Advertisement

City attorney drops all charges against anti-Trump protest group that LAPD spied on

Anti-Trump protesters march on the 101 Freeway near downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 9, 2016.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

All remaining criminal charges against demonstrators who blocked a section of the 101 Freeway in protest of President Trump in 2017 have been dismissed, ending a years-long legal drama that revealed Los Angeles police placed an informant inside of a non-violent political group, officials said Thursday.

Members of the group Refuse Fascism were charged with criminal trespass in late 2017, after eight of their members blocked a section of the 101 Freeway during a protest, records show.

The LAPD launched an investigation of the group in advance of planned protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election victory. Court records reviewed by The Times last year showed police sent an informant to infiltrate the group during four meetings at an Echo Park church the next month.

Public outrage over the LAPD’s tactics led Chief Michel Moore to put additional safeguards in place when investigators deploy confidential informants in sensitive locations, including churches or among political groups. Moore ultimately determined the investigation was not in violation of department policy, however.

Advertisement

Despite the controversy, the city attorney’s office continued to pursue prosecutions of the nine protesters, with little success. Three defendants entered pleas that allowed them to enter diversionary programs and have their criminal records expunged, but six others continued to fight the charges.

A fourth defendant, Yesenia Cruz, said her case was dropped last year shortly after the court granted a motion that would have exposed the identity of the LAPD’s informant. Cruz did not attend the freeway protest, but was accused of organizing it. The city attorney’s office has disputed her description of events.

This week, the city attorney’s office decided to drop charges against the five remaining defendants because it was having difficulties getting witnesses to appear.

“Due to the age of the case, witnesses have either been reassigned, moved or are otherwise unavailable,” spokesman Rob Wilcox said in an email to The Times.

Advertisement

Chantelle Hershberger, a 30-year-old Refuse Fascism member who was awaiting her third trial on the trespass charge after the past two ended in hung juries, said the dismissal of charges was especially important to her after the LAPD arrested thousands of people for violating curfews or failing to obey dispersal orders during days of protests in response to George Floyd’s murder.

“It’s needed now more than ever with Trump coming down and attacking all these Black Lives Matter protesters … we need to stand together,” she said.

Wilcox did not respond to a question about why the city attorney’s office spent three years trying to secure convictions in a trespassing case.

The LAPD’s decision to spy on Refuse Fascism in 2017 came months after a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., ended in the death of a young woman and dozens of injuries. It also followed a series of protests turned street fights between anti-fascists and far-right figures in the Bay Area.

Advertisement

While Refuse Fascism has been associated with demonstrations against Trump across the country, experts who monitor political unrest say the group is largely non-violent. Last year, a law enforcement source told The Times that the LAPD did not conduct any similar surveillance operations on right-wing political groups ahead of the 2017 Election Day demonstrations.

The protest Refuse Fascism organized in downtown L.A. in 2017 ultimately passed without incident. No one was injured, and only two people were arrested, police said.


Advertisement