Carlos Montes, an icon among Chicano and Latino activists, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to illegal gun possession in Los Angeles. He said authorities are using the charges to target him for his political beliefs.
At a rally on his behalf outside an Alhambra courthouse, Montes wore a white dress shirt, slacks and sunglasses as he thanked supporters and promised to fight the charge.
“Today, I’m going to declare myself innocent. I’m going to fight this thing all the way. I know for sure this is part of a wider attack," Montes said.
The rhetoric was classic Montes, who helped organize the East L.A. student walkouts and anti-war protests in the 1960s and 70s, and was an original member of the Brown Berets - an organization that patterned itself after the Black Panthers.
Montes, 63, described how his current legal troubles began with an early morning raid on his Alhambra home by an L.A. County Sheriff’s SWAT team on May 17.
“I was totally asleep. And then I hear this loud noise and crashing at my front door," he told a reporter. "I look from my bedroom and I see people with helmets, guns up at their shoulders, you know, yelling." He said deputies smashed his front door into pieces and ransacked his house.
"It was shocking," he said.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the SWAT team raided Montes’ home after deputies received a tip.
“We were notified by a source that this individual was in fact in possession of a firearm," Whitmore said. He declined to name the source.
Whitmore said it’s illegal for Montes to have a gun because he’s a convicted felon. The conviction is four decades old. It came during one of his many run-ins with authorities. He threw a soda can at a cop during a demonstration in the 1960s.
Prosecutors also said he lied when he bought his shotgun at Big Five Sporting Goods two years ago because he didn’t admit he was a felon. He faces a total of six felony charges. Officials have moved the case — originally filed at the L.A. County courthouse in Alhambra — to the downtown courthouse that handles higher-profile cases.
Montes won’t talk about the specifics of the charges against him. Instead, he wondered why deputies crashed through his door and seized his computer, two cell phones and files on his current political work on immigrant rights, labor unions, and anti-war causes.
Whitmore said the Sheriff's Department's search warrant allowed that.
“We had the legal authority, signed by a judge, to do that. And so it was seized to further our investigation," he said. The investigation, he promised, was focused on his gun possession.
Montes is skeptical. He said a funny thing happened when he sat with a sheriff’s deputy inside a squad car after the raid.
"He said someone wants to talk you - the FBI wants to talk to you."
Suddenly, Montes said, an FBI agent in a baseball cap stuck his head inside the door.
“He looked at me and said, 'I’d like to ask you questions about Freedom Road Socialist Organization.'"
Ever defiant, Montes refused to answer.
Federal authorities reportedly are checking Freedom Road Socialist Organization’s possible connections to Palestinian and Colombian groups the State Department has labeled as terrorist.
FBI spokeswoman Ari Dekofsky wouldn’t disclose whether Montes is under investigation in that or any other probe.
Montes said he has no connection to any terrorist groups.
Mick Kelly believes federal authorities are shadowing Montes. Kelly is with the Committee to Stop F.B.I. Repression and other leftist political groups in Minneapolis. He saw his home raided in September. Other homes and offices were raided, too.
“When the FBI raided the anti-war committee offices in the Twin Cities, one of the people named on the search warrant was Carlos Montes," Kelly said. "When FBI documents speak of six offices who are investigating the case that relates to mine, one of those FBI offices is Los Angeles, and that's Montes is."
Montes’ attorney Jorge Gonzales said federal authorities are using the threat of terrorism to target political activists.
“They’re using that in order to go after legitimate protesters, legitimate activists," Gonzalez said.
Montes links the gun charges against him with an effort to quiet his political activities. He said it’s a familiar tune.
“I’ve been a victim of political frame-ups in the past. Indicted twice, East L.A. walkouts, numerous other arrests that most of the time I was found not guilty," he said.