“Awareness is two steps ahead. Paranoia is two steps behind.” —Kim Marks, forest activist; Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States by Jules Boykoff (2007)
In 2011, after years of activism led to a fabricated assault charge at a police brutality protest and relentless harassment, I filed a federal civil suit for false arrest against the Olympia Police Department. I wanted to set the record straight and expose a pattern of abuse that not only hindered my efforts, but which has haunted the Olympia community for over a decade. Days before the trial, Larry Hildes, my attorney who works with the National Lawyer’s Guild told me the City of Olympia agreed to settle my suit out of court. After careful deliberation I decided to accept the offer. Here is why.
We had witnesses lined up to testify that I was in no physical location to have struck anyone. We had enhanced frame-by-frame video evidence that proved that Officer Sean Lindros was not where he claimed to be when he was supposedly struck. I even had the black bandana I was wearing during the protest that Lindros claimed was blue. Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming evidence of my innocence, I was assigned a reactionary judge who issued pre-trial rulings that cut the legs out from under my case. Judge Settle refused to allow mention of Officer Sean Lindros’ history of deceit and excessive force, including an incident where he used a deadly sleeper hold on a man after punching and tasing him repeatedly, in addition to a wrongful arrest suit settled in 2012. Conversely, the judge empowered the defense to bring up irrelevant aspects of my past and politics to try to defame my character and avoid dealing with the facts of the case.
As a student organizer during the Port Protests of 2006-2007, I saw first-hand the animosity that those in power held for people who dared to oppose the machinery of war and aggression. My friends and I put our lives on the line to block military stryker vehicles in the streets of Olympia to send a message that we refuse to allow Olympia’s public port to be used as a revolving door for war crimes committed in our name. In return, we got a street education in what being on the receiving end of repression was like. For some of us, from relatively privileged backgrounds, this was the first taste of tear-gas, truncheons, and rubber bullets in our brief sheltered lives. During this transformational process, our bodies became bloodied and bruised testaments to the lengths the state would go to eradicate dissent to preserve a bankrupt system of endless war and maximized profit.
When it was revealed that a military spy, John Towery, had infiltrated social movements and student groups from 2007-2009 there was massive fallout. Many chose to keep a low profile, some retreated from activist work entirely, while others were so traumatized they left Olympia altogether. Coming on the heels of protests that were as exhilarating as they were terrifying, this bombshell revelation was further compounded by the grim knowledge that the military was targeting our peaceful movement like it was an opposing enemy force, essentially converting the quiet downtown streets into a battlefield of brutality and repression. When further proof came to light that fusion centers were sharing the information that the Army had compiled on those engaged in first amendment activity at state, local, and federal levels, folks were justifiably concerned. Then when it was made clear that there was a pattern of fabricating violent charges against protesters in order to place certain individuals in a national domestic terrorist database, this wake up call lead to many a sleepless night.
For better or worse, I was one of the folks who kept organizing regardless of these unconstitutional attacks on our rights to speak out, associate and protest. Those who soldiered on in the face of overwhelming odds reasoned that if we gave in to fear and silenced ourselves, the establishment had already won. Initially, there was hope that exposing the system’s designs with smart detective work and press coverage could postpone the continuing retaliatory action by the state. Instead, in 2010 roughly a year after John Towery was exposed and warned of other spies still in our midst, the authorities gave me the “special treatment” they had meted out to countless others in the preceding years.
What began with my license plate being flagged and tagged by Washington State Patrol during a “routine traffic stop” coming back from the Tacoma Port Protests in 2007, escalated to my movements being traced, my facebook watched, and my residence infiltrated. In the proceeding years as multiple officers continued to call me out by name and gave me a flood of tickets on bogus pretexts that nearly bankrupted me, I knew something was awry. Then on April 6, 2010, Thomas Rudd, John Towery’s boss at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, sent an e-mail to then Police Chief Tor Bjornstad at the Olympia Police Department warning him of the protest where I was framed for assault on an officer. As my attorney noted, “It has now become clear that Rudd kept right on gathering information on activists in Olympia,” even after Towery was unmasked. Furthermore, Rudd was giving information about Olympia activists to the Olympia Police Department for the them to act on, either alone or in conjunction with the Army. This contradicted Rudd’s testimony three weeks prior to the protest at the Third Internal Review of the Force Protection Intelligence Group he had headed where Towery had played an integral role.
The frame-up by Olympia Police and an ensuing illegal eviction by my landlord under pressure from the city made me decide to hire a lawyer and turn the tables on a system that was purposefully destroying my chances of long-term survival.
In 2009, a handful of brave souls, tired of being caught in the cross-hairs of men who wanted to suppress their rights because they disagreed with the content of their speech, had taken the only course of action left: they filed suit to take John Towery and his accomplices to court. The thousands of pages of documents received in discovery in the Panagacos v. Towery case reveal a multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency counter-intelligence program that make COINTELPRO look like a game of hop-scotch.
It was finding out that others had decided to fight back in the courts that encouraged me to file suit against OPD to stem the tide of repression aimed at me, which I hope in turn will inspire others to speak out and refuse to suffer silently. Nearly three years after filing mountains of paperwork and reliving the traumatic experiences from that night, I accepted the City of Olympia’s proposal to settle my case and now I can move on to bigger battles. Although the settlement was not ideal compensation for the suffering I experienced, my intention was never to bankrupt the City of Olympia but merely to force the authorities to acknowledge the merits of my case, paving the way for expungement of the felony I was given under false pretenses. While winning a courtroom battle would have been satisfying, I am also thankful that I will no longer have to endure the ridiculous sight of Lindros perjuring himself on the stand about the supposed “assault” he experienced that night.
It is unfortunate that I didn’t get my day in court this time, but from the start my case involved questions that could only be resolved as more evidence came to light through public records research and further legal action. The larger questions that loom about my arrest were never simply whether Officer Lindros lied about being struck, but who Officer Lindros lied for and why. With enough dedicated action and persistent pressure we may finally get an answer to those questions.
When all is said and done, the settlement and the surrounding press has already helped put the upcoming Towery trial on June 2 on people’s radars and if nothing else, that historic trial will certainly make the authorities think twice before stripping other activists of their fundamental rights.
Paul French, aka Strife, is an Olympia resident, a musician, and a member of the area’s vibrant activist community.