Division at Fort Lewis, continued to send memoranda and “threat assessments” to individuals in multiple law enforcement agencies. This included members of Washington State Patrol as well as then Police Chief Gary Michel, Commander Steve Nelson, and Commander Tor Bjornstad of the Olympia Police Department. According to these public records, before the November 2007 Olympia Port Protests, Commander Bjornstad met with Thomas Rudd, John Towery, and Cliff Colvin (an informant hired by the Coast Guard) to discuss strategies to neutralize the local anti-war movement. Tactics planned at these meetings included the use of pre-emptive arrests, illegal surveillance, the deployment of chemical agents against peaceful demonstrators as well as other forms of excessive force and brutality.
This strategy was put into effect at the citywide level by Olympia City Manager Steve Hall, who directed City Communications Manager Cathie Butler to infiltrate PMR list-serves, relaying confidential information as well as facilitating false mediation sessions designed to gather intelligence on protesters. Under Steve Hall’s supervision, the Olympia Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office engaged in harassment, false arrests, and malicious prosecution of selected activists, particularly focusing on women and other protected classes who participated in the Olympia Port Protests. Furthermore, Steve Hall acted with others to deliberately conceal and destroy evidence of this illegal conduct and withheld exculpatory evidence that could have resulted in dismissals and acquittals in numerous cases the city brought against anti-war protesters.
Scarcely a month after the army concluded its second internal investigation into John Towery’s spying, the details of my case demonstrate how this pattern of profiling and repression continued even after Towery had left in July 2009. Two days before the protest I attended on April 8, 2010, Towery’s supervisor at Fort Lewis, Thomas Rudd, sent intelligence about the Anti-Police Brutality March to then OPD Commander Tor Bjornstad, who was on scene for the arrests, and forwarded the Army’s intelligence to Commander Steve Nelson, Lieutenant Ray Holmes, and Police Chief Gary Michel. The arrests of twenty-nine people at a protest on public streets for “pedestrian interference,” an unconstitutional charge used to justify this pre-emptive mass-arrest model, fits the pattern that law enforcement used to neutralize the anti-war movement in years prior. This tactic was seen as late as May 2, 2009 when the last protest against military shipments was effectively prevented by soldiers of the 504th Military Police Battalion, who mass-arrested protesters on civilian territory in Lakewood after I performed at a hip hop show at Coffee Strong, an anti-war café near Fort Lewis.
In an age of capitalist crisis and homeland insecurity, where cops are armed to the teeth with military grade weaponry supplied by federal grants, and fusion centers partner with the private sector achieving power so inconceivable that George Orwell would get nightmares, how do we fight back? How can we rein in these Frankenstein’s monsters before they pre-empt our dreams of a better world or drown future generations in martial law? Refusing to be terrified into silence or overwhelmed by the odds is a start. Educate yourself and others, take the streets, and increase the pressure through dedicated direct action campaigns. Build community solidarity organizations, nurturing a culture of art and music, creativity and resistance. Defend dissidents, whistle-blowers, and journalists with integrity, supporting those who take risks and are targeted for standing up for all of our rights. Demand transparency through public records requests to understand how the system operates, unravel abuse and prevent future Kafkaesque designs. Finally, spread the word through media publicity and wage court battles that reveal the full extent and nature of illegitimate programs, setting legal precedents against unaccountable institutions that hold freedom hostage. In this late stage of our history, these are some of the most effective tools we have left to reverse the rising tide of repression.
My upcoming trial will raise the profile of these matters, and spark dialogue about the draconian violations of our civil rights. I believe that the long shadow cast over Olympia, Washington by this official criminality is just the tip of the iceberg and it’s time to break the ice. Winning this case will bring personal closure for me as well as setting a legal precedent that will hopefully thaw the chill surrounding free speech and embolden others, who have experienced similar abuse, to seek justice. If I can contribute in any way to rebuild the trust that has been shattered in our community, repair the damage done by years of false arrests, frame-ups, police violence, federal intimidation, and military infiltration, then this civil case will have been well worth it.
Please join me on March 11, 2014 at the Federal Courthouse in Tacoma at 9 am for the first day of my trial. For news and updates on my case and the upcoming trial of John Towery please visit my support blog, “We Are All Suspects Now” at http://strife-101-life.tumblr.com/.
Paul French, well-known as Strife, is an Olympia resident, a musician, and a member of the area’s vibrant activist community.