Undercovers over the top?
Remember when the Colorado Springs Socialists held a “March Against Imperialism” back in March? As the Independent reported at the time, about 15 people, mostly students, participated in the demonstration meant to denounce militarism overseas.The protest began and ended at the steps of City Hall, with a short march through downtown streets in between (despite police orders to stay on the sidewalk). When marchers arrived back at City Hall, four were arrested.
Now their case is in municipal court, where the discovery process has exposed an awkward piece of evidence: Two undercover agents were caught on body cameras worn by uniformed officers with the Colorado Springs Police Department. Footage from those cameras, which local police began wearing this year, was released to the defendants then shared with the Independent. It captures the officers’ quiet deliberations prior to the arrests.
“There’s two [undercovers] in there, and they’ll just take a ticket like everybody else,” a sergeant advises the others. “So hopefully we don’t have to start spraying [because] I don’t know which ones they are.”
After announcing “everyone’s getting a ticket!” two officers approach a big guy wearing a black Carhartt jacket with a black skull cap and mask, whom they prioritized since they suspected he had a knife in his pocket. Other protesters accepted their citations calmly, save one spouting off about his right to free speech and assembly, but the guy in the Carhartt reacts with profanity before muttering tersely, “I’ll cooperate, but pat me down at the car.”
Ultimately, Carhartt guy is put in the back of the police car, where other officers finally realize he’s a fellow lawman they didn’t initially recognize since he’s employed by the Sheriff’s Office. The “knife” in his pocket is actually an extra magazine for his concealed handgun. They trade jabs: “You really should hang out with a better crowd,” one says. “I know,” he replies, “Fuck the police, right?”
The footage disturbs seasoned activist Eric Verlo, who was among the ticketed protesters, on multiple fronts: that the undercover deputy had a loaded firearm with the safety off in his waistband the whole time; that his expletive-laden response to apprehending officers could’ve been an attempt to incite other protesters to resist arrest; and most of all, that local law enforcement saw fit to infiltrate a group whose most scandalous act was basically jaywalking.
These revelations caught the attention of high-profile civil rights attorney David Lane of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP. Lane recently began representing Verlo and another defendant in the case who were both charged with failure to disperse, obstructing passage and resisting a public official. Lane’s defense strategy doesn’t focus on disproving that his clients, in fact, walked on city streets without a permit (as other local protesters, not to mention random pedestrians, regularly do) or knowingly defied police orders (that many protesters say they didn’t hear).
Rather, Lane intends for the charges to be dismissed based on “outrageous police misconduct” — specifically, that police had no business infiltrating a small group of young socialists who like to pass around the Communist Manifesto but have no history of violence.
Despite the case’s seemingly mundane trappings, Lane is interested so “the people of Colorado Springs [can] know why their tax dollars are being spent on spying on certain peaceful organizations that police aren’t happy with.”
CSPD manages undercover operations, even when they involve personnel from other agencies in the region. When and how officers go undercover is determined by the Metro, Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division, Investigations Division and, sometimes, the chief or deputy chief. CSPD spokesperson Lt. Howard Black, who once did intelligence work himself, says that ahead of protests, police typically do a “safety plan” based on what police know about group members, their history and plan of action. They consider whether there’s enough risk of violence to warrant embedding undercovers or if observing, in uniform or plainclothes, would suffice.
Black wouldn’t speak to what, specifically, about the socialists constituted that kind of risk, but acknowledged their attire might have contributed. “People have the right to mask up, the right to wear all black, look however they want to look,” Black says, “However, when we have a group of people that’s always got their faces hidden, it raises concern about what their intent might be.”
Whether dressing in “black bloc” — an old-school leftist tactic designed to protect individual identity in group actions, which is regaining popularity — is proof of violent intent is a question likely to crop up in Colorado Springs Municipal Court about the same time it will in Washington, D.C. Superior Court, where hundreds of protesters face felony charges for participation in a black bloc action the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. When that group stormed D.C. streets, windows were smashed and rocks thrown, culminating in mass arrests. In late May, attorneys representing 21 of the 214 defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss, arguing that without evidence tying specific crimes to specific individuals, the indictment is “fatally defective.” Prosecutors shouldn’t be able to punish their clients just for dressing similarly to someone who allegedly committed a crime, the defense argued.
The same goes here: Lane doesn’t believe his clients’ affinity for black garb and red flags is reason enough for cops to believe they’re apt to commit violence. “Everyone should be concerned if law enforcement gets to pick and choose certain groups to target like, ‘oh, these commies — we’re going to go after them,'” he says.
CSPD’s Black says that police don’t embed in every activist group, but the ones they target aren’t chosen for their ideology. In the past, he says, police have kept a close eye on anti-abortion and pro-gun groups, but whether they were subject to the same level of undercover policing he wouldn’t say.
Note that the Colorado Springs Socialists, a reading group that formed at UCCS, are distinct from local anti-fascists, or Antifa, who take a more physical role in defending the wider “resistance” movement from far-right agitators. A preference for theory vs. practice is the simplest way to delineate, though there is some membership overlap.
Founder of the reading group, Gabriel Palcic, is accustomed to being mistaken for Antifa at rallies and online, so he’s unrattled when he learns that law enforcement is monitoring the socialists as if they’re seeking confrontation. Group members have noticed suspicious individuals hovering around their weekly meetings, but assumed they were political enemies, not police. “We have no need to be paranoid since we’re not doing anything illegal,” Palcic says. “But cops will find any excuse to crack down on the far-left — it’s a way to suppress dissent against the status quo.”