Works In Progress

WIP Issues : August 2011

 


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Caitlin Payne Roberts
Human rights violations continue in Honduras


Jeff Siddiqui
Challenging Islamophobia at the border


Wendy Tanowitz
Nuclear power and natural disasters


WIP News Service
Police harassment on the streets of Olympia


David Groves
"We're all going to jail as a union"


Adam Keller
Crazy Country blog


Dana Walker
Somewhere under the Rainbow


Carole Willey
A medical paradigm shift is needed


Marco Rosaire Rossi
Humanist reflections on the life and death of Osama bin Laden


Wally Cuddeford
Further thoughts on the Tony Overman situation


Marco Rosaire Rossi
Honduras before the coup


Letters to Works In Progress


SchNews


News shorts



Police harassment on the streets of Olympia: A local activist speaks out

Interview from WIP News Service

MC Strife (a.k.a. Paul French) is a local musician, anarchist, and activist. For years, he has been active in organizing here in Olympia, most recently in opposition to the new anti-busking law passed by the City Council,as well as around issues of police brutality and class struggle. In 2010, based solely on the testimony of one police officer, Strife was convicted of assault against that officer. With a felony record, he has been politically, socially, and economically disenfranchised as a result.

Strife has been the target of a consistent campaign of police harassment downtown, relating to his activist work. Court records and communications between various law enforcement agencies, received through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that Strife has come under the specific attention of local police, who have been using police connections to monitor his activities as far away as California. Strife has shared the relevant documents with Works In Progress. [See right-hand column.]

In the midst of this ongoing harassment, Strife is choosing this moment to make his situation public.

First, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I originally came to Olympia because of a serious case of wanderlust. I lived in North Carolina for 20 years so moving to Olympia in 2006 seemed like a breath of fresh air. Here I finished my last 2 years of higher education at the Evergreen State College. A long-time fan of hip hop, I first learned how to emcee here and formed a Hip Hop group called Thought Crime Collective. My music draws inspiration from Olympia's vibrant activist community and the inspirational example of people overcoming their differences and militantly confronting the imperialist war machine at our ports. This is how I first cut my teeth in Olympia, organizing students through Hip Hop Congress and Sabot Infoshoppe (a radical lending library) and doing Port Militarization Resistance work with brave people from many different backgrounds.

How would you describe your politics?

I'm an anarchist at heart. I'm against all bosses, borders, nations, and corporations that keep us fooled. It's true what they say: Revolutionaries fight back nail and tooth. They call me a radical cause I strike at the root, and an insurrectionist cause I don't trust those that rule. They call me a criminal cause I expose structural violence, and a thought criminal because free thought is dangerous to tyrants. I'm an eco-primitivist cause I know the earth suffers, and an anarcho-syndicalist cause I know the state's a buffer. I'm an abolitionist cause I know that wage slavery's a bust. The truth is, I pay attention, so I know that power always corrupts.

What activist work are you involved in?

I was almost illegally evicted recently, so I've been focusing on homelessness advocacy through the new group CIVIL (Citizens In Violation of Illegal Laws), and organizing the street community to assert their rights, restarting the copwatch downtown and trying to oppose all the unjust laws downtown that make a crime out of being poor. I don't appreciate how the Downtown Business Association and other powerful local actors are using these restrictive laws and an abusive police force to sweep the poor under the rug, so they don't have to see the blood on their hands - the displaced people, the shattered, fractured lives that their unequal system leaves in its wake.

In the past, I've coordinated a radical lending library called the Sabot Infoshoppe and took part in the anti-police rallies on the 4th Ave. bridge (where I personally met the military spy John Towery). I've done Port Militarization Resistance work in Olympia and Tacoma. I was also involved in the Smash ICE movement to stop the Wells Fargo-built immigration detention center in Tacoma. I've participated in solidarity actions with the Greek Insurrection after the 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by Athens police in 2008, and I helped bring Dead Prez to Evergreen through my work with Hip Hop Congress the same year.

More recently, I've done benefit shows in Portland to help save the Black Rose Infoshop, I performed at the Olympia Capitol Protest against the slashing of vital social services, and done spoken word at three different Bank of America Protests with the Olympia and Portland chapters of US Uncut. Lastly, I've been doing support work for Scott Yoos, a dear friend and disabled community activist brutalized by the police. I helped organize the People Park Occupation last month and in 2010 I was framed for punching a cop at the State Street 29 action in support of Oscar Grant, a man who was extra-judicially murdered by a BART transit cop in Oakland when he was on his knees with his hands tied behind his back.

Tell everyone about your music.

Thought Crime Collective consists of some of the Illest MCs and producers found on the North American landmass. We act as embedded journalists on the front lines of the revolution. Our music can be viewed as a call to arms, as an exercise in testing the limits of free speech in our supposedly free society and as a living historical document to inspire future generations to resist the onslaught of the corporatocracy...

Our west coast affiliates can be found in Olympia, Portland, and Oakland. Our East Coast contingent holds it down in Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina. We dropped our first album, "Love & Rage" in 2010 and we are pleased to announce that we have a slew of new projects in the works including a new West Coast full length album tentatively called "Spliffs, Fists, & Clips" and a new East Coast collaboration EP entitled "Revolutionary Suicide" which should be dropping in the next few months as well! [All of TCC's material is available at www.spraygraphic.com/thoughtcrimecollective. And you can download 17 songs for free at www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandid=1140475.]

Starting last year, you got increased attention from the police around town. What was the first thing that made you say, "Hey, maybe this isn't just a couple chance encounters with police. Maybe I'm being singled out."

Well, as a person who was raised by activist intellectuals (both teachers - one's a historian the other an anthropologist), I have to admit I wasn't surprised about the political repression in the least. Especially due to the militant nature of my music, which is directly influenced by the radical protests and actions I engage in. Although I had sneaking suspicions, I never had any proof of this until Drew Hendricks did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which revealed law enforcement exchanges between the Olympia Police Department (OPD) and Washington State Patrol (WSP). That demonstrated that authorities had been spying on me through my Facebook, they knew the make/model/license plate of my car, they knew where I lived, and they knew that I was going to perform at the Olympia Capitol Occupation on April 5, 2011. They referred to me interchangeably as Paul French and the "white rapper" in their e-mail exchanges. The state was also documenting my friendships and associations, as evidenced by an exchange about a trip I took to Sacramento in solidarity with the California Teacher's Strike that happened early May 2011. Most disturbingly, Drew also discovered that OPD Detective Rich Allen may be receiving pressure from Seattle Detectives and even "domestic terrorism people" to either frame me or try to pressure me for information that I don't have on the arson that happened at the West Side police substation a few months ago.

So all I can say is that I did expect some surveillance and state intimidation, but never to the extent that the Freedom of Information Act requests revealed. What was especially concerning was that the WSP had originally planned to engage in some kind of undefined contact with me before I performed on April 5 at the Capitol, but I performed two hours early, so the exchanges have a vexed tone to them. Then the second e-mail between Detective Allen and Darrin Reedy (a Crime Analyst), revealed that other unnamed departments in the region were requesting information on me. They seemed to be communicating about me as if they might be attempting to hold me responsible for any illegal actions taken at the Capitol the day I performed. The exact quote from the e-mail read... "He performed at 1600 [hours]... 81 peopled rushed the governor's office and they had to lock down the offices... they left fairly quickly after that... No physical confrontations..."

This is especially important in light of the frame-up that the state was able to carry out against me successfully at the State Street 29 protest one year earlier. Officer Sean Lindros lied and said that I punched him in the face, even though he misidentified the color of my bandana, and had no visible marks or bruises in the pictures he took of his face after the protest.

[Strife provided WIP with photos of himself and of Sean Lindros taken by OPD after the incident. In his police report, Lindros referred to these as "Photos of my injuries." No "injuries" or indications of contact of any kind were apparent in the photos of Lindros. Lindros also claimed he identified Strife out of the crowd based solely on the fact that the person who allegedly punched him was wearing a blue bandana. However, the arrest photo clearly shows Strife wearing a bandana of a different color.]

At the time, you told friends of yours, "Hey, I think something's up. I think the cops are harassing me." And people didn't believe you. What was it like, to be in that position?

It was immensely frustrating. I felt alienated from my own friends and social scene. I'm largely to blame because I cut off a lot of ties with people I knew who were trying to support me, because of how suspicious I had become about informants. Looking back, my response was probably exactly what the state was aiming for, and why they are especially worried now that I have continued building relationships in the activist community. Watching as the Olympian dragged my name through the mud for something I never did, becoming demonized as the poster child for the "bad protester" archetype and facing jail time, even though I only marched that night to hand out flyers, had a kind of nightmarish Kafkaesque quality to it. Knowing intrinsically that something was wrong, but being unable to convince anyone of the false nature of the charges against me, nearly drove me to the edge of my sanity, and led to my first and only nervous breakdown. When I spoke to people about all the parallels between my case and other known cases of surveillance, like the John Towery fiasco, or the Phil Chinn debacle, I would either get blown off as paranoid, or people would scoff and incredulously declare, "You really think the authorities don't have better things to do than watch your every move?" The catch is, I can't technically be considered paranoid, if it's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the powerful are out to get me. It's vindicating that we finally have that proof.

What do you think the point was, for the cops to be targeting and harassing you like this? What do you think they hoped to achieve?

I can only speculate that they are attempting to get me to drop out of the activist community, or maybe they are trying to run me out of town. Maybe they thought that I'd miss one of the many court dates, so they'd be able to bring me into custody and pressure me to give up information about other local anarchists. Giving me six tickets in two months has also forced me into a corner financially. I suppose the authorities were trying to make it generally untenable for me to show my face on the streets at any time without facing legal, financial, and political repercussions because of my work bridging the activist and street communities.

What's been their most frequent method of harassing you downtown?

I am downtown all the time busking, so I've been charged with pedestrian interference by OPD only to be pulled over by WSP less than 5 minutes after getting into my car. The most common way of concealing the political nature of the harassment was pulling me over while I was driving perfectly well. They would use a number of pretexts, and then repeatedly give me the same $550 "driving without insurance" ticket. The excuses they've pulled me over for include that my muffler was too loud, a passenger was not wearing a seat-belt, Washington is a two-license plate state. WSP Somerville even had the gall to lie to my face and say that my front lights didn't work when they did. But the important thing is, they wouldn't give me a ticket for the pretext - just the one for "driving without insurance."

And recently, they've been targeting you for your work in opposing the busking ban?

Yes, I have an interesting story about that situation. Tired of being hassled for "busking without a permit," I went down to the Olympia Building with $100 ready to purchase a permit, only to be notified that there was no such thing. Busking permits are only given to local businesses to expand the four locations that are okay to legally busk downtown. (Last Word Books has the only permit so far.) The staff handed me a busking map with this information, and I immediately made 100 copies and went around handing it out to everyone on the streets, telling people to "Know Your Rights," and obviously making it a bit harder for the police to harass, jail, and rob poor people.

But it doesn't end there. Officer J Herbig pulled up a week after this incident, and called me by my full name over to his SUV. Mentioning that there had been a memo from the higher-ups circulating about my role in publicizing the free busking zones, he told me he'd been looking for me and insisted that I hold on a second, while he went down to city hall and printed out another copy of the busking map and the legal definition of busking. He tried to convince me that what I was doing (offering political shirts and books for donation on the street with no "expectation of payment") did not fall under the rubric for busking, which usually involves some kind of public performance. So he was trying to argue that I wasn't allowed to do that even in the busking-permitted zones. I then replied that I had over 4,000 pages of poetry and that I would be happy to perform for the passers-by to meet this requirement. This is where things get surreal. Herbig then got on his police bullhorn, and jokingly introduced me thusly, "Listen up everyone, Strife of Thought Crime Collective has something to say!" Nonetheless I was shaken by this acknowledgement of my music. He then left shortly after, without incident. But the whole "You are breaking the law, you are not busking" angle would be picked up on a month later by Ruth Snyder, the code enforcement officer and one of the most vocal proponents of downtown yuppification who continued to threaten to have me arrested and cited for bringing my screenprints downtown.

Let's go back a bit, and talk about State Street. You were arrested, along with a handful of others, and you ended up being convicted of felony assault against an officer. What happened there?

The logistics of what happened during the end of the march were pretty suspicious. I committed no acts of vandalism and no violence against police, however I was singled out as the "kid with the banner" moments after a highly coordinated take-down where the rest of the march linked arms and passively got "liberal-arrested," rather than fighting back or fleeing the situation. There was an unmarked SUV with California license plates at the take-down, and my roommate can testify that after arresting 3 out of 5 members of my hip hop group, the officers processing us were joking that, "I guess Thought Crime Collective isn't playing tonight..."

Tell everyone a little bit about your legal battle after your arrest. How did that go?

I didn't have the money for a lawyer so I took a public pretender who convinced me to cop to an Alford Plea, which paradoxically counts as a guilty plea while still allowing me to maintain my innocence. Using an Alford Plea meant that I wouldn't have to implicate others or testify in court, and I took it because I felt that the state would be able to convince a jury to be biased against me because of my politics.

Looking back in retrospect, what do you think about the State Street march? Some people will say, "Oh, this guy was arrested in one of those black bloc marches, so it doesn't matter if the police harass him. He deserves whatever he gets." What do you say to that?

That doesn't really make sense, when you think about it. People participate in black bloc actions for different reasons. The anarchist movement is never as unified and monolithic as the media likes to imply. There is no central committee dictating policy or coordinating actions. Personally, I marched that night against police brutality and to hand out flyers to people so they would become more aware of the truly horrific situation that people of color, homeless folks, and the poor face every day, being treated like second class citizens. Despite the fact I didn't engage in any illegal behavior, I was framed and served two months in jail, possibly in retaliation for my music, but definitely in retaliation for my politics. Even if you're of the opinion that I deserved jail time for going to the protest, I served the sentence and my participation in this event shouldn't be a blank check for the powerful to watch my every move and nullify my rights to free speech and to protest grievances. Trust me, no one wants a coercive society where certain people have the power to define which ideas are acceptable and which ideas are so abhorrent you shouldn't even be allowed to debate them. How can you have freedom of thought in a society where you are not allowed to discuss large uncomfortable truths? As Voltaire said, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say them."

How do you think your arrest at the State Street demo relates to the current harassment against you by OPD?

Stick your neck out long enough you get it chopped off, right? Only if you haven't built a network of solidarity and a community of friends who are willing to snatch the executioner's blade. That's why I'm finally exposing this harassment. There's nothing particularly special about me. I'm outspoken, I'm a poet, I'm an activist, that's true. But lots of people fit those categories and received similar if not worse treatment from the establishment. I am coming forward with these FOIA documents (available at www.olywip.org) in the hope that other people who are going through the same thing will come forward and tell their stories so we can have community dialogue and hold the powerful accountable for their abuse, so we can unify and reverse the dampening effect that the Towery situation has had on our ability to effectively organize and resist the machinations of the powerful.

What do you hope to see going forward, both in our community, and in your own situation?

I hope to be able to live and organize in Olympia for a long time. I hope this exposé convinces the establishment to end its attempts to silence me through overt and covert means. I see our movement overcoming all of this political repression and getting off the ropes to take the ring once more and knock these bullies straight on their asses. I hope to help unify the divergent groups and remind people that we all have the same foes in this fight and that right now, we may not have it all together, but together we could have it all.


FOIA documents reveal particular police interest in MC Strife (Also available in pdf format)

Police keeping tabs on Strife during the April Week of Action


Here, the police narrative makes a point to connect Strife's performance at the Capitol occupation with ensuing actions by others


Tony Sermonti (former Olympia City Council candidate) shares info on MC Strife's activities with the Washington State Patrol, who then pass it around


Police in WA sharing info on Strife as he travels to California


A report from one of the several traffic stops Strife has been subjected to since he became politically active in Olympia. (The named car belonged to Strife at the time.)


Cover sheet to the records request. When a government agency withholds records, they can only do so on legally approved grounds, are required to provide an explanation of what those grounds are. In this case, OPD puts forward the claim that Strife is currently under investigation for arson, while no evidence is provided Strife had anything to do with any arson at all.


Photos of Strife, and of Officer Lindros' "injuries"


OPD plan for the April Week of Action


Police in California, asking police in WA for information on anarchist activities in CA which they themselves don't have


OPD Detective Rich Allen, in communication with Seattle detectives and "domestic terrorism people"