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City Attorney Trutanich Puts The Squeeze On Protest, So Activists Get Tight

Kevin Douglas Grant |
March 2, 2011 | 9:14 p.m. PST

Executive Editor

The Wilshire Nine locked arms as part of their DREAM Act protest last May.
The Wilshire Nine locked arms as part of their DREAM Act protest last May.
Jonathan Bibriesca and his fellow arrestees, sometimes called the Wilshire Nine, are baffled by the behavior of L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich over the past nine months.

Clad in red T-shirts and mortarboards, they were arrested by the California Highway Patrol last May after blocking Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood for several hours.

The group had formed a human chain to show support for the DREAM Act, legislation they hoped would grant permanent residency to undocumented high school graduates.

“We did it out of love and respect for the DREAMers,” the 26-year-old Bibriesca explained.  He and the other eight members of the Wilshire Nine are due in court Thursday. 

They were briefly detained, issued tickets and sent on their way.  Then the City Attorney’s Office stepped in.

“It was weird because they gave us a date but then they changed it,” said Bibriesca, a sociology major at Santa Ana College.  “They consolidated us with all the protests from May, June, and July.”

The arraignment date was changed to October,  bringing together a medley of civil disobeyers, including 14 people arrested at an SB 1070 protest in front of the downtown Metropolitan Detention Center.

“It was kind of chaotic; there were a lot of different reasons why we protested,” Bibriesca said.  “I don’t think he had any idea that we were all from different groups.”

The arraignment was delayed three times, then the group had its first court date in January.  Trutanich met with representatives of each of the groups his office had lumped together. 

“He was under the impression that we were getting paid,” said Bibriesca, who hails from Mexicali, Baja California.  “And he kept calling us ‘kids’ as if we were not conscious of our decisions.”

A New City Attorney in Town

Trutanich, who took office in July 2009, goes out of his way to make the power of his office known.  He immediately waged war against ordinance-violating billboards, eventually arresting businessman Kayvan Seterah for an illegal mega-advertisement and holding him on $1 million bail. 

In August, he giddily cheered the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the family of a 19-month-old killed during an LAPD raid in front of two journalists.  Then last month, Trutanich made public what dozens of L.A. activists already knew: he was pursuing a drastically more severe policy against those arrested in the course of civil disobedience.

The policy, which he has since backed away from somewhat, treats charges that had been considered minor infractions by previous City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo as criminal offenses.

“He’s tried to put this freeze on political action across the board in Los Angeles,” said Chloe Osmer, who was arrested at the Detention Center protest.  Osmer currently serves as a coordinator of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, which is trying to unionize workers in the carwash industry, but says she protested SB 1070 for her own reasons. 

“It’s something I was moved to do,” Osmer said. “This was not a preexisting organization that put this together.  It was a grouping of activists who felt like this was a pretty desperate situation and a really dramatic action needed to happen to call people’s attention to the injustice of SB 1070.”

The legislation they objected to was enacted by the state of Arizona in April, aimed at stricter enforcement of existing laws regarding undocumented immigrants and creating new penalties.

Osmer and 13 others chained themselves in a “sleeping dragon” alignment, snarling downtown traffic for hours and disrupting business as usual.

“The idea was to block the entrance for as long as possible,” Osmer said. “This is where people are being held and deported from.”

Eventually, the LAPD moved in, sawing the chains that bound the protesters, then handcuffing and arresting them.  The group spent the night in jail because they had intentionally left their drivers’ licenses at home. 

“The LAPD was very professional about the whole thing,” Osmer said. “We were told off the record by individual officers that ‘This isn’t Arizona and we actually support what you guys are fighting for.’”

Trutanich’s public comments have emphasized the disruption of Angelenos’ day-to-day lives, which Osmer says is negligible in the larger scheme of things.

“There’s a strange focus on traffic issues. Civil disobedience has played a really important role in history,” she said. “Most people consider a traffic blockage to be a small price to pay for free expression.”

But Osmer sees Trutanich’s more aggressive policy as dangerous for Los Angeles.

“It could have a chilling effect on any kind of action,” she said. “This is not a time when people should be apathetic and sit home.  And people who are activists are definitely thinking about this stuff and that’s probably what he wants to hear.”

Frank Mateljan, a Trutanich spokesman, confirmed policies are different under his boss.

“We’ve certainly upped the ante a bit,” he said.  “Criminal charges are being filed.  There was an unwritten rule that [civil disobedience] charges were treated like an infraction.  You’d pay a fine and be off to the beach.”

Mateljan said his office wasn’t trying to limit Angelenos’ right to expression. 

“Our intention is not to violate the First Amendment,” he said.  “We look at protesters’ conduct, not the content of their speech.  Our ability to express our opinions is to be celebrated but we live in a world of ordered liberty.”

Facing the Music

Court dates for the different parties are imminent.  Osmer will appear before a judge March 9 if she is unable to reach an agreement with the City Attorney’s Office.  

“We’ll proceed to trail with the hope that a judge will have the acumen to see that this was political action, rather than treating us as though we had robbed somebody,” Osmer said.

“We’d like to see him dismiss the charges,” she said. “This has wasted enough city time and money as it is.”

Bibriesca, with his court date Thursday, said he hopes his attorneys will be able to negotiate with Trutanich’s office before he sees the judge.

“He’s just dragging it out,” Bibriesca said. “I don’t know why - different ideologies, political aspirations?”

Members of the Mexican American Bar Association took on the Wilshire Nine’s case pro bono in January, and is also representing four Cal State Northridge students arrested last March.  They were also rallying for the DREAM Act. 

Attorney Felipe Plascencia told the LA Times he was “shocked” that Trutanich is moving forward with the cases.

"These were college students trying to prove a point. It's an injustice for [the city attorney's office] to have dragged on for this long," he said.

Bibriesca said that as with the Cal State students, Trutanich offered some members of the Wilshire Nine plea agreements.  These are part of a “prearraignment diversion program”, explained spokesman Mateljan, in which the City Attorney’s office delays arraignment for one year while participants “obey certain provisions.”

These include performing community service, refraining from committing further alleged infractions and submitting university grade reports.

But several of the Wilshire Nine refused Trutanich’s offer, Bibriesca said, because not all of its members are still college students and have not been offered the deal.

“The deals he offered, they’re still not fair,” he said.  “He’s trying to divide us; we want the same deal for all of us.”

The health of civil disobedience in Los Angeles is a matter of debate.  Osmer says, “This city prides itself on progressive open-mindedness and political freedom.”

Indeed, an estimated 60,000 people peacefully took over downtown L.A. during last year’s May Day protest, also galvanized by the twin legislation of the DREAM Act and SB 1070.

“The bottom line is this prosecution is disturbing but it’s not going to have the effect of having us stop speaking out about these issues,” Osmer said.

In fact, Trutanich’s hard line may have an unintended consequence.

The Activists Strike Back 

Bibriesca, a former hospital corpsman in the Navy, said he was not particularly engaged in the DREAM movement before his arrest, and neither were his fellow arrestees.

“The nine of us were not as active in the DREAM movement, but now we’ve been pushed to work even harder as a community,” he said.

DREAMers have now linked up with SB 1070-ers, car wash workers’ advocates and a variety of other causes.

Taxi drivers’ rights’ advocate Hamid Khan, who was arrested with Osmer at the Federal Detention Center, said he would be present on Thursday for the Wilshire Nine’s hearing, even though his own date isn’t until next week.

“I have to show solidarity,” he said.

Khan is the former head of the South Asian Network (SAN), “a grassroots, community-based organization dedicated to advancing the health, empowerment and solidarity of persons of South Asian origin in Southern California.” 

He, like Osmer and Bibriesca, joined in at the Detention Center because of personal beliefs, not an affiliation with a particular organization.

Bibriesca said he and his new friends are making the most of Trutanich’s new policy:

“We were all bunched together.  That gave us the chance to meet and the chance to unite.”




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