‘To protect and to unnerve’: animal rights activists accuse UCLA of intimidation tactics
In a quiet Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Pam Ferdin walks up to a car parked on the street. The license plate reads “CA EXEMPT.” Its tinted windows are rolled up and the man sitting in the driver’s seat is barely distinguishable. He is holding a video recorder.
Nearby, a group of animal rights activists are picketing near the home of a UCLA researcher. They are protesting the use of monkeys in his laboratory.
Wearing a bright yellow cap from the National Lawyers Guild that labels her a “legal observer,” Ferdin peers into the abyss of the darkened, driver-side window.
“Excuse me,” she says. “Can you tell us who you are? You are intimidating the activists.”
There is no reply from the man. He continues to videotape her and the demonstrators.
According to these activists, the surveillance targeted at them is part of an intimidation and harassment campaign by the UCLA Police Department. Over a period of roughly four years, they say they’ve been followed, photographed and videotaped.
Now, they’re fighting back with a lawsuit against both the campus police and the UC Board of Regents.
The story begins in 2006: a group of like-minded individuals embarked on an anti-vivisection campaign and targeted UCLA researchers. They’re united with the belief that monkeys were being experimented on unnecessarily in their laboratories. Once or twice a month, they picketed the researchers’ homes. They immediately got the attention of campus police.
They say that police would follow them to each location, including to interim food and bathroom breaks. The surveillance would not stop, even when the day was over and activists would meet at a restaurant for dinner. Police would use the opportunity to take down license plate numbers and continue watching them. Eventually protesters began driving together in a rented van to avoid being needlessly pulled over by campus police.
This tense relationship between activists and police came to a head on May 15, 2010 when 12 protesters were arrested for “focus picketing,” a misdemeanor that states one must be 100 feet from the targeted residence. However, the interpretation of the law is the subject of debate.
Campus police interpreted the law to mean that no one can go within 100 feet of the targeted home. David Liberman, one of the attorneys representing the activists in their lawsuit, interprets the 100-foot rule to mean activists can walk by the home, but cannot focus on the selected residence.
“They have a right to go within 100 feet, as long as they don’t stop and aim all of their noise, communication and expression towards that single residence,” he said.
Before or after May 15, the activists say they have never been warned or arrested by the LAPD. They believe the campus police’s interpretation of the law is influenced by politics. Liberman suspects the UC Board of Regents of having a policy in place that seeks to eliminate animal rights protests in researchers’ neighborhoods. He hopes to have this revealed in the lawsuit.
UCLA police officer Sgt. Mark Littlestone said the activists were violating the law by targeting the residents home within 100 feet. He said the department had marked with paint where the demonstrators could legally picket and notified the protesters.
“They should have been aware of that distance,” he said. “So it shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
Carol Glasser, one of the activists arrested and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, described May 15 as a “weird day.” She said campus police were following them more vigorously than usual and a LAPD helicopter appeared at one of the locations. When the protesters arrived at their final residence for the day, the UCLA police made their move.
“They didn’t observe us,” said Glasser. “They didn’t come, pull up their cars and watch what was going on. Their lights were going before they even turned the corner.”
Glasser said police were initially unsure why they were detaining the activists.
“I never learned of whatever I was being charged with until I was actually given the ticket after sitting in a holding cell for hours,” she said.
The surveillance tactics of UCLA police were observed by LA Activist at a Jan. 15 picket. As described earlier, a police officer in plain clothes, who would not identify himself, videotaped demonstrators.
Littlestone was also present. He followed the activists’ van that day from Sherman Oaks to a shopping center in Palms near Venice and Robertson Boulevards.
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘surveillance,’” he said. “We are out there to protect the researchers and document the activities that may or may not cause them issues.”
Technically, the jurisdiction of the UCLA police is the entire state. The department argues that its operation is an attempt to protect the researchers, but Liberman argues that the department is going beyond its mandate by engaging in aggressive tactics. He says police monitor websites of animal rights groups, know the logistics of their demonstrations and are present at staging areas where activists initially meet.
“They are there when they arrive, they follow them to campus, they follow them all day long,” he said. “Even when they leave the protest area and go to the restroom or have lunch they still follow them. They follow them all the way back to the staging area until they finally disperse. Even when they eat dinner they are still being monitored and videotaped.”
“There is a great deal of intimidation going on here and, as far as I’m concerned, … [it's] way beyond their scope of authority under any statute I’ve seen,” he added.
The department’s heavy-handed spying may not be without merit. According to the Los Angeles Times, since June 2006, there have been seven violent incidents targeting UCLA researchers. Some acts involved vandalism, including incendiary devices.
Although there have been reported death threats made against the researchers, the Times reported no one was hurt in the attacks. The last reported incident was in March 2009.
Activists interviewed by LA Activist make a clear distinction between themselves and those who turn to vandalism or death threats to make their point. Furthermore, they argue that activists who participate in legal protests expose themselves to police videotaping and media coverage, something anyone engaging in illegal activities would avoid.
According to Ferdin, the two factions don’t associate.
“There is a ‘fire wall’ between the above-ground, legal picketers and the ‘underground,’” she said in an e-mail to LA Activist. “There has to be for everyone’s safety. Picketers don’t know and don’t even want to know who the people are doing illegal actions.”
Littlestone said that is not the case. Besides the arrests made in May 2010, two activists associated with the anti-vivisection campaign, Kevin Olliff and Linda Greene, were convicted last year of stalking and conspiracy charges. He said it is in the best interest for the university and the researchers to have some police presence at the pickets.
According to Voice of the Voiceless, an Animal Liberation Movement website, Olliff “was convicted merely of participating in home demonstrations.”
“Most of the news on Kevin Olliff was dominated by exaggerated and inaccurate news reports, claiming Kevin was a ‘member of the Animal Liberation Front,’” reported the website. “In fact, at no point were any such allegations made by the prosecution.”
Littlestone admits that he has no distinction between above-ground or underground activists and focuses on those most visible during his investigation into threats and vandalism.
“If they are out there doing what they need to do and they’re legal, we don’t have a problem,” he said. “It’s when that crosses the line or threats are made or there is a concern for public safety or we are trying to figure out who’s planning to use incendiary devices, that is what we are trying to investigate.”
Behind the lawsuit is the concern activists have over the effect the surveillance and arrests are having on their dissent and First Amendment rights. Though the core group of demonstrators may be undaunted, they are afraid of some people being intimidated by police tactics and backing out of demonstrations for fear of being arrested.
“It makes me pissed off that they are getting away with this,” said Ferdin. “To others, mostly older and newer activists, it makes them feel anxious, harassed, stalked and uncomfortable. There have been some brand new activists who find it so uncomfortable, they will no longer come out to pickets, which is exactly what UCLA wants by this strategy of getting into people’s faces with their cameras, stalking us to the bathroom, dinner, et cetera. It’s an outrage.”
In the meantime, the pickets and surveillance continues.