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Infiltrating Occupy: Austin Activists Face Charges for Equipment Provided by Undercover Police

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As Occupy Wall Street prepares to mark its first anniversary, members of Occupy Austin have discovered that their arrests on felony charges after a protest last December are directly linked to equipment provided by a police detective who infiltrated their group. The activists locked arms inside tubes made of PVC pipe that the police had designed, constructed and dropped off for the protest. We’re joined from Austin by Ronnie Garza, one of the members of Occupy Austin facing felony charges stemming from the December protest, and from Houston by Greg Gladden, National Lawyers Guild member and past president of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a story unfolding in Texas. Members of Occupy Austin have discovered that their arrests on felony charges after a protest last December are directly linked to equipment provided by a police detective who infiltrated their group. On December 12th, members of Occupy Austin joined protesters from around the region to block a street entrance to the Port of Houston. The action was done in solidarity with Occupy activists who tried to shut down ports on the West Coast in support of the embattled longshoremen. Seven of the protesters in Houston locked their arms together using locks hidden inside PVC pipes, a device known as a lockbox or a “sleeping dragon” or “dragon sleeves.” While most of the demonstrators were charged with misdemeanors, those using the lockboxes were charged with felony use of a, quote, “criminal instrument.”

Well, evidence in the case now reveals that an undercover detective with the Austin Police Department not only bought the equipment to make the devices, he also designed them, put them together and dropped them off for the group to use. The defendants in the case recently revealed Detective Shannon Dowell was the protester they knew as “Butch,” after Austin police at first denied they had infiltrated the group. Now a judge has ordered police to turn over more information. At least one of the protesters, Eric Marquez, remains in jail due to a prior arrest. We asked the Austin Police Department for comment, but they didn’t respond to our request.

We are going to Austin now to Ronnie Garza, one of the members of Occupy Austin who’s on trial now, facing felony charges stemming from the December 12th direct action. And in Houston, we’re joined by Greg Gladden with the National Lawyers Guild, representing Ronnie Garza in this case, past president of the Texas ACLU.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ronnie, let’s begin with you in Austin. Tell us what happened last December.

RONNIE GARZA: Well, thanks for having us on the show, Amy. It’s a huge honor.

Last December, we were involved with a number of other cities around Texas in a solidarity action with the West Coast port shutdown. And we knew that we couldn’t shut down a port the size of Houston. It was a purely symbolic action to lay down in front of the entrance to the main office of the port. And so, that’s sort of the lead up to December 12th and why we were out there.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain why the longshoremen were shutting down the port in Oakland, what—your solidarity action.

RONNIE GARZA: They were in a labor dispute with EGT, from what we understand, and so we were out there in solidarity with those longshoremen, specifically.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain exactly what happened, who your group was and what you did.

RONNIE GARZA: Well, I’m with Occupy Austin, and we just coordinated with the other cities to bring people out to Houston and sort of worked on the logistics of how the blockade, the sit-in, would happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, describe the lead up to your action on December 12th and how it is you got your hands on this PVC pipe. A group of you didn’t. A group of you just stood up and locked arms, and they were charged with misdemeanor. But you and others did not. Explain how you came to use these sleeping dragons or dragon sleeves.

RONNIE GARZA: OK. So, part of the direct action committee was tasked with sort of coming up with ways to block the road. And Shannon Dowell, who we knew as “Butch,” was one of the members of that committee. And they worked on those plans to develop the sit-in logistics. And Shannon went out to the store, got the materials off the shelves, and assembled and manufactured the devices, and then dropped them off with the rest of the protesters for use out in Houston.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, did you know Butch? What did you think of him? How did you—how did he join your group, this man that has now been identified as an Austin police officer named [Dowell]?

RONNIE GARZA: Well, yeah, I mean, I certainly have spoken with Butch in the past. I liked his beard. I recognized him from meetings that we had—that we had gone to for Occupy Austin, I would say since probably the beginning. Like I said, I liked his beard, and so it’s kind of recognizable. And he just was showing up to general assemblies and other small meetings. And then when eventually we had the port action, he became interested and involved with that group.

AMY GOODMAN: I should say, I misspoke his name. It is Shannon Dowell. Now, Ronnie, how did you learn that this guy you knew as Butch, who delivered these dragon sleeves to you, that led to your felony arrests—how did you learn that he is a police officer named Shannon Dowell?

RONNIE GARZA: OK, so, we—after we got arrested—this was maybe about a month, month and a half later—we got an anonymous tip, an email tip off about Butch. Again, we knew him as Butch. And they told us his name, his actual first name, was Shannon, and he was a police—with the police department, and he was involved in the port action. And that’s pretty much what they gave us. And we didn’t have a full identity. We didn’t know his last name or where exactly within the APD he was. But eventually, over time, looking through public records like birth records, marriage records, death records and other things like that, salary records for the police department, I was able to find his first and last name, and we were able to get a subpoena in on Butch.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Gladden, you’re Ronnie Garza’s attorney. You’re the former head of the ACLU. You’re with the National Lawyers Guild. When you came into this case, why is it that you immediately suspected that there was an undercover officer involved with this action?

GREG GLADDEN: Good morning, Amy.

The use of this particular statute, this manufacture of a criminal instrument statute, is really obscure. There are probably not more than 10 cases that have been reported in the last 30 or 40 years of its use, and it’s virtually all the time being used to overreach. The first reported case was back when people in Dallas and Houston were showing a movie called Deep Throat. And they kept busting them for misdemeanor obscenity charges, and they’d reopen and just keep showing it. And so, they finally charged them under this statute with possession of a projector. That went all the way to the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit limited the statute—

AMY GOODMAN: That was the criminal tool.

GREG GLADDEN: That was the criminal instrument that they—they made it into a felony, so they could overreach and make it more expensive and more dangerous for them to show this movie than simply paying a fine for a misdemeanor.

The wars on terrorism or on drugs or on communists or whatever, the government has always used infiltrators and often have used infiltrators that would provoke the group to do things that will marginalize the group or will incriminate the group or chill the group in their efforts to do what they’re doing. So, to answer your question, it had all the fingerprints of that kind of behavior. And as it turns out, Shannon Dowell was a narcotics undercover officer that has been loaned out to something called “fusion.” And it’s kind of like SPECTRE in an Ian Fleming movie or something. It sounds like that. But their goal, their purpose, through federal grants, is to monitor potential domestic terrorism. And I guess it’s a lot easier to solve crimes you create yourself than to actually ferret out actual crimes and actual criminals. And there are certainly some—a lot of people that would like to shut down the Occupy movements. And this was an obvious—it was obvious to me that that’s—would have worked in that way, whether it was in fact the efforts of the police and the government or whether it was just someone foolish enough to cause the same result.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ronnie, you didn’t know that by using this PVC pipe the way you locked arms, as opposed to the others locking arms without it, would change the charge from misdemeanor, what the others were charged with, to felony, what the group of you, the group of seven, were charged with, simply by using these pipes, is that right?

RONNIE GARZA: Right. No, I wasn’t—yeah, I wasn’t aware of that at all. And it seems—it seems to be that the person that was the most aware of that, Butch, you know, he could have said that at any time without blowing his cover. He could have de-escalated the tactics, but he chose to just go ahead and make sure that we had those devices.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he the one who introduced the idea of those devices?

RONNIE GARZA: Well, I mean, that’s all going to come out in the court, in the emails and all that. So, I don’t know that I can talk about the case at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about these emails, and I wanted to go back to Greg Gladden on this. Talk about what happened when the judge—and tell us who the judge is—subpoenaed Shannon Dowell.

GREG GLADDEN: Well, I subpoenaed Shannon Dowell, and—something called a subpoena duces tecum, where you ask them to bring certain things. And we tried to ask him to bring—or have him ordered to bring emails, offense reports. Usually—always, police make reports of incidents that they’re involved in or that they are investigating.

When he appeared in court pursuant to my subpoena, coming down to Houston from Austin, he appeared in front of Judge Joan Campbell in one of the felony courts here. An interesting point is, when this case first came up, the first day in court, she threw the cases out, these felony cases out, because the statute doesn’t apply to these people. And the district attorney, for some political reason—or, I don’t know why they did, but they went around her, took the case to the grand jury, got these young people indicted on these felony charges of manufacture of a criminal instrument, and the case went back to her court.

And I guess I—the limitations of the statute that the courts have found apply to this statute is it has to be an incipient crime. And I had to go look up that word. It’s—in the beginning, it’s someone that manufactures or adapts or builds some instrument that can, secondly, only be used for a crime. So slim jims are not a criminal instrument because they can be used by tow truck drivers legitimately every day. Lock picks can be used by locksmiths. And thirdly, it has to be necessary for the crime. They’re saying that they used these sleeping dragons—they constructed them, built them, set them up to use to commit the crime of obstructing a highway. Well, there were 12 other people out there that were charged with obstructing a highway that did not have these instruments. So, the law doesn’t apply on at least two out of the three prongs. The only incipient behavior in this case was the police officer, who did the purchasing, designing, building, constructing—


GREG GLADDEN: setting up and delivering.

AMY GOODMAN: So, very quickly—

GREG GLADDEN: Then—go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: —when you asked him to come to court, when you subpoenaed him, and he came to court, and you asked for particular items, what happened? Did he bring them?

GREG GLADDEN: He said that he did not write any offense reports. And there’s two other officers working with him that he confessed to when the judge really did a significant cross-examination of him in court. She was offended, it seemed like, because he showed up empty-handed. He had one piece of paper with some notes, random kind of notes of a meeting that was way earlier in the year. He said he had a thumb drive that had pictures of the instruments and pictures of the person he actually delivered them to and some other information on it, but he dropped it in a gutter on the way to work that morning accidentally. And so, basically, he showed up with nothing. And she took offense with that.

AMY GOODMAN: And emails? Did he say something about erasing emails?

GREG GLADDEN: Yes, he said that he had deleted all of his email related to this investigation. He said he wasn’t required to make an offense report because it wasn’t a criminal investigation. He said that he had deleted his text messages, that there were a lot of text messages going on. And I think the facts, from the witnesses that were involved, will say that there were these three officers that worked together. The other two officers we only know as Dirk and Rick. And the judge ordered him to—she said she wasn’t going to order him to give us those names, because the state was objecting to that at that moment. She said she was going to reset the case for one week. They were going to go back to Austin, get their tech people to pull out all of those deleted emails and erased text messages and get them from the phone companies, or whatever they need to do to get them, and come back with that stuff. And the following week, she would order him to give up the names and identities of the other two undercover police officers, or she was going to dismiss the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Greg Gladden, what is—

GREG GLADDEN: She hasn’t—

AMY GOODMAN: What is wrong with undercover police officers infiltrating groups like Occupy? What does it mean, under the law, when they say they’re just trying to ensure freedom of speech, that these groups remain peaceful?

GREG GLADDEN: Well, they’ve had two press conferences trying to explain themselves, this “fusion” outfit and Austin police. The first time—the first thing they said was that they built these things, infiltrated—built these things so that the demonstrators would be safe, that the devices—no one would get hurt with these devices when they used them or when they removed them, the fire department removed them. Within two or three days after that, they had completely changed courses and said these police officers were maybe not rogue, but they were not reporting that they were doing this, and that the higher-ups and their supervisors did not know they were doing it.

Basically, they’re trying to brand idealistic young people with felonies, which will have a profound impact on their lives, when they were not intending to commit any felonies, and virtually no one has—the judge had never heard of this statute when we first appeared in court. Most lawyers have not heard of this statute. And certainly these young people had never heard of this statute. So, basically, it’s—they’re getting grant money to investigate things they’re not investigating, and they’re creating problems where none exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Gladden, I want to thank you for being with us, attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, past president of the Texas ACLU, representing Ronnie Garza, one of seven members of Occupy Austin and other groups who face felony charges for engaging in direct action to block a street at the Port of Houston last December—the dragon sleeves, the PVC pipe they used, provided to them by undercover police officer Shannon Dowell. We’ll continue to follow this trial. Ronnie, thank you also very much for being with us from Austin. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Paralympics have wrapped up in London. We’ll speak with a former Paralympian. Stay with us.

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