Labor of love: a conversation with Carlos Montes

January 21, 2012
By

Carlos Montes was not expecting visitors at five a.m.

After a confusing shuffle of flashlights, badges and broken doors, he ended up in the back seat of a police car in his pajamas, and with no idea of what was going on. They mentioned something about gun possession but it wasn’t clear. It was too early, too loud, too much for a misty May morning.
What Montes did know was his rights. Some could say Montes knew civil rights more than most. When the detective came over to question him on the spot about his gun possession, Montes promptly asked for his lawyer. He knew it was the usual way to cut down the conversation.

But then something strange happened. The detective said someone would like to talk to him. A man in plainclothes, around 35 years old, white, with long blondish hair and a cap approached Montes and identified himself with the FBI.

“That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, man, it’s all political, this thing about the gun,” he says.

What makes it “all political” is Montes’ decades of activism. He carries a history of social organizing that stretches back to the Chicano “Brown Berets” of the late ’60s, through the anti-war movement of the ’70s, and right on into his involvement with the contentious anti-war protests held at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Even now, charged with six felonies and faced with the looming threat of jail time, he says he can’t stop. His history — the thing that got him in the back of that police car — won’t let him.

***

Marching in front of the downtown courthouse in Los Angeles, Carlos Montes (center-right) leads demonstrators in their protest against the LAPD's killing of Manuel Jaminez on Oct. 26, 2010. The death sparked several days of unrest in the Westlake community where Jaminez was killed. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Located at the intersection of Temple Street and Union Avenue, the Tribal Cafe serves as a command center for local activism, grassroots organizing and community art.

Every square inch is papier-mâchéd, painted or decoupaged. Paintings line the walls and carry messages or symbols: tribal designs, fetuses, skeletons, anything that could carry a connotation.

Almost as soon as Montes sits himself down on one of the cafe’s charmingly uneven chairs, he erupts in a flurry of fliers, pamphlets and documents. Some are about his court case against the sheriff’s department, others are for his various other activism groups: the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and an untold number of immigration rights, anti-war and Chicano rights groups.

Without ordering, a small Styrofoam cup is delivered from the Tribal Cafe’s kitchen. He puts aside his papers to sip, breathe deeply, lean back and give a wide smile.

“Maybe the thing that keeps me going is in these smoothies,” he says with a sigh. “Believe it or not, the lady who cuts my hair started giving me these green juices and I’d get all wired up. It’s natural, too”

And yes, when he talks about his activism it comes out in a fury. There’s a infectious, youthful exuberance about him.

After his lunch order arrives — and after the fanfare over the taste, texture and quality of the paella-like meal dies down — he continues his story about the raid earlier this year.

Protesting a series of FBI raids on anti-war and solidarity activists, Montes speaks to demonstrators outside the Westwood federal building on Jan. 25, 2011. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

“They ransacked my house,” he says. “They took my political documents, computers, cellphones, storage disks. If it was about the guns … they were not hidden. They could have gone in and taken them. But they didn’t.”

He says there were stacks of his political documents when he got back, as if they perused and sorted them.

After it was all said and done, he was charged with six felonies all related to his gun possession. They say that, beyond just having the weapons, he perjured himself because he failed to note a felony conviction from 40 years ago — when he threw a coke can at an officer.

But he says the Department of Justice knows he had guns and officials knew it for years. He bought novelty guns in 2002 and 2005 with no problems.

After becoming a victim of armed robbery in 2009, he wanted to invest in something with a little more firepower. So, he picked up a shotgun on sale at Big 5 in November of 2010 because, well, “it was a good deal.”

But, his timing could have been better. On Sept. 24, 2010, the FBI conducted raids of the homes of 23 anti-war and international solidarity activists in the Midwest under the pretense of investigating terrorist actions.

Due to his involvement in the anti-war protests conducted at the 2008 Republican National Convention, his name was also on the search warrant. But he wasn’t raided until the following May, a few months after he purchased the gun.

Montes feels like it’s some sort of entrapment. He’s fought through multiple stages of his case and won back his property. Now, his court case is going through the discovery motions to try to get any communications between the FBI and sheriff’s dept. He says this will prove that the intent was beyond gun possession.

His next court date is scheduled for Jan. 24.

***

Ask Montes when it all began and he’ll go back — way back.

Growing up in 1950s Boyle Heights was no easy task. He was an immigrant kid who hung out with other immigrant kids and they saw a lot of one thing: police brutality. Only back then, there was hardly a term for it.

Los Angeles was still racially divided. Montes remembers cutting through Huntington Park, which was predominantly white at the time, and seeing a sign that said, “For Rent, Whites Only.”

“And I started thinking about it,” he says. “I got the feeling that they didn’t like blacks. But then I thought, well, I’m not black, I’m not white, what do they think about us?”

Montes is swarmed by supporters shortly after his first court appearance over alleged weapons violations on June 16, 2011. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Perhaps the most formative experience for Montes was when his dad took him to a factory picket line. His dad’s union was fighting for better working conditions. The struggle for ethics and equality brewed within him.

Although he wasn’t the best student, Montes was a good reader. That’s how he got through high school and, after briefly working at the factory with his father, why he started classes at East Los Angeles College. Using those young experiences as ammunition, he began to participate in student government.

It snowballed from there. He joined the Mexican American Student Union, the Young Chicanos for Community Action and the Brown Berets.

This was also the time of the Vietnam War and Montes remembers seeing his old high school buddies come back traumatized, if they came back at all.

“It politicized me,” he says.

Soon, he was organizing protests and traveling across the country to promote Chicano rights and protest classism. He was arrested frequently and, finally, he skipped bail and went into exile for most of the ’70s. He was caught in ’77 when he tried to visit his wife’s family in Los Angeles. When he was finally tried in ’79, he was found not guilty.

“Oh man, they were so pissed that they lost against me,” he says. “I won that case and I’m going to beat this case, too. Even if it takes a while.”

***

Activism is tough, but Montes maintains that it’s a labor of love.

Even after 40 years of organizing, he maintains that his work is far from over. Beyond his help at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Montes also helped organize the massive May 1 immigration marches, anti-war protests and continues to spearhead Chicano rights issues.

(Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

He also has been active with the Occupy LA movement in Los Angeles and — being a staunch socialist — he’s a staunch supporter.

“There’s a lot of focus on the super-rich,” he says. “I think that’s a great thing they’ve done. The super-rich at the top and they’re the problem. … It opened up a Pandora’s box and the rich people are afraid.”

He’s well known in the social organizing sphere and other groups frequently call on him for help. However, Montes warns those with whom he organizes: if you associate with me, you’re going to get attention.

“Police will see me there and say, ‘Ah, there’s the troublemaker,’” he says. “They’ve been calling me a ‘troublemaker’ since the beginning of time. Now they’re calling me a terrorist. … It’s another label they put on you.”

Indeed, the name-calling continues even today. This past summer, the LA Weekly called him an “over-glorified rebel of yesteryear” that is a “mouthy, charged, socialist to the death and suspicious of anything authority-related.”

After 40 years, Montes can’t point to a particular protest or cause as his greatest success because the causes keep coming. He says he’s proud of his work — all of his work — and wants to do more.

His laundry list is long. He says the Chicano and anti-war movements have become too dependent on nonprofit organizing. There needs to be a return to grassroots. He wants more marches, more pounding the pavement, more old-school activism.

Besides those green smoothies, Montes points to one other thing that inspires him to action every day.

“I always meet people — women, youth — who want to get involved,” he says. “And they like what they see or hear and they want to get involved. And when I see it, ah, man.”

He touches his chest and smiles.

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