8:16 a.m. July 12, 2013

City of Demons

[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that LAPD Chief William Parker left the department in 1968. In fact, Parker died in 1966 while still in office.]

It only took one year and nine months to arrange, but next week I’ll finally have a chance to fight the criminal charges L.A. filed against me for reporting on the city’s violent paramilitary crackdown on OccupyLA.

For those late to the story, my legal troubles started late at night on November 30, 2011. I was outside City Hall in downtown L.A. trying to report on the LAPD’s eviction raid on the OccupyLA encampment, when I realized that I was penned in by a wall of cops and not allowed to leave the area. The City of Los Angeles had imposed a strict “media pool” policy: all reporters not officially sanctioned by the LAPD were not allowed to approach the OccupyLA camp during the raid, let alone report from within the camp itself. Only a handful of local news organizations were admitted to the media pool; the rest had to stay in a special media pen set up by cops a safe distance away from the action. It was for our own protection!

Bewildered journalists were told to make do with the Twitter feeds of the accredited reports that were beamed into the safe media zone.

It struck me then, as it strikes me now, that a city can’t simply strip journalists of their rights just because officials want to prevent an icky PR spectacle. So I decided to tough it out and take my chances out where the action was. And that’s how I found myself penned in with the protestors, frog-marched to a waiting prisoner transport bus and locked up for two full days, along with the 300 other people arrested that night.

I wrote about my arrest and quest for trial in my first dispatch for NSFWCORP waaay back in December 2012. Infuriatingly, not much has happened since then, other than an endless procession of pre-trial hearings, extensions and more pre-trial hearings…and hours and hours spent sitting in L.A.’s depressing municipal courthouses watching quick justice being meted out to junkie chicks, teenagers, homeless pensioners, sexual harassers and one weird Korean stalker dude who couldn’t speak any English.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been going over my defense strategy with my attorney, the great and brilliant Jacqueline Goodman, who was part of a legal team defending the Irvine 11—Muslim students who got slapped with criminal charges by prosecutors behind the Orange Curtain for interrupting a speech made by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, in which he defended his country’s attack on Gaza. The interruption was an outrage, primarily because it nearly caused Mr. Oren to be late to a Lakers game. Have these wily Muslims have no sense of decency!

I’m not going to share the details of my defense before I go to trial – I’m not that dumb – but all the prep work plunged me back into that crazy and chaotic time when the Occupy Wall Street movement dominated the news and seemed like it could change something for the better.

The day after my family bailed me out of jail, reports started to emerge that the LAPD had sent a dozen undercover agents to infiltrate the OccupyLA camp to spy on the activists. The surveillance operation included boots on the ground, as well as high-tech monitoring of “Internet chatter.” But not much more is known about the LAPD’s Operation Occupy, as it soon became clear that the information about the infiltration came from inside the department: a preventative leak designed to explain and justify LAPD’s shady monitoring of a peaceful protest movement.

What made the spying even more gratuitous was that OccupyLA was open to everyone and was located directly across the street from LAPD’s brand new HQ, a massive, black glass cube of death that hovered over the grimy OccupyLA tent city. Cops could easily spy on the camp just by looking out their tinted glass windows – no undercover work required.

Here’s a good summary from Reuters, published in December 2011:

“Undercover police officers infiltrated Occupy LA’s tent city last month to spy on people they suspected of stockpiling human waste and crude weapons for resisting an eventual eviction, police and city government sources said…

Evidence gathered through the surveillance led to more than 40 arrests for drug use, public intoxication and other offenses in the weeks before police shut down the camp on November 30, one senior official in the Los Angeles Police Department said.

That official and most other sources spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity because of department policy barring police from publicly discussing undercover operations.

They insisted that covert surveillance of the camp was aimed not at anti-Wall Street activists exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression but at those they considered anti-government extremists bent on violence.”

Anti-government extremists? In Occupy? That’s a funny thing to worry about from a movement predominantly filled with people who want to strengthen and expand the role of government…you know, government stuff like universal healthcare, free public higher education, a nationalized banking system, greater regulatory oversight of the corporate sector, higher taxes on the super-rich…just to name a few. None of these are what you’d call “anti-government” or “extremist” — unless by “government” LAPD meant “oligarchy” and thought that “extremists” wore ratty hoodies with “A” anarchy patches and discussed Kropotkin over cups of handmade coffee. In that case, they sure had a lot to worry about, because on those terms OccupyLA was a hotbed of seditious activity.

Despite the surveillance, LAPD reassured the public that only those who warranted surveillance were surveilled: “We had reports that there were individuals advocating violence against police and taking steps to commit violence. In that vein we investigated that. What we didn’t do was spy or monitor or interact with those engaged with First Amendment activities,” a “senior LAPD source” told Reuters.

What did they find? A couple of bamboo sticks with sharpened ends (aka tent poles) and a bunch of plastic bottles filled with piss.

When I lived in a tiny room in a student co-op in Berkeley, I had a weird dude for a roommate who’d only drink lemon-flavored Crystal Geyser sparkling water out of those 1.25L plastic bottles, and would then urinate into the empties in the middle of the night. I had no idea of his pissing activity until one day a pen rolled under his bed and I discovered a pile of urine-filled bottles stockpiled underneath. At the time, I thought that he was merely a lazy, filthy stoner. Never occurred to me that he was amassing a stockpile of rancid piss bombs!

So the LAPD found nothing—no extremist plots, no weapons, no dirty bombs—but that didn’t stop the department from siccing 1,500+ cops in full combat gear against maybe 500 feeble protesters and random civvies who came out to gawk at the action. It was a massive operation…on a scale fit to take down a major crime syndicate. But it was meant to shock and awe the proles: journalists were roughed up, and peaceful protesters were clubbed, shotgunned with beanbags and shot with rubber bullets. The cops put us arrestees through as much suffering as possible, while keeping it all strictly regulation-compliant.

As I wrote at the time:

“I found out from my cellies that a bunch of other people arrested during the raid had been sealed in a prison transport bus for seven hours without food, water or even bathroom breaks, forced to urinate in their seats. They remained sitting in their own piss, watching it mix together and splash around on the floor as the LA County Sheriff deputies drove the bus around the city. Hell, these boys clearly were in no rush, and even had time to stop for a late nite Pollo Loco snack break.”

Remembering my experience at the hands of the LAPD – now within the context of the NSA spying scandal and my recent exploration of L.A.’s freaky oligarchic beginnings – prompted me to examine the history of police surveillance and infiltration in this big and ugly city of angels. And wouldn’t you know it: Historically, LAPD’s intel and covert ops division has been bigger and badder than just about any police department in any other city in the United States.

*

Los Angeles is a young city, young even by California standards. But in that short time, the city’s earned a reputation for its rightwing and racist cops, and for its sophisticated and zealous political surveillance apparatus.

Frank Donner, a labor attorney and pioneering researcher into modern police political surveillance, considered Los Angeles to be America’s premier police state city. From his great 1991 book “Protectors of Privilege”:

“In Los Angeles…more than in any other city in the country, the role of the police department and its red squad as clients of business interests in combating dissent and unionism was from the start openly proclaimed and was implemented over the years with only minimal concessions to changes in political climate, accountability requirements, reform movements, recurring corruption scandals, and adverse court decisions. Finally, the political intelligence component of the LAPD is unique because of its unabashed right-wing commitment. To be sure, all of the red squads were guided by highly conservative political values, but in Los Angeles right-wing zealotry reigned supreme. This extremist bias accounts for the unit’s operational aggression, persistent racism, failure to deal with right-wing bombings in the sixties, operational collaboration with legislative witch-hunts…"

If you’ve read my recent Oligarch Valley adventure, you know that early Los Angeles was a magnet for some of the most racist, reactionary con men, speculators and hucksters that have ever set foot on American soil.

Harry Chandler, L.A.’s O.G. oligarch and owner of the Los Angeles Times, owned most of the land here, which he pimped out to white Midwesterners as the “white spot of America." L.A. was advertised as a place untroubled by “labor difficulties, inefficient workers and a constantly rising labor costs,” in contrast to the cities back East. And the L.A. police department — and its army of undercover officers — were the custodians of this purity, tasked with keeping L.A.’s white spot clean and sparkling, and union free.

The city’s founding fathers wielded unchecked political and economic power, and destroyed anyone who sought to curb or challenge their dominance. The LAPD’s covert division blackmailed political and business opponents and waged constant war on socialists, labor activists and assorted leftists. They responded to even the tiniest whiff of pro-labor sentiment with extreme violence.

So close was the relationship between business and covert police work that for a long time LAPD’s Intelligence Bureau (the official name of LA’s “Red Squad”) was housed inside the Chamber of Commerce — which had been founded by Harry Chandler’s father-in-law and fellow owner of the Los Angeles Times Harrison Gray Otis. Best of all, the Intel Bureau was headed by William Hynes, who got the job after a distinguished career in the private sector as a labor-provocateur-for-hire.

With leadership like that, the LAPD performed marvelously. Intel Bureau agents planted bombs to implicate union activists, attacked labor symps, broke up strikes, blackmailed reformist politicians and received additional pay and bonuses from the Chamber of Commerce and affiliated companies for strike-breaking services rendered. And the Intel Bureau did not restrict its activities to Los Angeles. They rode up to other counties to break up farm worker strikes on behalf of oligarch farmers, who were frequently based in Los Angeles and Pasadena.

The Intel Division began amassing files on individuals and political groups, sharing them with other law enforcement agencies across the nation.

Undercover detectives colluded with Mexico’s dictatorship to harass Mexican political activists hiding out in the U.S. Cops were on Mexico’s payroll, which was known and condoned by LAPD’s top brass. The practice of working for foreign nations would continue well into the present — as the ADL spying scandal showed. But more on that later…

The fact is that police corruption and covert political repression went hand in hand. Cops were given a free hand to plunder and run their own criminal rackets, as long as they tended to the business interests of their masters first.

In 1938, an investigator working for a local police reform group was targeted by a car bomb. He survived, but was badly injured. Subsequent investigation revealed that a crooked cop named Earl Kynette had planted the bomb. Kynette was part of a special “secret service” unit within the LAPD that was tasked with spying on and blackmailing rivals of then-mayor Frank Shaw. Kynette was recruited to lead the LAPD’s secret service after a prostitute extortion racket he had been running was exposed in public.

This was just part of the scummy daily grind for L.A.’s covert ops cops. The hardboiled crime pulp fiction that came out of that era wasn’t fantasy — it was, as they say, inspired by real events.

The Intel Bureau’s activities were slightly curbed in the early 1940s, following a series of scandals and shocking revelations of the La Follette Committee, a blockbuster Senate investigation into big business’s war on labor unions. But the lull didn’t last for long. WWII was just around the corner, and the Intel Bureau’s anti-labor activities were brought back with a vengeance under the guise of Cold War subversive activity.

By that point, covert policing had become deeply ingrained in LAPD’s culture. And many of the department’s most powerful figures rose up through the ranks of the undercover/intel division.

William Parker, LAPD’s longest-serving and most influential chief, had come up from the Red Squad, where he worked to infiltrate and subvert “radical” groups. If his experience had taught him anything, it was that police intel apparatus provided raw political power… In that sense he was like J. Edgar Hoover…obsessed with keeping tabs on everyone and everything…

From “Protectors of Privilege” again:

“Political intelligence was highly attractive to Parker because it implemented his conservative politics, nourished his ego and afforded him a means of discrediting critics. That Parker viewed the department’s surveillance and filing activities as an instrument of personal power is made clear by a departmental statement issued in the early fifties not long after he took office:

“The Intelligence Division maintains its own filing system and all files therein are the property of the Chief of the Police; not only are official police records not subject to subpoena—these files are not open to perusal by members of the department.”

It was widely rumored that Parker had “the goods on everybody” and that his secret files on enemies and critics made him politically invulnerable.”

Parker was also a hardcore fan of the John Birch Society and a supporter of an evangelical fascist organization led by Dr. Fred Schwartz called the “Christian Anti-Communist Crusade.” And the Birchers and Southern California fascists loved Parker right back. He made the cover of the Birchers’ official magazine. He was also a frequent guest on the Manion Forum, a weekly radio show hosted by high ranking Bircher Clarence Manion. With 2,000 LAPD officers being card-carrying members of the John Birch Society, the organization was essentially a de facto extension of the L.A.’s Red Squad. Birchers were fed files on subversives, participated in vigilante attacks on supposed commie spies…you know, the Birchers got in on the fun stuff that even the wife and kids could take part in.

In 1965 the Watts riots erupted, lasting nearly a week, in response to segregation, repression and police brutality directed against the city's large African-American community. In his testimony to a commission investigating the riots, Parker blamed the whole thing on a crafty commie plot to subvert America: “black leaders seemed to think that if Parker [he’s referring to himself in the third-person —YL] can be destroyed officially, they will have no trouble in imposing their will upon the police of America … because nobody else would dare stand up.”

Parker died on July 16 1966 while still serving as chief of LAPD. After Parker's death, political surveillance by LAPD only accelerated. The Intel Bureau was reorganized into PDID. By the end of the 1970s, LAPD was inundated with lawsuits related to its covert police activities. The scandals just kept rolling in, and getting more and more shocking. It was clear that the Red Squad was alive and well, and that surveillance of leftist civic groups continued unabated.

Here are just a few of the revelations:

In the late 1970s, a leaked LAPD target list showed that PDID had flagged 200 organizations for surveillance. Nine out of ten of them were peaceful social and political organizations, including churches. The list also contained a bunch of crossed out entries, rightwing organizations that were not to be surveilled. Among them was the John Birch Society. No surprise there.

The Birchers got a pass, but PDID spied on the Los Angeles City Council, stalked white supporters of the Civil Rights movement, tried to frame peaceful groups with semtex and other explosives, and installed an undercover LAPD detective as Jane Fonda’s “radical” security guard to monitor her anti-war activities. “Jon Dial, to all appearances a left-wing leader who provided security for Jane Fonda at political rallies, turned out to be an undercover cop. In 1977 Dial married his roommate, another “activist” named Connie Milazzo, who had been arrested at a Progressive Labor party demonstration. Milazzo wound up admitting in court that she too was an undercover police officer,” reported People magazine in 1979.

Apparently, PDID also spied on an outfit that was trying to get Soviet Jews like myself out of the USSR. “This was an anti-Kremlin movement, but the intricacies of that obviously were too much for the PDID,” remarked the LA Times.

On top of everything, PDID infiltrated newspapers and even attempted to put some of them out of business. Veteran journalist Dave Lindorff recounted his experiences in Counterpunch:

“I had my own experience with the PDID when I was an editor of the little alternative news weekly, the Los Angeles Vanguard, founded by myself and several other Los Angeles journalists in 1976, after the demise of the venerable Los Angeles Free Press. Our publication, which took on the issue of police brutality and especially the all-to-frequent shooting of unarmed citizens, very quickly became a special focus of the PDID. We learned, years after our publication had folded, that our volunteer staff had been infiltrated by a young PDID officer named Connie Milazzo, a woman just out of the Police Academy, who came to us posing as a journalist wannabe. We learned too that our paper was actually sabotaged by the PDID, which operated under Gates’ authority.

“We had, after about six months’ operation, hired a person at a considerable cost to sell advertising space in the paper. We learned from this person, only much later after the paper had to shut down, that she had been told by her boss, an advertizing agency executive, to only pretend to try and sell ads. It turns out that the executive had a son who had been busted by the LAPD for drugs, and the police had extorted the father, saying if he prevented our paper from getting advertising, they’d get the charges dropped against his son.”

In the 1980s, LAPD provided ADL with intel and files on anti-apartheid and pro-Palestinian activists. When San Francisco began investigating ADL’s illegal spy ring in the early 1990s, the LAPD denied the allegations and simply refused to cooperate. (Check out Mark Ames’ scary feature on the ADL’s illegal spying operation, and how he was one of its targets…)

As a result of these revelations, PDID was disbanded and replaced with the Anti-Terrorist Division, which was then slapped with regulations that restricted the scope and independence of its surveillance activities. But the policies were never really implemented, nor were they kept on the books for very long—all thanks to Timothy McVeigh.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 1995:

“The Los Angeles Police Commission took the first step Thursday toward significantly relaxing civil liberties safeguards placed on the Police Department’s Anti-Terrorist Division in the wake of a spying scandal a decade ago.

The commission acted in an emergency session at the urging of the mayor’s office, which was seeking to reassure the public that local officials were doing something concrete in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing…"

The gross irony here is that LAPD was all of a sudden worried about terrorist threats from right-wing anti-government extremist groups…exactly the kind of groups LAPD had worked with until then.

The old game was on again. And all the controls were thrown off after 9/11 a few years later. Best of all, the Anti-Terrorist Division didn’t have to divulge its covert operations…because it would compromise national security. L.A.’s demographics began to change and most of white reactionary L.A. migrated to Arizona to escape the Latino population creep. So the aggressive racism and nativism softened up a bit, and the town went Democratic. But the poverty and the segregation remained, as did the powerful real estate interests that still run this town.

And that brings us to today.

L.A.’s current chief Charlie Beck also hails from LAPD’s covert police culture. He was part of the elite anti-gang CRASH Unit—Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, which triggered the Ramparts scandal, in which detectives essentially operated as a police criminal gang: confiscating drugs and selling them, framing and murdering innocent people as a matter of routine.

Charlie Beck never got caught up in the scandal and does not like to talk about his time there, other than to say that those were the “dark days.” But he was eventually brought in to “reform” the Ramparts Division, and surely knew about what was going on. According to sworn testimony from Rafael Perez, the Ramparts detective who stole a bunch of coke and was caught trying to frame an innocent person for a shooting, just about everyone in the elite CRASH Unit knew what was going on.

Here’s what he said in 2000:

Perez: I’m going to make a very broad statement. And you’re not going to like it. It’s not good. There’s a thing called being “in the loop,” being involved. I was not in the loop or involved in anything, as far as police-wise ’til maybe ’95, when I joined CRASH. When I got into CRASH– before then, I had no concept of what certain officers do. I can tell you this. And you can put me on a polygraph. Oh, well, I know I’m going to be on a polygraph… . I would say that ninety percent of the officers that work CRASH, and not just Rampart CRASH, falsify a lot of information. They put cases on people. And I know that’s not a good thing to hear. I know that’s very broad. But the first time I saw certain things, I didn’t realize that, like I said until ’95, when I joined CRASH I didn’t see a lot of these things. I just didn’t. I was a patrol guy. I worked Narcotics. Just did my normal job. And I’m not, number one, proud of this. You know, it hurts me to say it. But there’s a lot of crooked stuff going in with LAPD, especially LAPD specialized units. ... What I’m saying is, specialized units need to be looked at, because there is – and believe me when I tell you – if there was 15 officers in CRASH, 13 of them were putting cases on people.

Rosenthal: When you say “putting cases on people” do you mean manufacturing probable cause, or do you mean actually, in essence, framing somebody who did not do something for a crime?

Perez: Both. Both.

And, as an understudy to Police Chief William Bratton, who’s backed by the CIA’s Manhattan Institute thinktank, Charlie Beck is a huge proponent of using covert police operations to fight terrorism. You can read Bratton, in his own words, describing his technique of turning cops into pre-terror fighters through “intelligence-led counterterrorist policing” techniques. Which of course will mean going after immigrants and Muslims — after all, only foreigners would want to destroy the United States.

*

What does it all mean for us today?

Well, looking at the history of police surveillance and infiltration activities, a couple of constants can be seen in LAPD’s surveillance patterns. 1) Cops overwhelmingly targeted leftist groups and activists, which by their very nature posed a threat to business interests by demanding greater democratic control over political and economic life. This included minority and immigrant groups, union members, antiwar protesters and civil rights activists. 2) Police also heavily targeted organizations that advocate for police and criminal justice reform. And that makes perfect sense: Local business interests and a repressive police force depend on one another for survival. And both are threatened by great democratic control. 3) Rightwing and pro-business groups were rarely targeted for surveillance, and more often approved of repressive police tactics.

You can see all this being played out in the DHS/FBI Fusion Center documents on the Occupy Wall Street movement. The documents, obtained by FOIA, only contain a few pages that deal specifically with Los Angeles. But the little information that they do contain shows federal and local police agencies coordinating with the private sector and pinpointing protest activity that could be bad for business. In L.A., this involved, among other things, monitoring plans to blockade the Long Beach port in support of union contract negotiations. A DHS memo said that it had field agents “actively engaged with local law enforcement and trade partners to establish contingency plans”…

At the same time, the FBI worried that OccupyLA would join forces with people protesting Los Angeles County prison abuse.

“On 10–19–2011 a peaceful protest by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement occurred on a Blue Line train… the protesters had a purchased tickets and were [all] cooperative. [Some sheriffs official] concerned however about what may happen if the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters mix with the more violent individuals upset about the alleged mistreatment of prisoners in the LASD jails.”

Yep, people advocating for prison reform are monitored by the FBI as part of the war on terror…

But the important thing here is that DHS and FBI are addressing specific worries that could affect specific local interests, and they were engaged in similar specific “threat” assessment and surveillance operations in partnership with local law enforcement in Occupy camps all over the country.

A great report put out by the Center for Media and Democracy details how police departments across the country spied on and monitored activists protesting the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded freemarket legislation mill responsible for pushing everything from school privatization to “Stand Your Ground” laws. In many cases, ALEC employed off-duty police officers to monitor the protests.

“…records obtained by DBA/CMD disclose that these off-duty officers were given a ‘face sheet’ containing photographs of 24 ‘persons of interest to the ALEC conference.’ This list of ‘persons of interest’ consisted of members of Occupy Phoenix, members of Phoenix Cop Watch (an organization that monitors police actions, often at protestor events), anarchists (including two Phoenix area musicians), a prison reform activist (who had been a vocal opponent of prison privatization in Arizona), and a Quaker street medic– Odhner….

Records indicate that PPD officers supplied with this ‘face sheet’ were given strict orders to destroy their copies of the ‘face sheet’ after each shift."

And that is the key issue here: the surveillance usually has an ideological and political component, and it doesn’t usually target groups fighting for the Kochs and for free markets…

That’s something to think about in light of the NSA spying scandal. So far everyone’s been freaking out that the NSA indiscriminately spies on the electronic communication of millions of Americans. And that is horrible. But the question should be: What is the purpose of the NSA surveillance? Who does it benefit, and who is targeted?

If, let’s say, the NSA was spying on John Malone’s Google chats for tax evasion…Well, I’m not so sure I would be against that.