Carlos Montes and the Security State: A Cautionary Tale
On May 17 at 5 in the morning the Chicano activist Carlos Montes got a wake-up call at his home in California from Barack Obama’s security state. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s SWAT team, armed with assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests, as well as being accompanied by FBI agents, kicked down his door, burst into his house with their weapons drawn, handcuffed him in his pajamas and hauled him off to jail. Montes, one of tens of thousands of Americans who have experienced this terrifying form of military-style assault and arrest, was one of the organizers of the demonstrations outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and he faces trial along with 23 other anti-war activists from Minnesota, as well as possible charges by a federal grand jury.
The widening use of militarized police units effectively nullifies the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the use of the armed forces for civilian policing. City police forces have in the last few decades amassed small strike forces that employ high-powered assault rifles, armored personnel carriers, tanks, elaborate command and control centers and attack helicopters. Poor urban neighborhoods, which bear the brunt of the estimated 40,000 SWAT team assaults that take place every year, have already learned what is only dimly being understood by the rest of us — in the eyes of the state we are increasingly no longer citizens with constitutional rights but enemy combatants. And that is exactly how Montes was treated. There is little daylight now between raiding a home in the middle of the night in Iraq and raiding one in Alhambra, Calif.
Montes is a longtime activist. He helped lead the student high school walkouts in East Los Angeles and anti-war protests in the 1960s and later demonstrations against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was one of the founding members of the Brown Berets, a Chicano group that in the 1960s styled itself after the Black Panthers. In the 1970s he evaded authorities while he lived in Mexico and he went on to organize garment workers in El Paso, Texas. He and the subpoenaed activists are reminders that in Barack Obama’s America, being a dissident is a crime.
“It was an FBI action, as I recall,” Sgt. Jim Scully told reporters of the Pasadena Star-News. “We assisted them.”
Montes was arrested ostensibly because he bought a firearm although a felony conviction 42 years ago prohibited him from doing so. The 1969 felony conviction was for throwing a can of Coke at a police officer during a demonstration. The registered shotgun in his closet, bought last year at a sporting goods shop, became the excuse to ransack his home, charge him and schedule him for trial in August. It became the excuse to seize his computer, two cellphones and files and records of his activism on behalf of workers, immigrants, the Chicano community and opposition to wars. Prosecutors said Montes should have disclosed his four-decade-old felony charge when he bought the shotgun at Big 5 Sporting Goods. Because he neglected to do this he will face six felony charges. The case is to be tried in Los Angeles.
“The gun issue was clearly a pretext to investigate my political activities,” he said when I reached him at his Alhambra home. “It is about my anti-war activities and my links to the RNC demonstrations. It is also about my activism denouncing the U.S. policy of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, their support for Israel and the Colombian government. I have been to Colombia twice.”
“I thought someone is breaking in, somebody is trying to jack me up,” he said. “I was a victim of an armed robbery in December of 2009 in my home. I do have a gun in my bedroom for self-defense. I was startled. I jumped out of bed. I saw lights coming from the front-door area. They looked like flashlights. I saw men with helmets and rifles. I gravitated towards the front door. I didn’t take my gun. I could have done that. I have it there. It is a good thing I didn’t pick anything up and put it in my hand.”
“I yelled, ‘Who is it?’ ” he said. “They said, ‘The police. Carlos Montes, come out’ or ‘come forward,’ something like that. I approached the entryway. They rushed in. They grabbed my hands. They turned me around. There were two police officers on each arm. They brought me out holding my arms. I have a little patio. They handcuffed me and patted me down. I am on a little hill. I looked down the street and [it was] full of sheriff’s vehicles, patrol cars and two large green vans. They were bigger than vans. People could stand in there. They didn’t have any logos on them.… I thought it was an Army truck at first. Later on I found it was from the sheriff.”
“It was kind of misty,” he said. “The ground was wet. They put me in the back seat of the car. I was handcuffed. They closed the doors and the windows. I was sitting there looking around, in a state of shock, thinking is this a dream or the real thing? I tried to close my eyes for a little while to see if I could wake up from this nightmare. I always had it in the back of my mind, one day they will come and raid me. My name was on the anti-war committee FBI search warrant raid in Minnesota. People were saying ‘we all got raided and your name is there.’ The lawyers said, ‘Beware — it could happen to you sooner or later.’ They were raided on Sept. 24 last year.”
Those who were raided were all issued subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago. They have refused to testify. The March on the RNC organizing committee was infiltrated by an agent although the protest groups had obtained licenses to demonstrate at the Republican National Convention. The Justice Department’s inspector general later released a report that criticized the FBI for invoking anti-terrorist laws to justify its investigations and harassment of peace and solidarity groups, including Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Catholic Worker.
While Montes was in the back of the police car a man in a windbreaker and a baseball cap approached the vehicle. The sheriff’s deputies rolled down the right rear window. The man in the baseball cap told Montes he was from the FBI and wanted to speak with him.
“I blurted out, ‘Do you have a card?’ ” Montes said. “He laughed and said, ‘I don’t have a card.’ He said, ‘I want to talk to you about Freedom Road Socialist Organization.’ I didn’t say anything. I kept quiet. And then he walked away.”
Montes has written articles for the newspaper Fight Back News about Chicano immigrants’ rights struggles in Los Angeles, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against the rise of charter schools. He said he was not a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization. The organization, a Marxist group, is reportedly being investigated by the FBI because of connections with the Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Palestinian group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, both of which have been labeled as terrorist organizations. The Sept. 24, 2010, search warrant for the anti-war committee offices in Minneapolis lists Montes’ name among the group’s affiliates.
Montes was taken to the Los Angeles County Jail, known as the Twin Towers, and held for 24 hours until he was able to post a $35,000 bail.
“They called my sister to secure [my] house,” he said. “She called the handyman and he put a piece of plywood over my door. I did not have my wallet with me. When I got out of the county jail I did not have any phone numbers or money or an ID. I was walking around in slippers — at least they gave me slippers — and my pajamas. I got back about 5:30 the next morning. I got the door off. There were files and papers on the floor along with photograph albums of the anti-war movement, Latinos Against the War, the ’92 Rebellion, my son’s wedding, my daughter’s birthday, scattered on my kitchen table and floor. It looked like they lined up a bunch of stuff on tables and went through it. It was the same thing with my living room table. They had a file out from 1994 when we did a campaign against police brutality when the sheriffs were going crazy killing people. In my closet I had Chicano archives going back to the 1960s and 1970s. Those were pulled out and on the floor. They went through all my political documents, including my work with the Southern California Immigration Coalition and the campaign to elect a school board member, which we won, to stop the privatization of the local high school and the charters coming in. They went through all those files. It took me a couple of weeks to clean things up. They took a bunch of stuff.”
“The government sees the Chicano people as a threat,” he said. “We were able to turn out millions of people in 2006. In 1994 we had hundreds of thousands. We are growing. There are millions in the Southwest. We are all over the country, but especially in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California. We are still unorganized, but if we get organized we could really demand changes. We had millions of people out in 2006 and then they came after us hard in 2007. There was a lot of police repression, especially in Los Angeles. They fear the Chicano people challenging the status quo.”
“Many of the activists that were raided by the police are anti-war and solidarity activists,” he went on. “And even though the anti-war movement is not massive right now, the potential is there because there is an economic crisis. There is mass disgust with this economic system. People are out of work. It is not yet like COINTELPRO [Counter Intelligence Program] started under Hoover and the FBI to carry out surveillance, infiltrate and disrupt domestic political organizations, but the situation is getting worse. That is why we have to have demonstrations to put a stop to it now.”