Persecution in the Pacific Northwest

July 30, 2008

Evan Kornfeldt reports on a police attack on nonviolent environmental protesters in Eugene, Ore.

THE U.S. government is continuing its campaign against the environmental movement in the Pacific Northwest, with the latest attack in Eugene, Ore., on nonviolent protesters demonstrating against pesticide spraying.

About 40 people turned out for a protest in Ken Kesey Square in downtown Eugene on May 30 to speak out against the spraying of pesticides along roadways. Organized by a campus group at the University of Oregon (UO) called Crazy People for Wild Places, the event included protesters wearing Hazmat suits to symbolize the toxic effects of pesticides.

Ian Van Ornum, an 18-year-old UO student, had a sprayer filled with water and a big skull-and-bones drawn on it. He was spraying along the side of the street as an illustration of the dangers of pesticides, when, according to Carly Barnicle, an event organizer, a white van pulled up, and the driver motioned for him to approach.

It was later learned that the driver was an undercover police officer. Van Ornum, who couldn't have know who the driver was, went up to him and asked an obviously rhetorical question, "Do you want poison sprayed in your face?"

Environmental activists gathered in Eugene, Ore., to protest county spraying of pesticides
Environmental activists gathered in Eugene, Ore., to protest county spraying of pesticides

Later, when the demonstration had wound down to 20 people, Sgt. Bill Solesbee of the Eugene Police approached Van Ornum, who was listening to a speaker. According to a criminal complaint filed later, the officer grabbed Van Ornum by the hair, dragged him across the street and then threw him against the ground.

Then, another officer, Jud Warden, tasered Van Ornum three times. When protesters saw what was happening, they approached the officers and demanded they let Van Ornum go. The police told them to move away. "They just kept pushing me back," Carly Barnicle recalled. "They almost pushed me over on the concrete."

In the confrontation that followed, two other people, David "Day" Owen and Anthony Farley, were arrested. Van Ornum was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Owen was charged with interfering with a police officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Farley was charged with assault, interfering with a police officer and disorderly conduct.

AFTER HIS release, Van Ornum filed a complaint with the office of the police auditor, alleging that the officers used excessive force. There were a number of complaints filed by people at the protest. An investigation by the Eugene Citizens Review Board was announced. The Eugene Police Department announced they were carrying out an internal investigation, with their report due on August 29.

However, on June 2, a full two months before the investigation was supposed to arrive at its conclusions, Chief Robert Lehner sent an e-mail to Mayor Kitty Piercy and the city council that claimed Van Ornum had resisted arrest and wriggled free from one of his handcuffs and fought with officers, "swinging the other cuff wildly."

Van Ornum, Owen and Farley have been ordered to appear before a grand jury and face possible felony criminal charges. Many eyewitnesses to the arrests have been subpoenaed to testify.

Local activist Amanda Garty observed, "The Lane County DA, Doug Harcleroad, is trying hard to search for something. Strategically, I'm sure, as punishment for the approximately 12 witness complaints of police misconduct and the media attention that ensued from the May 30 rally. Basically, what was an investigation of police brutality following the witness complaints at the Kesey Square rally has somehow been reversed on the lawfully abiding activists and morphed into a ridiculous criminal investigation bearing potential felony charges."

Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center said, "It's almost like a retaliatory slap that they're going to be roped into a grand jury." She added, "It's a real usurpation of what the citizens thought they were doing by coming forward."

According to the Eugene Weekly:

[A]s a result of Harcleroad's investigation, the Eugene Citizens Review Board's inquiry into allegations of police brutality will now be delayed. The internal police review of the case has also been postponed. Sgt. Scott McKee of Internal Affairs, which conducts internal reviews of cases like this that allege misconduct by EPD officers, originally led the police misconduct investigation. He is now leading the county's investigation into potential felony charges against the protesters.

Several people who were involved in the rally and received e-mails from McKee requesting interviews about the allegations of police misconduct are troubled by McKee's switching the topic of their interviews to the criminal case involving the grand jury.

Dave Owen has since learned from federal police reports acquired by his attorney that a federal agent was observing the May 30 demonstration. Tom Keedy, a Federal Protective Service (FPS) agent--FPS agents work for the Department of Homeland Security--watched the demonstration from an unmarked vehicle.

According to the Eugene Register-Guard, Keedy notified the Eugene Police that Van Ornum was blocking traffic. Keedy was there "because federal officials worried that the demonstrators might march five blocks to the federal courthouse on East Eighth Avenue." This begs the question of why they would have done that, since the spraying of pesticides is a county issue. According the Register-Guard, there was another FPS agent at the event, William Turner, who took Owen into custody.

Turner was "cleared" to go to the demonstration by the "Denver Mega-Center," which is "a dispatch center that monitors federal government facilities across the Western United States." Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which sometimes employs FPS agents), told the Register-Guard that it is "routine" for FPS agents to monitor public demonstrations. "It's not uncommon," she said. "Not only in Eugene, but elsewhere as well."

It also turns out the federal agents mistakenly believed the demonstration was organized by an anti-pesticides group called the Pitchfork Rebellion. This group was organized by David Owen, who says that his family and neighbors were sickened by aerial spraying of pesticides on private timberlands. Owen told the Register-Guard that this organization "is basically me and my wife." He added, "We aren't eco-terrorists, and we do not advocate property damage or anything like that. We are totally nonviolent."

ON JULY 9, three witnesses to the event announced that they had filed a criminal complaint against two police officers, Solesbee and Warden, claiming that they assaulted Van Ornum and caused a concussion, which has resulted in a "possibly protracted impairment of health."

The people filing the complaint--Samantha Chirillo, Josh Sclossberg and Amy Pincus Merwin--are asking that the investigation "be conducted by someone other than the Eugene Police and the Lane County District Attorney's Office, given that their statements and actions in this matter, to date, reveal their bias toward the officers and reflect an inability to be fair and impartial."

Chirillo explained to the University of Oregon's campus newspaper, the Daily Emerald, that the purpose of the complaint is to protect the rights of protesters. "The danger now is that people want to speak out and are having second thoughts about it," she said.

Among those who have been subpoenaed by the grand jury is Tim Lewis, who videotaped the police officers holding Van Ornum to the ground. Lewis, a local activist and videographer who has a series of online videos called "Picture Eugene," was ordered to turn over his tapes to the court.

Lewis told the Register-Guard on July 10 that there is "no way" he will hand over the tapes. "I don't have a whole bunch [on the tape] that would interest them," he said. "But I can't set a precedent by giving it to them."

On July 15, it was announced that prosecutors had withdrawn the subpoena for Lewis' video. No doubt this was due to the fact that Oregon has a shield law that protects journalists from having to turn over their tapes or notes to the courts.

Activists in Eugene are currently discussing possible actions to show their support for the three accused individuals. All this is happening a little over a year after the sentencing of eco-saboteurs here in Eugene, who set fire to SUV dealerships and to ranger stations. They were given enhanced sentences, because the judge decided that their actions amounted to "terrorism."

Now, three nonviolent protesters are being persecuted by the criminal justice system. There seems to a deliberate effort by the government to suppress radical environmentalists. The very fact that federal agents were observing a small, nonviolent demonstration shows how determined they are to do this. We must do whatever we can to resist this.

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