Eugene Weekly : News : 6.26.08

Big Brother
Why is Homeland Security watching Eugene’s activists?
by Camilla Mortensen

Last month’s Tasering of a UO student was more than just the Eugene Police Department (EPD) overreacting to a peaceful protest. It was the result of the monitoring of an anti-pesticide group based in Lane County by the Department of Homeland Security, according to recent documents concerning the incident.

Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center and Day Owen of the Pitchfork Rebellion, who was arrested at the rally, say that the reports contain many inaccuracies. Regan further alleges that Homeland Security illegally monitored the rally. It was “obviously unconstitutional,” she says, citing COINTELPRO investigations that targeted dissident organizations.

According to the police reports, Federal Protective Services (FPS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, was made aware of the rally in support of Lane County’s no-roadside spray policy by the EPD on May 22. That is the day EW published an article on the planned rally, featuring a photo of Ian Van Ornum, one of the leaders of “Crazy People for Wild Places,” the student group that organized the rally. Van Ornum was Tasered twice and arrested with Owen and UO student (and Eagle Scout) Tony Farley.

The reports show that Homeland Security thought the rally was organized by the Pitchfork Rebellion, a group of rural Lane County residents who want to put a stop to pesticide spraying by large corporations (see EW cover stories 3/16/06 and 2/28/08). “That’s either a blatant lie or poor police work,” says Owen, who spoke at the event but did not organize it. The Pitchfork Rebellion, he says, has never been involved in “property damage or anything like that.”

The reports indicate that Homeland Security has been monitoring the Pitchfork Rebellion, claiming the group had also organized an anti-Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR) rally that marched from the UO’s Public Interest Environmental Law Conference to the steps of the Federal Courthouse. PIELC, one of the largest gatherings of environmental activists and legal minds in the country, has been monitored by federal agents in the past.

Ironically, Owen says the Pitchfork Rebellion in turn had already been investigating Homeland Security and what he calls the goal of one of its divisions of protecting business interests. 

That March 7 rally was organized by Van Ornum and other students from OSPIRG. While the reports say the the marchers “attempted to storm” the steps of the building with the intent to occupy offices, Samantha Chirillo of Cascadia Ecosystem Advocates says that didn’t happen and she as an organizer “wanted to avoid confrontation.” The goal was to present Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden with petitions against the WOPR, a plan that that calls for increased logging of Oregon’s old-growth forests. 

According to the reports, Homeland Security believed there was a danger that the pesticide rally participants would also march to the courthouse. A FPS officer, Inspector William Turner, was stationed at the courthouse in an unmarked car. Another officer, Thomas Keedy, attended the rally at Kesey Square. Keedy, according to the reports, called the Eugene Police, specifically naming Van Ornum, alleging he had stepped into traffic and that he had a pesticide bottle of unknown contents.

The original press release from the EPD said  “there were some witnesses who reported overhearing rally participants — prior to the incident — planning a way to provoke a call that would get police to the area,” but it never identified those witnesses.

Witnesses like Mary Stephens say the only time Van Ornum might have “blocked traffic” was when an EPD officer in an unmarked car stopped on the road and called Van Ornum over to the vehicle. She says the Homeland Security officer she talked to at the rally said he was “just passing by.” The pesticide bottle that Van Ornum was using as part of the street theater at the event was left behind by officers after Van Ornum’s arrest. It contained water, organizers say, pointing out the rally was against chemicals such as pesticides.

In William Turner’s report, he writes that when he left the courthouse to go to the rally, he radioed the “Denver MegaCenter” to let them know he was on route “to provide assistance.” The Denver MegaCenter is one of four FPS centers that monitor and dispatch FPS officers around the clock.

“The feds were the precipitating factors to calling in the police,” says Regan, not the actions of the people at the rally.

The Homeland Security reports say that the officers saw “several subjects, some wearing masks covering their faces” that were “provoking” EPD officers by entering traffic lanes. But witnesses who have appeared at several meetings about the Tasering incident all say the street theater participants stayed on the sidewalk. Van Ornum was leaning against a planter, listening to the speakers, when the officers dragged him across the street before grabbing him by the hair, slamming his head against the ground and Tasering him, say the witnesses.

“They are lying in the reports to justify why Homeland Security was there,” says Owen.

Homeland Security didn’t return EW’s call before press time.