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Criminal Trial for Costa Mesa Activist

by Orange Coast Voice Saturday, Sep. 22, 2007 at 9:03 AM

The charges of “disrupting” a city council proceeding stem from a free-for-all that broke out during a public comments session of the Jan. 3, 2006, Costa Mesa city council meeting after police, acting on Mayor Allan Mansoor’s orders to take an early recess, pulled Acosta away from the speaker’s podium and pushed him outside the council chambers before his three minute speaking limit had expired.

Criminal Trial for C...
costa_mesa.jpg, image/jpeg, 320x240

NOTE: It should be noted that after being postponed for a month, court proceedings for the criminal trial are officially set to begin on Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 8:30 a.m. in Department H01, Harbor Justice Center, Newport Beach, CA.



http://www.ocvoice.com/OC_VOICE/Home/OCV%20-%20August%202007.pdf

From the August 2007 issue of the Orange Coast Voice

Criminal Trial for Costa Mesa Activist

‘Not guilty’ verdict could lead to costly political problems for mayor

By JOHN EARL

OC Voice Editor

The long delayed criminal trial of Costa Mesa resident and immigrant rights activist Benito Acosta, a.k.a. Coyotl Tezcatlipoca—a name that references his native American heritage—is scheduled to start Aug. 15 at the Harbor Superior Court in Newport Beach. Acosta is charged with one misdemeanor count each of violating city codes 2-61(b) and 2-64, which address unlawful conduct by audience members during city council meetings.

The charges of “disrupting” a city council proceeding stem from a free-for-all that broke out during a public comments session of the Jan. 3, 2006, Costa Mesa city council meeting after police, acting on Mayor Allan Mansoor’s orders to take an early recess, pulled Acosta away from the speaker’s podium and pushed him outside the council chambers before his three minute speaking limit had expired.

If found guilty, Acosta faces a maximum sentence of 6 months in jail and a ,000 fine on each count. But a verdict of not guilty for Acosta in his criminal trial could lead to a politically costly “guilty” verdict on the civic conduct of both the mayor and the former Chief of Police John Hensley and an ensuing civil trial.

Background

Both the criminal trial and lawsuit arose from a period of often raucous, but non-violent, debates and protests between critics and supporters of the mayor’s immigration policies—disputes that occurred both inside and outside the Costa Mesa council chambers from late 2005 through late Spring of 2007.

The conflict between immigration rights advocates and a group of anti-immigrant activists consisting largely of members of the Minuteman Project—a nationwide organization that the mayor is a member of—was set in motion by the decision by the city council majority of Mansoor, Eric Bever and Gary Monahan to close the city's 17-year-old day labor center. It then escalated when the mayor introduced his proposal to use local police as agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to crack down on “illegal” immigration.

As representatives of opposing sides of the immigration debate, Mansoor and Acosta have previously demonstrated their mutual animosity before the Jan 3 incident. In fact, Mansoor also cut off Acosta’s speaking time during the Dec. 6, 2005 city council meeting after Acosta called him a “racist pig.”

Mayor: Sir, if you would please stop with the…

Acosta: I’m calling things the way they are and you are a racist pig and that’s it.

Mayor: If you’re going to get out of line we’re going to ask you to leave.

Acosta: You’re out of line...23 million of my people…

Mayor: Sir, if you don’t stop it now.

Police officer: Your time is up.

Mayor: Sir, your time is up.

Acosta: It’s not up. It’s not up.

Mayor: (at 1 minute 45 seconds into the 3 minute speaking period) Your time is up and we’re going to take a break.

Acosta: Are you going to let me finish or not? You f-----g racist pig!

Mayor: We’ll take a break, please.

On Jan. 3 the council chambers were again filled with interested parties waiting in long lines behind both podiums in order to speak their minds in pure democratic fashion; and an overflow crowd, mostly opponents of the ICE proposal, waited just outside of the doors to the chamber. Costa Mesa police, who had been caught off guard at the previous city council meeting, seemed ready to pounce this time.

In a pre-written statement, read at the Jan. 17 city council meeting, Mansoor said that on Jan. 3 Acosta had ignored his earlier instructions regarding how speakers should indicate support from the audience—and that by asking audience members to stand he [Acosta] illegally addressed the audience instead of the council, as the mayor claimed is required by Section 2-62 of the Municipal Code.

“When I advised him not to do so, Mr. Acosta continued to repeatedly implore the crowd to stand by saying ‘Do it. Do it. Do it,’” Mansoor said. Stating that he was worried about widespread violence, Mansoor called a recess to “diffuse the situation,” he said. Acosta had resisted officers’ attempts to remove him, Mansoor claimed, but once outside they “rapidly removed” Acosta to the City Hall lobby to protect him and the police from a crowd of gathering protesters.

But a reading of Section 2-62 reveals that addressing the audience during public comments in not prohibited. Nor is there any specific prohibition in any city ordinance against audience members standing as an expression of speech. And contrary to the mayor’s fear of violence, there was no indication of potential violence at the meeting. In fact, protesters and counter-protesters coexisted during months of protests both before and after Acosta was arrested, without a single serious incident.

Time wasn’t up

Shortly after the confrontation between Acosta and police, then Costa Mesa Chief of Police John Hensley told the Daily Pilot that “the individual’s [Acosta’s] time was up. He was asked to step away from the podium. He got angry and refused to follow instructions of the officers.”

But witnesses, as well as official and unofficial video records of the events that took place at the Jan. 3 city council meeting, reveal a story at odds with the important details of accounts told by Mayor Mansoor and Chief Hensley.

In full-disclosure, that night, OC Voice publisher Duane Roberts acted as a liaison between police and protesters and was standing close by when, according to Roberts, police “violently pushed” Acosta out of the council chambers. “At no time do I recall Coyotl (Acosta) resisting arrest,” Roberts said shortly after the incident.

The city’s archived city council video shows that earlier in the public comments portion of the meeting the mayor had allowed Jim Gilchrist, who at that time headed the Minuteman Project, to ask members of the audience to stand up to show their support for the mayor’s immigration policies.

The mayor’s version of that event is that by “gestures and comments” he told his supporters to sit down and then told Gilchrist that “I appreciated his efforts to serve as the sole speaker for his group and to indicate who he was speaking on behalf of,” and that he invited both sides to do so.

But the official city video shows the mayor thanking Gilchrist and audience members while, at least, some of them remained standing. Then he asks Gilchrist if he is speaking for the group. When Gilchrist indicates that he is the group’s spokesperson, the Mayor expresses another round of gratitude.

Gilchrist: My name is Jim Gilchrist. I’m founder of the Minuteman Project. At the end of my speech, I’m going to ask all the members of the Minuteman Project and their supporters to stand up rather than applaud and make a lot of noise. Okay? Will ya stand up?”

Mayor: (While at least some Minuteman supporters are still standing) “Actually—thank you. I appreciate that. Mr. Gilchrist, are you asking that you are going to be the only speaker so that everyone else doesn’t speak?

Gilchrist: Yes. I’ll be speaking on behalf of the Minuteman Project.

Mayor: I would ask if the other side of the room would like to do that too that would be greatly appreciated. You do have a right to speak if you like, but if you have one representative who could say how many there are here that would certainly be appreciated. Continue please.”

At no time does Mansoor tell members of the audience to sit down, nor were there any hand gestures, former OC Register reporter Brian Martinez told this writer at the time. Martinez watched the incident unfold from inside the council chambers.

But the mayor reacted differently later in the evening when Acosta came to the podium and asked audience members who disagreed with the mayor to stand up.

The city’s video of the Jan 3 council meeting reveals the following sequence of events, in which the mayor objects to Acosta asking members of the audience to stand, just as the mayor had allowed Gilchrist to do a short time earlier.

Speaking from the podium, Acosta demands that the city withdraw from a proposed agreement with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of the federal government and accuses the council members who voted for it, and for the recent closure of the city’s labor center for immigrants, of gentrification by removing Mexican and Central American immigrants from Costa Mesa.

“We know that you guys want to change the demographics of Costa Mesa,” Acosta says. “We know your plot.... We are going to be here and we’re going to fight this to the end. We’re not going to let this pass.”

Acosta then asks for members of the audience who agree with him to stand, but the Mayor interrupts him:

“No. I’m not going to do that,” the mayor responds.

But Acosta continues, telling the audience to “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

Then, at two minutes and 18 seconds into Acosta’s speech, before the allocated three minute time limit was up, Mayor Mansoor calls for a recess.

Mayor: You know, we’re going to call for a break here. As a matter of fact…

Acosta: (Unintelligible)

Mayor: His [sic] time is up, sir.

Acosta: (Talking at the same time as the mayor) Why are you talking then?

Then, seemingly as an afterthought, the mayor says it’s time to close public comments and go into public hearings, after taking a break.

Mayor: It’s time for our public hearing. We’re going to call for a break here (at this point the city’s camera turns to the mayor where it remains) and when we return we’ll be starting with our public hearing–

Acosta: I’m not finished.

Mayor: –per our ordinance to conduct public hearings at 7 o’clock. Thank you.

In fact, the mayor is not required to start public hearings at 7 p.m. Resolution 05-55 says that public hearings shall start “no earlier” than 7 p.m. “but as close as possible to, 7 p.m.” The city clerk’s log shows that the meeting was recessed at 6:58 p.m. In any case, the mayor could have permitted Acosta to finish his remarks without violating city policy.

Sequence of Events

Unlike the city’s video record, which ends just before the confrontation between Acosta and police, a video clip published on www.immigrationwatchdog.com clearly shows that one of several officers surrounding Acosta during the incident places his hand on him as if to lead him off the podium. Acosta then talks to the officers, but doesn’t immediately leave.

Another officer then pushes the microphone away from Acosta’s face and Acosta voluntarily walks with the officers toward the door. Then he says something to one of the police officers, apparently to pick up his speech copy still on the podium. The officer starts back toward the podium to grab the paper, but Acosta gets there and angrily picks it up first. Acosta then starts to turn back toward the door.

The officer facing him attempts to physically escort him, but Acosta lifts his arms and is soon heard saying several times “Don’t touch me” while also gesturing toward the door, possibly to indicate that he can walk on his own. Police Chief Hensley approaches and seems to gesture to the officers to take Acosta outside. Two officers can be seen immediately grabbing Acosta firmly—one taking him by the back of his neck, the other by the arm—and force him out the door, quickly.

It’s much less clear what happened on the outside. One officer, whom this writer saw directly during the event, had a look of near panic on his face as he looked into the crowd, which was yelling repeatedly, “Why did you hit him?” Acosta’s lawsuit alleges that police “struck, pushed, kicked, choked and dragged Mr. Acosta out of the City Council Chambers to an area out of public view, where they continued to strike Mr. Acosta.”

Several television news clips seen by this writer showed Acosta being choked and dragged along the ground and into an adjacent building. One officer is seen sitting on Acosta while another drags both him and Acosta through the hallway.

Acosta was jailed and released five hours later. He was charged with resisting arrest and violation of Municipal Code 2-61 and 2-64 for “disrupting” the city council meeting. But on Feb. 3 the Orange County District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute in the “interest of justice.” That same day the city submitted a new charge against Acosta for battery on a police office. The DA also declined to prosecute on that charge.

On March 3, 2006, the ACLU filed a civil rights lawsuit on Acosta’s behalf against the city of Costa Mesa, listing Mayor Allan Mansoor and former Chief of Police John Hensley and 10 other “John Does” as co-defendants. Portions of the lawsuit were dismissed by the court, but most of it remains intact.

Hoping to cancel-out Acosta’s lawsuit and with nothing left to lose, Deputy City Attorney Dan Peelman filed criminal complaints against Acosta on May 18, 2006, for the same alleged Municipal Code violations that the DA had earlier refused to prosecute.

The trial is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m., Aug. 15, in Harbor Superior Court, located on Jamboree Avenue in Newport Beach.

[The Orange Coast Voice grants permission to la.indymedia.org to reproduce this article on their website as long as proper credit is given to the author of the article and the source where it was originally published.]

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