LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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.
Authorities also used security cameras mounted outside City Hall, where the camp was located, and monitored publicly available Internet chatter and video on social-networking sites such as Twitter, 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.
Civil liberties advocates said they were troubled by law enforcement’s infiltration of peaceful demonstrations, although the LAPD’s undercover efforts were not unique.
“We had reports that there were individuals advocating violence against police and taking steps to commit violence,” the senior LAPD source said. “In that vein we investigated that. What we didn’t do was spy or monitor or interact with those engaged with First Amendment activities.”
Elise Whitaker, an Occupy LA organizer, said she was not surprised to hear that police sent undercover officers into the camp but said she believes such surveillance proved unwarranted because the demonstration was peaceful.
“I’m not thrilled about it,” she said. “It’s demeaning to the movement. It suggests that we are not who we say we are. It suggests that they don’t trust us.”
Occupy LA was not alone. According to the New York Times, the New York police also sent plainclothes officers into Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to gather intelligence on protesters there.
The Los Angeles encampment had been among the largest on the West Coast aligned with a movement that began in New York in September to protest against economic inequality and excesses of the U.S. financial system.
At its peak, officials said, some 2,000 people and more than 500 tents were present there. Los Angeles officials had allowed the camp to remain open even as other cities forced the removal of similar compounds. But mounting complaints of sanitation problems, property damage, drugs and the presence of children prompted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to finally order the tenty city closed.
In the end, nearly 300 Los Angeles demonstrators were arrested the night police raided their encampment, nearly all for defying orders to leave but with little violence.
After clearing the encampment, however, police found buckets of feces, water bottles filled with urine and pieces of bamboo with sharpened tips stashed in bushes and trees, police and city sources told Reuters.
One police source said officers discovered a pickup truck parked near City Hall the night before the eviction with about 100 sharpened bamboo sticks stashed in the bed of the vehicle.
Another, LAPD Commander Andy Smith, said bamboo spears were thrown from the crowd at police at the outset of the November 30 eviction raid, though no one was reported hurt.
Villaraigosa praised the LAPD for clearing the camp without the use of tear gas, pepper spray or violent clashes that marred Occupy evictions in other cities.
The City Attorney’s Office has so far filed formal charges against seven people arrested before the raid and accused of violations ranging from weapons possession, battery, assault with a deadly weapon and lewd conduct.
The cases, all misdemeanors, included an alleged gang-related fight and a person arrested on accusations of masturbating in the presence of children, prosecutors said.
But police said a key concern about the eviction stemmed from some individuals in the camp identified as belonging to or affiliated with radical organizations such as Sovereign Citizens, which the FBI classifies as an “extremist anti-government group,” and the Black Riders Liberation Party, deemed a “domestic terrorist group” by the LAPD.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said that while such covert actions may raise questions about intrusions on civil liberties, police officers in or out of uniform have the same right to be in a public space as anyone else.
She added that there was nothing to suggest the LAPD’s surveillance violated Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“It’s always worrisome, of course, when you’re doing undercover operations, but sometimes it’s necessary,” Levenson said. “It’s completely expected for safety reasons, if nothing else. They wanted to know what they were going to confront.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine, school of law, said courts have been unreceptive to claims that protest infiltration by undercover police undermines the First Amendment.
Still, he called such surveillance very troubling because it “risks chilling free-speech activity.”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, agreed. “It should make everybody at least uncomfortable, he said, adding, “That’s the fundamental difference between America’s free democratic system and the kind of system one would expect to find in Iran.”
Asher Simcha, a spokesman for Sovereign Citizens, a group that rejects the legitimacy of government institutions, including tax collection, said he and other members of the group were uniting with Occupy LA protesters against what he called corruption. But he denied that the group posed a danger, saying, “We don’t believe in violence.”
Laa Laa Shakur, chief of staff for the Black Riders Liberation Party, said members of her group dropped into the Occupy LA camp on occasion to pass out literature promoting unity within “oppressed communities,” but said that they did not camp there or take part in the protests.
“They’re slandering the organization,” she said.
The Black Riders, a spinoff of the Black Panther Party, once threatened to take over four Los Angeles police stations and kill as many officers as possible in furtherance of its black separatist and anti-government agenda, according to a 2009 LAPD report on policing terrorism.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan