One of us grew up on the hard streets of South-Central Los Angeles. One of us moved from small-town Ohio to pursue a career in fashion. We are from different backgrounds, but on two separate mornings, we stood together to bring traffic on the 101 Freeway to a halt.
The first time we stopped freeway traffic was in September 2017, about a month after Heather Heyer was killed during peaceful counterprotests of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. At the time, Donald Trump said there were “fine people” among the torch-bearing white supremacists. We went back out onto the freeway two months later to unfurl a 50-foot banner that read “Trump/Pence Regime Must Go.”
Our freeway actions were completely nonviolent and had been planned carefully to ensure they were safe and well-executed. What we didn’t know until much later was that some of our meetings to discuss the state of the world and our actions in response to it had been infiltrated by an undercover spy sent in by the Los Angeles Police Department.
The city of Los Angeles waited almost a year to bring a total of 57 charges against us and nine other activists who took part in nonviolent protests, both on the freeway and at UCLA. As part of that case, police reports and transcripts were released documenting how, on four occasions in 2017, an LAPD informant secretly attended and recorded meetings of our group, Refuse Facism, at the Echo Park church where we met.
The informant reported on discussions in our meetings about fundraising, ordering pamphlets, getting a permit, planning a route for a march, and “moving ordinary people into active opposition.” At least that bit of note-taking was accurate: Moving ordinary people into active opposition against a regime we believe has descended into fascism was exactly what we were trying to do. Nothing short of removing this whole illegitimate regime from power will stop this nightmare, and that will take millions of people acting together in sustained, nonviolent, determined protest.
The infiltration of our group hearkens back to the LAPD’s past. In his book “Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD,” Max Felker-Kantor documented how during the 1970s and early 1980s, the department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division spied on thousands of groups and individuals. After an ACLU lawsuit revealed the full scope of the spying, the division was disbanded, and its activities curtailed. But the department now has an anti-terrorism division, which was involved in the investigation of our group.
Our group is concerned about fascist rule. Having our private meetings infiltrated by a police spy suggests that we’re right to worry. The 1st Amendment right of free speech is being challenged across the nation. Since Trump’s election, 35 states and the federal government have either passed or introduced anti-protest legislation.
Earlier this summer, our case came to trial. When we took the stand and were asked why we blocked the freeway instead of just voting or attending the women’s march, we explained that we believed that the current threat to humanity and the planet required more from us than protesting for a day and going home.
History has shown us that fascism can absorb individual acts of resistance and gets normalized after waves of shock and outrage die down. The Trump/Pence regime has taken us through many such shocks, and “the new normal” now includes concentration camps at the border, where children continue to die and conditions are brutal. The response from civil society to this so far is shameful — which is exactly what we were trying to prevent.
Our supporters in the courtroom wore T-shirts that read: “Would you have convicted the people who hid Anne Frank?” With our action on the freeway, we were asking others to imagine what could have been different if people had acted BEFORE Anne Frank had to hide. Our trial ended with a hung jury after three days of deliberation, because the majority of jurors understood we were not criminals. But almost immediately, the city attorney’s office announced it would retry the case.
Later this month, we will once again stand trial for our action blocking the freeway. The LAPD and city attorney may disagree, but it should not be a crime to stand up against fascism. On the contrary, we hope everyone who cares about justice will join us.
Miguel Alex Antonio and Chantelle Hershberger are activists with Refuse Fascism and the Revolution Club.