A voice for change – the 60s, the civil rights movement and today *UPDATED

Activist Carlos Montes, a familiar face in the 1960s Chicano Movement, moved to Alhambra 20 years ago because he saw it as a peaceful enclave that was close to his homebase of East Los Angeles. He had a rude awakening on May 17 when the FBI and deputies from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department executed a search warrant on his home. He was arrested after the search turned up a firearm. Montes speaks to The Alhambra Source on his history with activism, and what he alleges is the FBI’s agenda of targeting activists like him.

You were a co-founder of the Brown Berets. How did it begin?

It started as a civic youth group. It became the Young Chicanos for Community Action, and then it got more involved in direct grassroots organizing. Then it became the Brown Berets, and we dealt with the issues of education and police brutality. It started small, but once it took on a broader view of the political situation it grew really fast. It became part of the movement of the 60s. I grew up in East LA, so I saw the police mistreating the youth. We’d cruise down Whittier Boulevard with the music on in the car and we would be harassed by the sheriffs. And in the schools the students were mistreated and the classes were overcrowded.

You were among the leaders of the school walkouts in 68. When you look at the quality of education today, in particular for Hispanic and Latino students, do you think anything has changed?

We’ve made some gains, but it looks like recently we’ve been losing ground. The original demands of the walkouts was that we wanted ethnic studies and bilingual education. We wanted teachers and administrators that reflected our backgrounds. We’ve gotten a lot of that, but still have the issue that public education is underfunded. It’s under attack by those who want to privatize it. And there’s also the dropout rates, and the wide achievement gaps. The Mexican-American youths, the Latino youths, and the Chicano youths – they’re still behind in reading and math. And with college admissions…well, back then it was even worse. I mean we weren’t even going to college. We were being channeled into certain trades and into the military.

Activism must be so different these days. People have so much more access to information.

It’s absolutely true. There’s more information. I can only remember one book from back then that dealt with our history – Carey McWilliams’ “North From Mexico.” Now we have hundreds of books, magazines and websites. And there’s Facebook and Myspace. The youths and organizers using Facebook and email have been able to get more people involved, and faster. Back then we didn’t have cell-phones [laughs]. We organized by getting into a car and driving to each community. But you know what, the best organizing is done face-to-face.

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression alleges that search warrants have been executed for you and similar activists. What led to this?

The motive is political persecution. Twenty-plus activists, back in September, had their homes raided by the FBI. They had their computers and documents confiscated. It dealt with their involvement with Palestine and Colombia. And of course they all refused and got lawyers and organized the committee. I was listed in one of the search warrants that was presented at a raid at the anti-war committee in Minneapolis. That’s how I got hooked into this thing.

How does Palestine and Colombia figure into this?

Activists were openly denouncing US policies, starting with Iraq and Afghanistan. We also looked at the US support for Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people. One of the groups we formed – it was in Chicago – was called the Palestine Solidarity Group. It organizes tours for people to go to Palestine and come back to the US to speak about it in forums and newspapers. I myself went to Colombia and did the same thing. I met with human rights activists and labor activists. When I came back to LA I organized several forums. We denounced the US policy of – specifically in Colombia – supporting what they call Plan Colombia, where they give a billion dollars a year to the Colombian government under the guise of fighting the drug war. In reality, however, the money is going to the Colombian military, which is using it to fight its own people. Human rights activists are being kidnapped and assassinated.

The FBI is using the pretext of our solidarity work in Palestine or Colombia to persecute us. They say we’re providing “material support” for terrorist organizations.

Most residents probably see Alhambra as a peaceful community. Do you feel safe in Alhambra after your incident?

No I don’t. I don’t feel safe in my home. They came at five in the morning and busted down my door. Some of my neighbors—and they’re all really friendly—they give me funny looks now [laughs]. They saw this whole thing and their neighborhood was disrupted.

Interview was edited and condensed.

UPDATE: Montes' first court appearance was on June 16.  He was charged with four counts of perjury, one count of owning a firearm as a convicted felon and one count of owning ammunition as a convicted felon. Montes requested a later trial date to seek legal representation. His next court appearance will be on July 6. Montes also requested a copy of the police report. A redacted copy of the report was granted to him by the judge. Approximately 70 supporters protested outside the Alhambra Courthouse during the hearing. Montes met with the crowd after his court appearance and said that "this has nothing to do with the charges. It's a political attack." A photo slideshow from the protest:

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