Popular New Haven activist arrested for being "suspicious"

He is a staple at the New Haven court house on Elm Street, sometimes inside with immigrant workers fighting for stolen wages — sometimes outside with a bullhorn decrying alleged police brutality. But in December activist John Jairo Lugo will be in court fighting his own case.

Lugo was arrested last week at Webster bank on Elm Street after trying to cash three checks for immigrant workers who had been fleeced by a subcontractor. Authorities say Lugo was charged with two counts of breach of peace after Lugo allegedly made a scene. A supervisor at the bank would not comment on the incident, saying the matter was "confidential."

For nearly a decade, Lugo has been running campaigns against employers who don't pay their workers. He primarily represents Latin American immigrants in the construction and restaurant industries through his group Unidad Latina en Accion. He says he regularly cashes checks at Webster bank when a campaign is won and the employer agrees to pay the wages owed.

But last Monday, according to the police, the bank refused to cash three second-party checks, because they were "suspicious." Police spokesman David Hartman says a bank teller told police Lugo's "bullying behavior" suggested something "may have been amiss" and she froze Lugo's account.

At around 2:45 p.m. on Monday, Lugo called the Advocate and told this reporter his bank account was frozen after trying to cash checks for the construction workers, and that he thought he might be about to get arrested. By the time this reporter arrived on the scene, the police were questioning Lugo and placing him in handcuffs. First, his bail was set at $5,000, but by 1 a.m., Lugo was released from booking on a promise to appear.

Reached a week later by phone, Lugo says he didn't threaten to do anything except exercise his right to free speech.

"What really bothers to me is I spent the rest of the day in jail, because I told them I was going to exercise my right to protest," Lugo says. "I did not say I was going to harm anybody, I threatened to hold a protest, because, you know, these banks have been screwing the economy, and these banks keep screwing with people, taking their homes, and I have never heard of this freezing an account for no reason."

According to the official police news release, Lugo was arrested for "bullying" the teller inside a crowded bank and for "his behavior toward officers and his threats." Lugo was observed saying to police by this reporter that he would get a crowd of people down to the bank to have a protest.

Lugo says one of the officers recognized him from protests outside of Café Goodfella's, a mobster-themed restaurant that recently paid $21,000 to a handful of former employees who say they were not paid minimum wage or overtime when they worked there. Monday, the day of Lugo's arrest, was coincidentally his 46th birthday. 

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