Thursday, August 11, 2011

Police harassment on the streets of Olympia: A local activist speaks out

August 2011 Works in Progress

MC Strife (a.k.a. Paul French) is a local musician, anarchist, and
activist. For years, he has been active in organizing here in Olympia,
most recently in opposition to the new anti-busking law passed by the City
Council,as well as around issues of police brutality and class struggle.
In 2010, based solely on the testimony of one police officer, Strife was
convicted of assault against that officer. With a felony record, he has
been politically, socially, and economically disenfranchised as a result.

Strife has been the target of a consistent campaign of police harassment
downtown, relating to his activist work. Court records and communications
between various law enforcement agencies, received through the Freedom of
Information Act, reveal that Strife has come under the specific attention
of local police, who have been using police connections to monitor his
activities as far away as California. Strife has shared the relevant
documents with Works In Progress. [See right-hand column.]

In the midst of this ongoing harassment, Strife is choosing this moment to
make his situation public.

First, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I originally came to Olympia because of a serious case of wanderlust. I
lived in North Carolina for 20 years so moving to Olympia in 2006 seemed
like a breath of fresh air. Here I finished my last 2 years of higher
education at the Evergreen State College. A long-time fan of hip hop, I
first learned how to emcee here and formed a Hip Hop group called Thought
Crime Collective. My music draws inspiration from Olympia's vibrant
activist community and the inspirational example of people overcoming
their differences and militantly confronting the imperialist war machine
at our ports. This is how I first cut my teeth in Olympia, organizing
students through Hip Hop Congress and Sabot Infoshoppe (a radical lending
library) and doing Port Militarization Resistance work with brave people
from many different backgrounds.

How would you describe your politics?

I'm an anarchist at heart. I'm against all bosses, borders, nations, and
corporations that keep us fooled. It's true what they say: Revolutionaries
fight back nail and tooth. They call me a radical cause I strike at the
root, and an insurrectionist cause I don't trust those that rule. They
call me a criminal cause I expose structural violence, and a thought
criminal because free thought is dangerous to tyrants. I'm an
eco-primitivist cause I know the earth suffers, and an anarcho-syndicalist
cause I know the state's a buffer. I'm an abolitionist cause I know that
wage slavery's a bust. The truth is, I pay attention, so I know that power
always corrupts.

What activist work are you involved in?

I was almost illegally evicted recently, so I've been focusing on
homelessness advocacy through the new group CIVIL (Citizens In Violation
of Illegal Laws), and organizing the street community to assert their
rights, restarting the copwatch downtown and trying to oppose all the
unjust laws downtown that make a crime out of being poor. I don't
appreciate how the Downtown Business Association and other powerful local
actors are using these restrictive laws and an abusive police force to
sweep the poor under the rug, so they don't have to see the blood on their
hands - the displaced people, the shattered, fractured lives that their
unequal system leaves in its wake.

In the past, I've coordinated a radical lending library called the Sabot
Infoshoppe and took part in the anti-police rallies on the 4th Ave. bridge
(where I personally met the military spy John Towery). I've done Port
Militarization Resistance work in Olympia and Tacoma. I was also involved
in the Smash ICE movement to stop the Wells Fargo-built immigration
detention center in Tacoma. I've participated in solidarity actions with
the Greek Insurrection after the 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was
shot and killed by Athens police in 2008, and I helped bring Dead Prez to
Evergreen through my work with Hip Hop Congress the same year.

More recently, I've done benefit shows in Portland to help save the Black
Rose Infoshop, I performed at the Olympia Capitol Protest against the
slashing of vital social services, and done spoken word at three different
Bank of America Protests with the Olympia and Portland chapters of US
Uncut. Lastly, I've been doing support work for Scott Yoos, a dear friend
and disabled community activist brutalized by the police. I helped
organize the People Park Occupation last month and in 2010 I was framed
for punching a cop at the State Street 29 action in support of Oscar
Grant, a man who was extra-judicially murdered by a BART transit cop in
Oakland when he was on his knees with his hands tied behind his back.

Tell everyone about your music.

Thought Crime Collective consists of some of the Illest MCs and producers
found on the North American landmass. We act as embedded journalists on
the front lines of the revolution. Our music can be viewed as a call to
arms, as an exercise in testing the limits of free speech in our
supposedly free society and as a living historical document to inspire
future generations to resist the onslaught of the corporatocracy...

Our west coast affiliates can be found in Olympia, Portland, and Oakland.
Our East Coast contingent holds it down in Greensboro, North Carolina. We
dropped our first album, "Love & Rage" in 2010 and we are pleased to
announce that we have a slew of new projects in the works including a new
West Coast full length album tentatively called "Spliffs, Fists, & Clips"
and a new East Coast collaboration EP entitled "Revolutionary Suicide"
which should be dropping in the next few months as well! [All of TCC's
material is available at And
you can download 17 songs for free at]

Starting last year, you got increased attention from the police around
town. What was the first thing that made you say, "Hey, maybe this isn't
just a couple chance encounters with police. Maybe I'm being singled out."

Well, as a person who was raised by activist intellectuals (both teachers
- one's a historian the other an anthropologist), I have to admit I wasn't
surprised about the political repression in the least. Especially due to
the militant nature of my music, which is directly influenced by the
radical protests and actions I engage in. Although I had sneaking
suspicions, I never had any proof of this until Drew Hendricks did a
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which revealed law enforcement
exchanges between the Olympia Police Department (OPD) and Washington State
Patrol (WSP). That demonstrated that authorities had been spying on me
through my Facebook, they knew the make/model/license plate of my car,
they knew where I lived, and they knew that I was going to perform at the
Olympia Capitol Occupation on April 5, 2011. They referred to me
interchangeably as Paul French and the "white rapper" in their e-mail
exchanges. The state was also documenting my friendships and associations,
as evidenced by an exchange about a trip I took to Sacramento in
solidarity with the California Teacher's Strike that happened early May
2011. Most disturbingly, Drew also discovered that OPD Detective Rich
Allen may be receiving pressure from Seattle Detectives and even "domestic
terrorism people" to either frame me or try to pressure me for information
that I don't have on the arson that happened at the West Side police
substation a few months ago.

So all I can say is that I did expect some surveillance and state
intimidation, but never to the extent that the Freedom of Information Act
requests revealed. What was especially concerning was that the WSP had
originally planned to engage in some kind of undefined contact with me
before I performed on April 5 at the Capitol, but I performed two hours
early, so the exchanges have a vexed tone to them. Then the second e-mail
between Detective Allen and Darrin Reedy (a Crime Analyst), revealed that
other unnamed departments in the region were requesting information on me.
They seemed to be communicating about me as if they might be attempting to
hold me responsible for any illegal actions taken at the Capitol the day I
performed. The exact quote from the e-mail read... "He performed at 1600
[hours]... 81 peopled rushed the governor's office and they had to lock
down the offices... they left fairly quickly after that... No physical

This is especially important in light of the frame-up that the state was
able to carry out against me successfully at the State Street 29 protest
one year earlier. Officer Sean Lindros lied and said that I punched him in
the face, even though he misidentified the color of my bandana, and had no
visible marks or bruises in the pictures he took of his face after the

[Strife provided WIP with photos of himself and of Sean Lindros taken by
OPD after the incident. In his police report, Lindros referred to these as
"Photos of my injuries." No "injuries" or indications of contact of any
kind were apparent in the photos of Lindros. Lindros also claimed he
identified Strife out of the crowd based solely on the fact that the
person who allegedly punched him was wearing a blue bandana. However, the
arrest photo clearly shows Strife wearing a bandana of a different color.]

At the time, you told friends of yours, "Hey, I think something's up. I
think the cops are harassing me." And people didn't believe you. What was
it like, to be in that position?

It was immensely frustrating. I felt alienated from my own friends and
social scene. I'm largely to blame because I cut off a lot of ties with
people I knew who were trying to support me, because of how suspicious I
had become about informants. Looking back, my response was probably
exactly what the state was aiming for, and why they are especially worried
now that I have continued building relationships in the activist
community. Watching as the Olympian dragged my name through the mud for
something I never did, becoming demonized as the poster child for the "bad
protester" archetype and facing jail time, even though I only marched that
night to hand out flyers, had a kind of nightmarish Kafkaesque quality to
it. Knowing intrinsically that something was wrong, but being unable to
convince anyone of the false nature of the charges against me, nearly
drove me to the edge of my sanity, and led to my first and only nervous
breakdown. When I spoke to people about all the parallels between my case
and other known cases of surveillance, like the John Towery fiasco, or the
Phil Chinn debacle, I would either get blown off as paranoid, or people
would scoff and incredulously declare, "You really think the authorities
don't have better things to do than watch your every move?" The catch is,
I can't technically be considered paranoid, if it's been proven beyond a
reasonable doubt that the powerful are out to get me. It's vindicating
that we finally have that proof.

What do you think the point was, for the cops to be targeting and
harassing you like this? What do you think they hoped to achieve?

I can only speculate that they are attempting to get me to drop out of the
activist community, or maybe they are trying to run me out of town. Maybe
they thought that I'd miss one of the many court dates, so they'd be able
to bring me into custody and pressure me to give up information about
other local anarchists. Giving me six tickets in two months has also
forced me into a corner financially. I suppose the authorities were trying
to make it generally untenable for me to show my face on the streets at
any time without facing legal, financial, and political repercussions
because of my work bridging the activist and street communities.

What's been their most frequent method of harassing you downtown?

I am downtown all the time busking, so I've been charged with pedestrian
interference by OPD only to be pulled over by WSP less than 5 minutes
after getting into my car. The most common way of concealing the political
nature of the harassment was pulling me over while I was driving perfectly
well. They would use a number of pretexts, and then repeatedly give me the
same $550 "driving without insurance" ticket. The excuses they've pulled
me over for include that my muffler was too loud, a passenger was not
wearing a seat-belt, Washington is a two-license plate state. WSP
Somerville even had the gall to lie to my face and say that my front
lights didn't work when they did. But the important thing is, they
wouldn't give me a ticket for the pretext - just the one for "driving
without insurance."

And recently, they've been targeting you for your work in opposing the
busking ban?

Yes, I have an interesting story about that situation. Tired of being
hassled for "busking without a permit," I went down to the Olympia
Building with $100 ready to purchase a permit, only to be notified that
there was no such thing. Busking permits are only given to local
businesses to expand the four locations that are okay to legally busk
downtown. (Last Word Books has the only permit so far.) The staff handed
me a busking map with this information, and I immediately made 100 copies
and went around handing it out to everyone on the streets, telling people
to "Know Your Rights," and obviously making it a bit harder for the police
to harass, jail, and rob poor people.

But it doesn't end there. Officer J Herbig pulled up a week after this
incident, and called me by my full name over to his SUV. Mentioning that
there had been a memo from the higher-ups circulating about my role in
publicizing the free busking zones, he told me he'd been looking for me
and insisted that I hold on a second, while he went down to city hall and
printed out another copy of the busking map and the legal definition of
busking. He tried to convince me that what I was doing (offering political
shirts and books for donation on the street with no "expectation of
payment") did not fall under the rubric for busking, which usually
involves some kind of public performance. So he was trying to argue that I
wasn't allowed to do that even in the busking-permitted zones. I then
replied that I had over 4,000 pages of poetry and that I would be happy to
perform for the passers-by to meet this requirement. This is where things
get surreal. Herbig then got on his police bullhorn, and jokingly
introduced me thusly, "Listen up everyone, Strife of Thought Crime
Collective has something to say!" Nonetheless I was shaken by this
acknowledgement of my music. He then left shortly after, without incident.
But the whole "You are breaking the law, you are not busking" angle would
be picked up on a month later by Ruth Snyder, the code enforcement officer
and one of the most vocal proponents of downtown yuppification who
continued to threaten to have me arrested and cited for bringing my
screenprints downtown.

Let's go back a bit, and talk about State Street. You were arrested, along
with a handful of others, and you ended up being convicted of felony
assault against an officer. What happened there?

The logistics of what happened during the end of the march were pretty
suspicious. I committed no acts of vandalism and no violence against
police, however I was singled out as the "kid with the banner" moments
after a highly coordinated take-down where the rest of the march linked
arms and passively got "liberal-arrested," rather than fighting back or
fleeing the situation. There was an unmarked SUV with California license
plates at the take-down, and my roommate can testify that after arresting
3 out of 5 members of my hip hop group, the officers processing us were
joking that, "I guess Thought Crime Collective isn't playing tonight..."

Tell everyone a little bit about your legal battle after your arrest. How
did that go?

I didn't have the money for a lawyer so I took a public pretender who
convinced me to cop to an Alford Plea, which paradoxically counts as a
guilty plea while still allowing me to maintain my innocence. Using an
Alford Plea meant that I wouldn't have to implicate others or testify in
court, and I took it because I felt that the state would be able to
convince a jury to be biased against me because of my politics.

Looking back in retrospect, what do you think about the State Street
march? Some people will say, "Oh, this guy was arrested in one of those
black bloc marches, so it doesn't matter if the police harass him. He
deserves whatever he gets." What do you say to that?

That doesn't really make sense, when you think about it. People
participate in black bloc actions for different reasons. The anarchist
movement is never as unified and monolithic as the media likes to imply.
There is no central committee dictating policy or coordinating actions.
Personally, I marched that night against police brutality and to hand out
flyers to people so they would become more aware of the truly horrific
situation that people of color, homeless folks, and the poor face every
day, being treated like second class citizens. Despite the fact I didn't
engage in any illegal behavior, I was framed and served two months in
jail, possibly in retaliation for my music, but definitely in retaliation
for my politics. Even if you're of the opinion that I deserved jail time
for going to the protest, I served the sentence and my participation in
this event shouldn't be a blank check for the powerful to watch my every
move and nullify my rights to free speech and to protest grievances. Trust
me, no one wants a coercive society where certain people have the power to
define which ideas are acceptable and which ideas are so abhorrent you
shouldn't even be allowed to debate them. How can you have freedom of
thought in a society where you are not allowed to discuss large
uncomfortable truths? As Voltaire said, "I may disagree with what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say them."

How do you think your arrest at the State Street demo relates to the
current harassment against you by OPD?

Stick your neck out long enough you get it chopped off, right? Only if you
haven't built a network of solidarity and a community of friends who are
willing to snatch the executioner's blade. That's why I'm finally exposing
this harassment. There's nothing particularly special about me. I'm
outspoken, I'm a poet, I'm an activist, that's true. But lots of people
fit those categories and received similar if not worse treatment from the
establishment. I am coming forward with these FOIA documents (available at in the hope that other people who are going through the
same thing will come forward and tell their stories so we can have
community dialogue and hold the powerful accountable for their abuse, so
we can unify and reverse the dampening effect that the Towery situation
has had on our ability to effectively organize and resist the machinations
of the powerful.

What do you hope to see going forward, both in our community, and in your
own situation?

I hope to be able to live and organize in Olympia for a long time. I hope
this exposé convinces the establishment to end its attempts to silence me
through overt and covert means. I see our movement overcoming all of this
political repression and getting off the ropes to take the ring once more
and knock these bullies straight on their asses. I hope to help unify the
divergent groups and remind people that we all have the same foes in this
fight and that right now, we may not have it all together, but together we
could have it all.

No comments: