PHOENIX — Yes, it’s cliche, but Lee Weiner sees history repeating itself.
“The mobilization of government power on the streets and in the courts is designed to take over your life and be threatening, (to take over) your capacity, your willingness, your time to do anything else,” Weiner told ABC15. “They want to demonstrate that they control you, they control the streets, they control your life.”
Weiner was one of seven community activists who were arrested and prosecuted on federal conspiracy to riot charges by the Nixon administration following protests near the1968 Democratic National Convention.
The infamous trial was national news and an embarrassing spectacle for the criminal justice system. At one point, the judge ordered defendant Bobby Seale, a Black Panther part founder, to be bound and gagged in the courtroom.
The case was recently featured in a Netflix film that won a Golden Globe Award.
“The movie did the work,” Weiner said. “It told and showed that people should resist injustice, whether that’s injustice in the streets or in a courtroom that is biased and horrible.”
ABC15 spoke to Weiner about the comparisons he sees in his case to the one facing a group of Phoenix protesters who were charged as a criminal street gang.
He laughed at the denial by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that the charges were politically motivated.
“Yeah, yeah, and the trial in 1968 wasn’t a political trial either,” Weiner said. “Come on. It’s a joke. So they say it? So what? They also said umbrellas (in the protest gang case) are a dangerous weapon. It’s a farce.”
He also pointed out the dozens of officers used to respond to the group — 18 people — on the night they were arrested.
“Back in those days, the police believed they controlled - it was their streets - and demonstrators were intruding on that sense of ownership by the cops,” Weiner said. “The notion from the police’s perspective is that it’s their streets. And anybody else who attempts to claim that territory is an intruder and should be punished.”
Weiner didn’t know it at the time of the interview, but in previous statements, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did use similar language about ownership of the streets.
“As County Attorney Adel has publicly stated numerous times, MCAO is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike. While we fully support the rights of everyone to exercise their first amendment rights, we will not allow violence to take over our streets,” according to a November 17 statement sent by an MCAO spokesperson.
There are other similarities.
Weiner said he was routinely surveilled by local law enforcement. In Phoenix, prominent activists have been monitored as well. Multiple police agencies have also worked together to gather intelligence and build files on community groups and their leaders, records show.
But one of the most symbolic similarities has to do with police trophies from protest responses and arrests.
Weiner said he and other defendants had their heads shaved when they were booked into jail following their arrests. According to his book, the Cook County sheriff kept their hair to show to political donors.
In Phoenix, multiple officers on the protest response team owned, shared, and sold challenge coins to celebrate shooting a protester in the groin with a pepper ball.
“It’s tribal, it’s primitive and tribal,” Weiner said. “Trophy is probably is the right word. It’s something that’s part of their culture.”
As a result of ABC15’s investigation, the City of Phoenix has launched an outside investigation into the coin and officers’ conduct in protest cases. The county attorney’s office has also ordered an outside review into their prosecutors’ actions.
The gang charges against the group of protesters were also dropped.
But despite those developments now, the goal at the time was accomplished, Weiner said.
“It’s clear they’re trying to accomplish the same goal, the same thing the federal government did in 1968, '69, '70,” he said. “What they were trying to do is indict a bunch of people and scare the s*** out of anybody that looked like them.”
This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” The series can be found at ABC15.com/protests. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.