THE BLOG
12/02/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2014

Trial Begins in Los Angeles for Zapatista Protesters Attacked by Police

The jury trial begins this week in the case of the Foxy Six, the California protesters arrested and allegedly brutalized by police at the Pasadena Civic Center over a year ago. The stakes are worryingly high, with felony "resisting arrest" and misdemeanor battery on an officer charges pending against the group, and the looming consequence of imprisonment and fines. And though there is little evidence to support convictions, the zealousness of the Los Angeles County Attorney's office in pursuing the charges means the four defendants may end up jailed for the crime of being roughed up by police.

The trial arises from an incident that took place on November 14 of 2012. The group was protesting an appearance by the former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox. The action arose as part of the "Worldwide Echo" campaign against the Mexican government's militarization and crackdown against Zapatista communities in the Chiapas region, and specifically Fox's role in protecting those responsible for the brutal 1997 Acteal Massacre in which 45 Christian pacifists were murdered. (The people of Chiapas have long been engaged in a quite beautiful struggle for dignity and self-rule, and have been consistently met with fierce hostility from the state in response.)

On the night of the protest, as the first demonstrators arrived, police began a bizarre process of selecting which ones would be permitted to remain on the sidewalk outside the Civic Center. Citing a supposed "last-minute" permit that had closed the public sidewalk, the police tried to separate those they thought were political from those they thought were at the civic center for acceptable reasons. As 40 officers were dispatched to deal with the 50-100 protesters handing out flyers, officers first began to shout at protesters that the sidewalk had been "bought" for the night by the Civic Center event, then rushing into the crowd to arrest demonstrators at random.

The witness statements from the night are consistent. In particular, nearly all describe an Officer Crees as becoming violent without provocation, arresting and hitting people at random. 18 participants have since filed civil claims for brutality against the Pasadena police (protesters came away with lacerations and bruises, and one was hospitalized, while no officers reported any injuries). One protester said he "was choked by police officers after he was handcuffed and slammed against a police car." Others describe being body-slammed to the ground, and seeing policemen wielding batons charging into the crowd.

As one protester put it in a Facebook post the night of the incident:

That was easily the most violent thing I've ever seen. [We] were at the Vicente Fox protest and a cop came up and grabbed one of our guys. He slammed him to the ground and then a bunch of other cops came up... A few of them grabbed somebody else and dragged him into the parking lot and arrested him... then they started advancing and grabbing people...The K9 Units came in, and then the SWAT team.

Particularly egregious was the treatment of 23-year-old Christopher Wohlers, a Christian activist without any criminal history and now facing charges. One witness describes the treatment of Wohlers:

I saw Sergeant Creese run and punch Christopher Wohlers in the face. Then he slammed Wohlers into the concrete side of a parking structure, and slammed Wohlers into the street as he handcuffed him. Creese was so rough with Wohlers that his glasses flew off and broke. He then picked Wohlers up by his belt loops and threw him in the backseat of a police car.

Wohlers was hardly alone, though, and accounts by protesters paint a disturbing picture of a police department run amok, lashing out in fury at a group handing out flyers, grinding people's faces into the concrete and tossing demonstrators about with abandon. Participants in particular described Crees as having expressions mixing "rage" and "relish" as he picked out protesters to attack.

In the year since the incident, two of the six defendants have had their charges reduced to jaywalking and have entered pleas. But the four that go on trial this week are now facing felonies, on allegations from police that in the melee, demonstrators tried to grab police batons and shoved officers.

There's no evidence to support a conviction. None of the officers' statements have evidence that even approaches a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. They mostly describing vague jostling and squirming by anonymous protesters, as well as the classic riot accusation "throwing things" (what things, we haven't a clue). There are plenty of videos from the night, too, and none show the kind of riotous behavior police would like to sustain felony convictions on. As the Foxy Six defense attorney has noted, viewers "don't see any of the protesters so much as touch, hit push or act in a way that can be construed as physical with the officers."

The case is an important illustration of the unchecked power of American police and prosecutors to overcharge defendants, and the chilling effect on free speech that police suppression of protests can have. Across the country, this sort of treatment of peaceful protesters is rampant, from the City College of New York protesters recently given a bevy of charges for trying to keep their student center open to Tim DeChristopher's two years in prison for peaceably disrupting the auction by the U.S. government of cheap land to oil and gas companies.

But the Foxy Six case might be an even more serious abuse of power. There, activists were not actually engaged in any act of intentional civil disobedience, but congregating to hand out flyers on a public sidewalk when the police reportedly launched their assault. There's hardly a more innocuous or less disruptive form of political expression.

In a reasonable justice system, the officers would be the ones on trial in Los Angeles this week. With near uniform reports by those present that the officers arrested and clubbed people with no discernable purpose, it is a bitter irony that charges now pend against those who found themselves shoved to the cement and thrown against police cars. But prosecutors, and police officers, wield extreme amounts of negotiating power, and with the LA district attorney unwilling to exercise even a modicum of reason and compassion, those victimized once already by batons and fists are now under further assault by a criminal justice system that will neither back down nor admit error.