We continue to look at the ACLU of Colorado’s new lawsuit against the FBI, the Colorado Springs Police Department and local officers for illegally spying on a local activist and a community organizing hub in Colorado Springs. The lawsuit accuses the agencies of “unconstitutional and invasive search and seizure of the phones, computers, devices, and private chats of people and groups whose message the Colorado Springs Police Department dislikes.” We speak to Colorado Springs activist Jacqueline “Jax” Armendariz Unzueta and reporter Trevor Aaronson.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue with Part 2 of our look at the ACLU of Colorado new lawsuit against the FBI, the Colorado Springs Police Department and local officers for illegally spying on a local activist and community organizing hub in Colorado Springs. The lawsuit accuses the agencies of, quote, “unconstitutional and invasive search and seizure of the phones, computers, devices, and private chats of people and groups whose message the Colorado Springs Police Department dislikes,” unquote.
We’re joined by one of the plaintiffs, a local activist named Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, known as Jax. Also with us, Trevor Aaronson, an award-winning investigative journalist, a contributing writer for The Intercept, where his new article is headlined “Lawsuit Targets FBI Probe of Racial Justice Activists.” He’s the author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. And he does the podcast called the Alphabet Boys.
I want to start with Jax, with Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, talking about what happened on July 31st, 2021. Can you talk about the protest you were involved with, the group you’re a part of, and what happened as you went out to protest?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Sure. So, on July 31, 2021, it was kind of a confluence of events. It was the deadline for the federal eviction moratorium. The city’s sesquicentennial celebration was also that day. And in general, the march itself was coordinated among a number of different groups, the Chinook Center being one of the main organizers, to address, in general, the housing crisis affecting the entire country. And so, we were out there that day to raise awareness to these issues. And in particular, you know, we were wearing shirts that said, “Housing is a human right.”
And for my part, as I mentioned previously, at the time, I was a U.S. Senate staffer, and we were actually working on some legislative policy research regarding the housing crisis and working with constituents, so it was important to me to show up in my neighborhood and hear what constituents were saying. And so, that’s the reason I was there.
I had actually only previously worked on maybe one other project with the Chinook Center, and that had to do with creating a mural that honored De’Von Bailey, who was shot and killed by a CSPD officer four years ago today. And that mural also includes honoring the S.B. 217 police accountability law that Colorado passed during BLM summer. So, that was the only connection I had to the Chinook Center prior to the housing rights march.
And in that moment, you know, the CSPD had been acting pretty aggressive towards us and seemed really amped up. And then, as soon as the chaos started, I happened to have my bike with me, and I was sort of at the top of this hill, and people were behind me. And as I turned around, I saw CSPD officers just completely dogpiled. I couldn’t see anyone else. And so, in that moment, split-second reaction, I’m turning around. I see an officer in full riot gear charging the crowd, thinking that he’s coming for me, you know, feeling unsafe, dropped my bike.
CSPD used that to retaliate against me and claim that I had intended to hurt him, which is a flat-out lie. But in doing so, that allowed them to obtain these completely unconstitutional warrants to invade my home, invade my privacy and confiscate every single electronic device I owned, which had the effect of leaving me in a blackout mode. And so, to me, the message was very clear that it was in retaliation for our organizing activity, our political speech. And that stayed with me deeply, affected me deeply. I have never been the same since then.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Jax, you said you were working for a U.S. senator. Who were you working for?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Yes. At the time, I was the regional representative for the Pueblo and southeastern Colorado area for Senator Michael Bennet.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened next?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: And for what it’s worth — yeah, for what it’s worth, I do believe that once CSPD learned even more of my political affiliations, I became more of a target.
And so, what happened next is, I had to pick up the pieces of my life. I had never been to jail before. And so, to have such a serious accusation lodged against me, I spent about, you know, a year and a half in the legal system, had to find a new job and had to just completely, again, pick up the pieces, while continuing our commitment to community organizing and speaking about these truths that we named, that CSPD was simply targeting us for truths that aren’t radical ideas.
AMY GOODMAN: The charge against you was?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Yes, initially, the charge against me was second-degree felony attempted aggravated assault on a police officer, because my bike fell near this officer, never struck him. He was able to avoid it, never even touched him.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Trevor Aaronson, if you could talk more about your report? We spoke about it, of course, in the first part of the interview. And in particular, and this may be a totally obvious question, but if you could elaborate on why it is that the FBI and the Colorado Springs Police Department took an interest in surveilling this community and putting an informer among them? What exactly was at stake? And then, also talk about how this focus on these activists completely, as your investigation shows, overshadowed an investigation into a neo-Nazi website operator, and explain what what happened subsequent to that.
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. So, what we know from FBI records is that the FBI initially launched an investigation in Denver of racial activist groups there, and the FBI’s informant, a violent felon named Mickey Windecker, had provided information to the FBI about activities in Colorado Springs. And that was the impetus for the FBI recruiting April Rogers, the Colorado Springs police detective, and inserting her into the Chinook Center and the activist groups as a volunteer. And this was part of a long-term effort of the FBI to investigate these groups.
What’s significant about the Colorado Springs case, as Jacqueline was describing, is that, you know, in this case, the Colorado Springs Police Department was infiltrating the Chinook Center and also pursuing warrants, search warrant applications, that did not in any way connect to the crimes, the alleged crimes. So, the crimes involving the activities at protests were used to justify what the ACLU terms as “blanket searches” of people’s devices, so Jacqueline’s computers, her phones, her hard drive, as well as the private messages of the Chinook Center’s Facebook page.
And it would be bad enough if it were just the Colorado Springs Police Department acting recklessly in regards to constitutional rights. But in this particular case, this was an investigation that was supervised and under the authority of both the FBI and the Justice Department.
And what’s significant is that this is not only a question of whether the FBI and the Colorado Springs Police Department were violating the constitutional rights of citizens there. This is also a question of law enforcement priorities. And what we know is that as the FBI and the Justice Department and the Colorado Springs Police Department were investigating the Chinook Center, were investigating people like Jax, they were also investigating the man who would later commit the horrific mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs. And instead of dropping investigations against the Chinook Center and people like Jax, the FBI and the Colorado Springs Police Department dropped the investigation of the neo-Nazi who would later kill people at the club, you know, raising questions about law enforcement priorities in a significant way.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from Colorado Springs police bodycam footage of local officers looking over a dossier of local activists.
SCOTT ALAMO: Christiansen is the white guy?
POLICE OFFICER 2: Yeah.
SCOTT ALAMO: Professor?
POLICE OFFICER 2: What did research say about him? They were indifferent?
SCOTT ALAMO: Yeah, you’re right.
POLICE OFFICER 2: What did research say? They’re indifferent?
SCOTT ALAMO: Yeah, indifferent, didn’t respond.
POLICE OFFICER 3: No, they didn’t see the items. Doesn’t mean they don’t have a car parked somewhere. Staged.
SCOTT ALAMO: Like you said, boot to the face.
POLICE OFFICER 3: I wouldn’t underestimate —
SCOTT ALAMO: It’s going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: So, they’re looking at photographs. Trevor Aaronson, can you explain what’s taking place here and when this is?
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. And I think it’s important to point out that we have access to this video due to Jax’s very tenacious defense in her case. She was able to get discovery of the body-camera footage of these CSPD officers at the housing march, where a number of activists were arrested, where April Rogers, the undercover detective, was posing as an activist.
And what you see in this video is a Colorado Springs police officer, Scott Alamo, looking over a dossier including photos of activists that were taken from social media. And this appears to be part of a larger FBI program that is used in partnership with local law enforcement agencies, called Social Media Exploitation, or SOMEX, where the FBI and local police partners are basically mining social media for photos, information and data on people, without warrants. And the extent of this program is still quite unknown. But what we know from records is that going back to the summer of 2020, the FBI was using agents and local police partners to monitor Twitter posts, to monitor Facebook event pages, and building records of people who were attending events that were related to the racial justice demonstrations that summer — all of it, obviously, First Amendment-protected behavior, but was the type of information that the FBI was tracking, as if these people were committing crimes.
And so, what’s significant about this is that as the FBI and the Colorado Springs Police Department were pursuing abusive warrants, such as those that targeted Jacqueline, they were also using this new program called Social Media Exploitation to build, essentially, dossiers on activists, who were not accused of crimes and for which there was no probable cause that they were committing crimes. And so, the constitutional questions are quite obvious in this particular situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, they talk about the professor. Explain who the professor is, I believe the husband of the founder —
TREVOR AARONSON: So, the professor —
AMY GOODMAN: — of the Chinook Center.
TREVOR AARONSON: The professor is Jon Christiansen. He’s one of the founders of the Chinook Center. They say it derisively because Jon is a sociology professor at the local college. And what’s significant about that is Jon was attending the housing rights march, as was Jax, that day. And what the CSPD had done was build a list of people that they planned to arrest. And those pictures on the dossier were among the people that they were planning to arrest. Jon’s picture was among them. And so, they were looking at the picture, pointing out that that’s Jon Christiansen, the professor, and, you know, showing that not only are they intending to arrest him, but that they’re planning to do so violently, given the police officer’s comment, “boot to the face.”
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is all stunning. And we started talking about this in Part 1. But, Jax, if you can talk about how you got this information, and especially realizing who a woman you knew as “Chelsie,” but actually was April Rogers, who is undercover Colorado Springs police working for the FBI? How close had you gotten to her in that year? And how — what kind of effect did this have on your life, knowing, realizing how long you had been spied on?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Right. Thanks for that. Well, to clarify, the interesting thing here, which kind of underscores what we’ve been saying, that CSPD was reaching, so to speak, is I had never met Chelsie, quote-unquote, “Chelsie,” April Rogers. I did not know about her until I received the discovery from my case. And so, the effect was, you know, even more chilling, even more startling, because all of us were left totally shocked that we had been violated in such a way.
And as for, again, how this impacted me, I think it’s really important for me to reiterate what Trevor said, which is that I later found out, while I was being prosecuted by the 4th Judicial District here, District Attorney Michael Allen’s office, who I believe is complicit in this wrongdoing, I later found out that the club shooter, Club Q shooter, had been essentially let go from their prosecution for calling in a bomb threat to a neighborhood. And that person later went on to kill my friend’s boyfriend Raymond. So, that was profoundly impactful to find that out. And as I said, I’ve never been the same. And it is the support of my family and community, places like the Chinook Center, have gotten me through this, because this case also shows that CSPD has a pattern and practice of targeting and retaliating against people like me for our political beliefs.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jax, if you could talk about the impact this has had on organizers in Colorado, more broadly?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Yeah, I think that, you know, undoubtedly, this story has made national, international headlines. And so, it has left us with a bunch of conflicting emotions. I think we continue to be motivated to pursue justice and protect our community, protect our rights, which is what this case is about, protect our democracy, which is what this case is about. But, you know, I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t scared, because the retaliation and the targeting shows that CSPD apparently has such animus towards us for what we believe, and is willing to violate our constitutional rights, are willing to commit violence against us, simply for what we believe. So, it’s quite a mixed bag of emotions for us, but we continue to pursue community organizing here in Colorado Springs.
AMY GOODMAN: If, Trevor, you can talk about putting this in a larger picture? We’ve had you on before for the beginning of the Alphabet Boys, but there are a lot of people who must be scratching their heads right now. Like, what is going on here in Colorado? So, though you’ve touched on it, go back to the beginning and talk about what seems like this just massive dragnet, from Denver to Colorado Springs. And put this all in a historical perspective.
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. You know, as you and, I’m sure, a lot of your listeners know, there was a lot of speculation and rumors about FBI and law enforcement infiltration of racial justice groups during the summer of 2020. And this case in Colorado is the first documented proof that the FBI had, in fact, infiltrated racial justice groups that summer.
And what this story is about is, in May of 2020, a violent felon, who was a career informant named Mickey Windecker, had approached the FBI and offered unique information — claiming to offer unique information about racial justice demonstrators in Denver. And the FBI reports clearly show that the information he provided was all First Amendment-protected activity. It was activists saying inflammatory or incendiary things — concerning, maybe, but certainly protected by the First Amendment. And that was the basis for which the FBI opened its investigation in Denver.
Keep in mind that this is in 2020. This is three years after the FBI had identified what it called “black identity extremism,” a quite questionable domestic terrorism ideology that had come to be defined within the FBI after the Ferguson unrest. And so, the FBI that summer was viewing these demonstrations with, you know, at best, skepticism; at worst, with a belief that there was some sort of sinister plot behind a lot of this activism. And so, when Mickey Windecker comes to them and asks, you know, for the opportunity to infiltrate these groups, the FBI puts him up to it and pays him tens of thousands of dollars. And he’s providing information to the FBI about activist groups in Denver, about activists in Denver, and also trying to set up individual activists in crimes.
The case that happened in Colorado Springs is a direct offspring of that one, in that Mickey Windecker provided information to the FBI about Colorado Springs activists. And that was the impetus for the FBI partnering with the Colorado Springs Police Department to recruit April Rogers, the detective, and insert her into the Chinook Center, which is something of an organizing center of activist community there. And then that investigation ultimately took on a life of its own, lasted far longer than the Denver one did, in that April Rogers was undercover for more than a year while they were collecting information about activists there.
And what’s significant here, in both Denver and Colorado Springs, is that the paperwork and the documents that we’ve been able to uncover and the recordings that we’ve been able to uncover clearly show that the FBI was investigating activists like Jax and activists in Denver based almost entirely on First Amendment-protected activity, or, as in the case of Jax and the search warrants that are at issue in the ACLU case, alleged crimes that had nothing to do with any sort of communications were used to justify, you know, these dragnet surveillance warrants, such as getting all of Jax’s electronic devices, getting the communications, private communications, of the Chinook Center. And so, you know, what this clearly shows is that the FBI was not only investigating, or seemingly investigating, crimes or alleged crimes, but it was using the cover of investigations to build dossiers and collect information about activists who were primarily exercising their First Amendment-protected rights.
AMY GOODMAN: And is April Rogers still working for the Colorado Springs Police Department and the FBI?
TREVOR AARONSON: So, as far as we know, she is still employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the tape you had played earlier, in the first segment, she testified that she was under the authority of the FBI at that time. That was about a year ago today. So, we can’t comment specifically on whether she’s still working for the FBI, but she still is employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
AMY GOODMAN: And is this surveillance continuing? Do you have any way of knowing?
TREVOR AARONSON: We don’t have any way of knowing at this time. You know, what we do know is that April Rogers, under guidance from the Justice Department lawyer in the state case a year ago, declined to answer any questions at all related to the investigation, and that this is something that the Justice Department still is involved in. Whether this infiltration is still happening is unclear. It wouldn’t surprise me if it is, but we don’t have any direct information on that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Jax, if you could talk about the city of Colorado Springs considering a ballot measure to provide $5 million for a new police training academy? Can you talk about this proposal, and then the Colorado Senate Bill 20-217, the Enhanced Law Enforcement Integrity Act? Can you talk about both of these pieces of legislation?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Absolutely, Amy. And thank you so much for bringing that up, because it’s super important to us.
So, first, what you mentioned is, essentially, city leaders here are asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a mini Cop City in Colorado Springs. Their plans are not very clear at this point. They want more money for police infrastructure. And we already have a movement afoot. Many of the same organizers who were touched by this violation of our rights, myself included, we are organizing to have a petition, already signed, hundreds of signatures, to let city leaders know that we do not approve of this ask. We want them to invest our taxpayer money in addressing the housing crisis. And this case just goes to show that they have some serious shortcomings — namely, violating people’s constitutional rights — to address before they continue to ask for more money for police infrastructure.
And kind of at the state level, we have this law, S.B. 217, that was passed during BLM summer, which was one of the most preeminent in the nation, kind of hailed for its revolutionary nature of actually demanding police accountability. And so, part of that law allows attorney Phil general — excuse me, Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office the discretion to conduct a pattern and practice investigation. And here in Colorado Springs, that is something we absolutely want, we plan to demand further, because this case is evidence of CSPD’s pattern and practice of targeting, retaliating and violating people’s constitutional rights based on our free speech. And that’s something we hope, again, that the attorney general will take up, because there has been a pattern and practice investigation already conducted in Colorado, which was about the Aurora Police Department.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us where your lawsuit stands right now?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Certainly. So, Tuesday was the filing. So this is really the beginning of a whole new chapter. We understand we have a magistrate judge assigned. And we will continue to progress. And the next step is, you know, informing the city, that there’s the process serving, that there’s been a lawsuit. And then there will be communication between the two opposing counsels. And we did ask for a trial by jury, and this is in U.S. district court.
AMY GOODMAN: And you mentioned Aurora, where Elijah McClain lost his life at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics, was skipping down the street, having just bought iced tea, played violin at a local shelter for cats and dogs. The police took him down, and when the paramedics got there, they injected him with ketamine, a massive dose, and he died, young man in his twenties. Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about the Aurora police?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: I think, in part, certainly, Elijah McClain’s murder played a role in the Attorney General Office using S.B. 217 to conduct a pattern and practice investigation of Aurora. And I would mention again, today is the four-year anniversary of CSPD shooting and killing De’Von Bailey in our community, a 19-year-old Black man who they shot in the back as he ran away.
AMY GOODMAN: And what came of that? Was anyone charged?
JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: My understanding is that it did go before a grand jury. And the way that Colorado law was written at the time, frankly, quote-unquote, “justified” the conduct of the police officer.
AMY GOODMAN: Trevor Aaronson, we’re going to end with you. We just have a minute to go. You are doing this amazing podcast series called the Alphabet Boys. How does this fit into this larger picture?
TREVOR AARONSON: Yeah, so, what Alphabet Boys shows and what the case in Colorado Springs shows is that, you know, what we’re seeing now is really, you know, living in this post-9/11 era, with the “war on terror” waning, the FBI still very much has the powers that it attained as a result of the “war on terror.” And, you know, in the hunt for terrorists, finding fewer terrorists now, they are turning these powers toward other targets, including political activists like Jax and the Chinook Center. It is not — you know, it is not insignificant that Jax and the Chinook Center were investigated as part of a Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation that includes CSPD and the FBI.
And I think that’s the concerning takeaway from this, is: In what ways are these vast powers that were granted to federal law enforcement, and bestowed on local law enforcement, in order to find terrorists now being redirected against political activists or people whose opinions law — or, whose beliefs law enforcement and, you know, the government may find unfavorable?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, a deep dive into all of this, Trevor Aaronson, award-winning investigative journalist, contributing writer for The Intercept. We’ll link to “Lawsuit Targets FBI Probe of Racial Justice Activists.” He is the creator of the Alphabet Boys podcast. And we want to thank Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, a Colorado Springs community organizer. Jax is a plaintiff in the new ACLU of Colorado lawsuit.
That does it for this discussion. To go to the first part of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.