The bushy-haired, bearded protester called “Butch” didn’t say much during the Occupy Austin planning sessions. Instead, he took members aside and pressed them to turn to more aggressive tactics, not a surprising strategy for a national grass-roots movement that has spawned hundreds of arrests.
It turns out that Butch, however, wasn’t some wild-eyed activist intent on bringing down the top “1 percent.” He was actually Austin police detective Shannon Dowell, working undercover with two other officers who had infiltrated the Austin branch of the protest movement.
“One of the things Shannon especially was doing, he would pull people aside from the general conversation and say debating isn’t really the answer. We need to escalate the tactics and move to action,” said Austin protester Ronnie Garza. “That’s the kind of character we’re dealing with.”
Garza and six others now face trial on felony charges in Harris County after Houston police arrested him and 19 protesters on Dec. 12 as they tried to block an entrance to the Port of Houston during an Occupy demonstration.
State District Judge Joan Campbell lectured prosecutors during a Wednesday pretrial hearing for Garza about not disclosing the police officers’ roles in the case and is now reviewing a large stack of Austin police emails delivered to her court by an Austin assistant city attorney.
Garza and the six other protesters at the December demonstration used “lock boxes,” also called “dragon sleeves,” to lock their arms inside tubes made of PVC pipe, a tactic designed to prevent authorities from easily removing the restraints while clearing protesters. Detective Dowell purchased and constructed the lock boxes, prosecutors now acknowledge.
‘Clearly Brady material’
His role in making the devices is a key element in the case against Garza because prosecutors contend that he and other protesters were in possession of a criminal instrument during the protest, which carries a felony charge. Houston fire officials removed the lock boxes from the protesters after their arrest, using a tent to conceal the operation from the news media and protesters who were filming the event.
Campbell delayed Wednesday’s hearing until Sept. 25, when she will rule on whether the undercover police files contain information favorable to Garza that prosecutors must share with the defense, as required by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Brady vs. Maryland.
But prosecutors told the judge they had no idea the Austin Police Department evidently planted an officer in the movement, until defense attorneys subpoenaed him.
“Had we realized that an undercover officer was involved” and had participated in the construction of the dragon sleeves, “that is clearly Brady material,” Harris County prosecutor Colleen Barnett said in an interview after the hearing. “Had we known that, we would have turned it over to the defense.”
Chief defends officers
Attorney Glen Gladden, who represents Garza pro bono, said his office received an anonymous tip that Dowell had attended a dinner party and bragged about his undercover work with young protesters in Houston.
“I believe he is a government provocateur,” Gladden said. “I didn’t find out from the DA’s office or the police. I found out because Dowell was bragging to the wrong people about setting these kids up, and they tipped us off. It was his big mouth that got him down here.”
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