Tempe anti-terror cops sent undercovers to infiltrate a local bar to spy on anarchists planning a community garden

from Down and Drought

According to documents released by the Center for Media and Democracy this week, while investigating Occupy Phoenix organizers and anarchists in Phoenix, Sgt. Ken Renwick (of Tempe’s Homeland Defense Unit) directed plain clothes officers to “visit Casey Moore’s and see if we can get any intel”.  Casey Moore’s is a bar in downtown Tempe where police suspected anarchists gathered and hatched their plans.  It’s affectionately called “Casey’s” by regulars.

The problem?  May Day was approaching and while it seemed Occupy Phoenix had wound down in many respects, it was known that Tempe anarchists were planning something, probably in Tempe, maybe in Scottsdale.  But finding out what hadn’t proved an easy task.

At the beginning of Occupy Phoenix Sgt. Tom Van Dorn, head of the Major Offenders Bureau and Career Criminals Squad was forced to admit that “finding out how the anarchists are organizing and what they are up to is still difficult”.  Sending police infiltrators like Saul DeLara (quickly unmasked by veteran activists) hadn’t helped.  By May the cops were still complaining about the lack of information, and Brenda Dowhan worried about the “complete silence from May Day organizers”.

Incidentally, Dowhan is a perfect example of the explosion of anti-terrorism positions since September 11th, signing off her emails as “Terrorism Liaison All Hazards Expert, Phoenix Police Department Homeland Defense Bureau, Arizona Counter-Terrorism Information Center”.  An online search reveals her as an alumni.of Kaplan University, an online college.  In one email, Dowhan shared at least one link to an article posted to AnarchistNews.org entitled “Spain: New wave of incendiary attacks and sabotages by Nihilist Anarchists”.  There were no attributed anarchist incendiary attacks in Phoenix during the period covered by these documents.

This wasn’t the first time anarchists in Tempe had been singled out by anti-terrorism authorities to fit their demands for a local terrorist bogeyman.  In 2004, Dan Elting, a Phoenix cop and counter-terrorism trainer, organized a community forum at the Tempe library in which anarchists were described as terrorist threats equivalent to Al-Qaeda and the Klan.  Printouts of the Phoenix Anarchist Coalition’s webpage were distributed as reference materials to a very conservative, elderly and scared audience.  It was the only local organization so featured.

Around the time Tempe plain clothes officers appear to have been directed in the name of homeland defense to brave the cool Spring patio weather and cold beers at Casey’s to spy on anarchists, Casey’s had been informally the site of a regular Thursday night anarchist drinking night known as “Anarchy Thursdays”.  This is almost certainly the reason why cops were sent there.

Anarchists had been living and organizing in Tempe for well over a decade, and downtown Tempe had seen two previous May Day marches in 2002 and 2003.  The former had gotten a bit out of hand from the perspective of the cops.  In addition, police reacted clumsily and pepper sprayed journalists.  But by 2003 the bike unit had received training by the Eugene Police Department in crowd control (Eugene being another national hotbed of anarchist organizing at the time) and the march was more easily contained.

Over the years anarchists have become well-established in downtown Tempe neighborhoods and the community there, and had proved it most recently (pre-Occupy) during the 2010 resistance to SB1070.  Anarchists had initiated and been central organizers in building Tempe neighborhood resistance to the application of the law in Tempe, doing door to door organizing, printing yard signs denouncing the law that proliferated through the neighborhood, putting on well-attended neighborhood general assemblies and one very large march through the neighborhood that attracted a wide range of Tempe residents.  Police were not able to contain that march to the sidewalks and residents marched cheerfully in the streets as their neighbors frequently came out to wave in support or join in.

What the cops did know was that the Tempe May Day action involved taking over a public space (“reclaim the commons”, as it was called in anarchist parlance) in order to plant a community garden.  An occupation.  This much was clear from the posters that went up around town.

The chosen spot was a long vacant lot downtown.  For two decades it had been the location of Tempe’s largely beloved “Gentle Strength Co-op” (although not so much with the developers and city council).  Anarchists had held weekly meetings for years there as the Phoenix Anarchist Coalition, and had run an infoshop on the premises for about six months at one point (until some yuppie members complained about “bad vibes”).  Still, anarchists worked there and were prominent members.  But the co-op had closed now and, after a failed attempt to develop the land into a Whole Foods/condoplex, it had lain fallow and unused for years.  What’s more, the empty lot was now owned by the very same Canadian corporation that owned Zuccotti Park, the site of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment.

Officer Derek Pittam, by May Day 2012 serving as a Tempe Police Department Homeland Defense Unit Detective, had come up on the bike squad and had experience dealing with Tempe anarchists.  He’d had many run ins with them during protests and their routine cop watch patrols in the downtown.  Like many cops post-9/11, he had moved into one of the myriad anti-terrorism-related jobs that had proliferated across police departments nationwide thanks to increased Federal funding, a kind of grade inflation that led to the ridiculous number of titles accumulated à la Dowhan by many of the officers appearing in the documents released by PR Watch.  Those documents reveal Pittam was determined to deny anarchists a victory in their May Day plans.

Anti-terror cops defend empty lot from gardeners

In order to execute those plans, and to make sure that the vacant lot stayed empty and unused by the neighborhood, Pittam engaged in a series of pre-emptive actions (of questionable legality), such as sending police to visit local businesses warning of anarchist activity (including, according to one business owner, a claim that anarchists planned to run “really long hoses” across the street to water the lot).  Oh, the horror! 

He also wrote a letter to local businesses and prominent non-anarchist neighborhood residents.  In it, he linked the May Day action to anarchist violence. Pittam clearly saw this as a battle for the hearts and minds of Tempe.  He wrote: “I am very concerned that the organizers of this event have not disclosed important information in their quest to gain support from local residents and businesses.” Unfortunately for Pittam, the letter was leaked by residents sympathetic to Tempe anarchists, who then published it the day before the garden planting, causing some embarrassment.

A riot cop is confused as a child is detained for vandalism

On the day in question about seventy people showed up with the intent of building a community garden, a great many of them local residents.  They gathered at the Farmer’s Market across the street, with the permission of the owner.  What they found was a line of riot cops positioned in the lot.  Police threatened any trespassers with arrest.  Still loaded up with supplies (and with the cops baking in the hot sun), the group decided to take over a strip of city land right next to the lot.  Police did not act and a garden was built.  Several news outlets sent out reporters and cameras to report on it, capturing the excitement and enthusiasm of participants.  A concrete planter was poured and filled with a variety of plants and vegetables.  At one point police, watching from the park, thought they saw some small children vandalizing a sign, so they stormed in and detained the kids and their parents.  It turned out the paint was water-soluble, so only warnings were given.  The impromptu community garden was maintained for three days until city workers came early in the morning and destroyed it.

In an email tooting his own horn about police activities that day (designed, as Sgt. Renwick had said, to make neighborhood residents and anarchists “go home saddened”, denied victory), Pittam wrote, ‘Our local actions, for better or worse, did appear to have an impact.  We did not have “Black Bloc” emerge…’  Why anyone would imagine a black bloc to be a useful tactic for building a garden wasn’t clear, but it must certainly have been related to the general hyping of the potential for violence that these cops regularly engaged in.  Indeed, most likely a black bloc wasn’t deterred at all, but none was ever planned.  After all, aside from its uselessness in that situation, it was also 100 degrees that day.  Only cops hang around in all black in those conditions.  They were the only black bloc that day.

Justifying their jobs in the face of what was in fact was a bit uncooperative but nevertheless standard fare protest must have been both frustrating and difficult to understand from an anti-terror framework.  It’s telling that no where in these documents does it appear that police called each other out on their fantastic imaginings.  Instead, like Pittam post-garden defense, it’s pats on the back, self-congratulation and attaboys.

Interestingly, people who participated in the action didn’t view it as a defeat.  A plot was taken over, the contradiction of cops defending an empty lot with significant local meaning was on full display, and a garden was planted.  And it was destroyed because the city couldn’t tolerate it.  It would seem the organizers actually came out on top that day, not the TPD.

Nevertheless, when we read these police documents what we get is the odd juxtaposition of anti-terror rhetoric and gravity on one hand, and then the broad interpretation of results in the face of the actual run of the mill nature of the “threat”.  As in the case of a local homeland defense officer, organizing with Phoenix anti-terror cops to send undercovers to spy on drunk anarchists and to deploy riot police in downtown Tempe to stop the planting of a community garden.  Oh yeah, and to detain children for painting.

This is part 3 in our ongoing series analyzing recently released police and Federal documents detailing their surveillance and infiltration of Occupy Phoenix and anarchists in the Valley.