Activist Carlos Montes, a familiar face in the 1960s Chicano Movement, moved to Alhambra 24 years ago because he saw it as a peaceful enclave that was close to his homebase of East Los Angeles. Then on May 17, 2011 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 spoke with The Alhambra Source in 2011 as his legal battles began about his involvement with the Chicano community, the Brown Berets, and the ways that technology has changed the face of activism. Recently he gave us a brief update on his ever-evolving life.
You were arrested for firearms possession in 2011. What has happened in the three and a half years since then?
I had two felony charges dropped due to the statue of limitations. Then we held weekly protests at District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office, demanding the other charges be dropped. They finally offered a probation deal for three years and community service if I pleaded no contest to one charge, which I did. They dropped the remaining three charges. Originally they wanted me to do prison time! In January 2014 I made a motion in court to dismiss the final charge, terminate probation, and expunge my record. The judge agreed and granted this. I moved to El Sereno in October 2014 to run for City Council in Council District 14. I did not make the ballot for the March 3rd primary. I am currently the President of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. We have won several victories, like stopping USC from building a street in Hazard Park, and stopping Exide Technologies from dumping lead. I continue my activism for immigrants rights and public education.
Did you move to El Sereno solely for the reason of running for City Council? Or was the move also motivated by your experiences with the raid?
I moved to run for City Council and to be closer to my activist circles. But living in the Alhambra house was also a constant reminder of the raid. Any loud noise or door knocking made me jump.
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.