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Under Siege? : Leftist Bookstore for Immigrants Claims Police Harassment

Times Staff Writer

He calls himself a revolutionary. “Lucas Martinez” is his nom de guerre. In Martinez’s revolution, however, the command post is not on a hilltop in the jungles of Central America. It is on a busy thoroughfare in downtown Los Angeles, and his weapons are books.

Martinez runs Libros Revolucion, a bilingual, pro-Communist bookstore that endeavors to cater to the Latino immigrant crowd. Located near heavily commercial Broadway, the bookstore offers hundreds of leftist magazines and books--titles ranging from relatively tame literature on the Mexican revolution to treatises of Peru’s Maoist guerrillas.

And, like many revolutionaries, Martinez is convinced that his headquarters is under siege from “forces that repress the masses.” It is Martinez’s view that, in his revolution, the principal enemy is the Los Angeles Police Department.

Alleged Harassment

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He presents a veritable blotter of allegations: threatening phone calls, mysterious break-ins, harassment of employees and patrons. And he announces a fund-raising campaign centered on what he calls defense of the store. Goal: to raise $25,000.

Asked for detailed evidence to substantiate his allegations, which have been distributed to selected media in a thick packet of bilingual, single-spaced documents, Martinez provides a few badge numbers, anonymous affidavits and little more. He is more lucid on the subject of his enemy’s motive.

“Would we face the same type of harassment if we sold frozen yogurt and tofu?” Martinez asked in an interview this week. “If we were just another electronics store? No. We are selling literature. Not just literature but revolutionary literature.

“It provokes the mind. It raises questions. These books are burned in the countries where these people (the customers) come from.”

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A police spokesman said that the department had no record of formal complaints from Martinez but that he would be willing to investigate any allegations.

Martinez, a 33-year-old native of Chile, insists that he is not being overly paranoid. But just in case, he won’t let his real name be published and he won’t say who owns the store. He tape-records his conversation with a reporter. And he refuses to remove his sunglasses for pictures by a photographer.

Libros Revolucion is part of a loose-knit chain of stores called Revolution Books that has outlets all over the country. It promotes the line of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which has had a long and contentious relationship with police in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The bookstore is on 8th Street, just off Broadway, in the middle of a Latino-fueled world of capitalism and commerce. It is flanked by discount clothing stores, a bridal shop, burrito stands, jewelers that offer easy credit and offices that offer giros to Mexico.

The location was chosen for a purpose, store workers say. They depend largely on a walk-in crowd for customers. Specifically, they want to attract illegal immigrants from Latin American countries torn by internal strife.

“It’s a major location for shoppers and the kind of people we want to reach, people who have a thirst for this literature, perhaps because they’ve been denied it in their countries,” said another employee, Henry Carson. “They come in and say, wow, they never thought they’d see this in the U.S.”

One or two of the staff members--most of whom are Spanish-speaking anglos--usually stand posted outside the storefront, calling to passers-by that they offer “libros en espanol.” A rack stocked with leaflets is placed on the sidewalk to one side of the door; a stereo speaker was blasting “Born in East L.A.” one day this week.

Inside, one wall is covered with vivid red, green and blue posters depicting Chairman Mao as he reviews the Red Guard and leads cadres of factory workers on to victory. “Viva, Viva el gran presidente Mao,” subtitles proclaim.

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Book cases line the walls and crisscross the floors of the small store. Among the best sellers, Martinez says, is “Bullets,” by Bob Avakian, chairman of the RCP. Other titles include volumes of Lenin’s essays and Mao’s famous “Little Red Book” of selected military writings. A number of selections is available in Farsi.

In addition to books, the store gives regular poetry readings and lectures on the sanctuary movement and other issues.

Employees are not paid, Martinez says, but the store’s monthly budget--rent, phone bills and utilities--still comes to $4,000. Financing comes from donations and sales, he says.

Customers, it appears, are few.

One day this week, a Latino couple and their three children came in. But they were only looking for a telephone because their car had been towed.

The next day, a young man in a black leather jacket bought a copy of the Revolutionary Worker newspaper from a clerk, a woman in a black beret.

A few minutes later, two Spanish-speaking men--a Colombian and a Mexican--stopped by to browse. They eventually purchased a copy of the Spanish translation of a work by Avakian.

And that was just about it for customer traffic over a period of several hours.

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Business, Martinez concedes, has been off, and he blamed the police “campaign of intimidation.”

Among other incidents, Martinez claims that security guards allegedly destroyed numerous books that workers from the store were trying to sell during Mexican Independence Day festivities last Sept. 18. Later, he goes on, when police intervened, two store workers were arrested and questioned about the Revolutionary Communist Party. No charges were filed.

Martinez also claims that he was stopped by police one night in January and searched for drugs. Because the police supposedly spoke of a stakeout on 8th Street, Martinez became convinced that the surveillance is directed at the store and its employees.

On behalf of Libros Revolucion, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union last month filed a request with the city under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking all documents relating to the bookstore and its employees. The store also sought help from the Police Misconduct Lawyers Referral Service, an organization that has been investigating alleged police abuse throughout Los Angeles County.

Police officials say they know of no problems involving the store. There has been an increased police presence near the store, they concede, but only in response to complaints from merchants about transients and drug peddlers loitering in their doorways. They invite Martinez to forward his allegations.

Martinez is reluctant. The authorities, he says, can’t be trusted.


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