A Q&A with Ben Ehrenreich about his February feature about Chicano activist Carlos Montes
In the March issue of Los Angeles magazine, Ben Ehrenreich writes about how after a lifetime of activism, former Chicano power leader Carlos Montes is facing possible prison time on questionable charges. Ehrenreich, whose Los Angeles magazine story “The End,” about death in L.A., won the National Magazine Award for feature writing in 2011, talks with executive editor Matthew Segal about Montes’s singular career—and why the case against him should concern us all.
Carlos Montes was central to the Chicano rights movement in Los Angeles. A founding member of the Brown Berets, he helped organize the student walkouts in L.A. that began in 1968. Yet as you note in your story, many people have forgotten—or never knew—key details of that movement. What got you thinking about Montes?
I heard about his arrest from a friend who lives across the street from him and who last May woke up at five o’clock one morning to find a sheriff’s SWAT team and two armored cars in front of Montes’s house. The story at first seemed completely bizarre—a massive display of police force to conduct a search for weapons that the sheriff’s department believed had been registered illegally. I knew that Montes was an antiwar activist and soon learned that he had worked with a number of peace activists in the Midwest whose homes and offices had been searched by the FBI in the fall of 2010. I also learned that an FBI agent had been present when Montes’s house was raided and that the agent had tried to question Montes about his political activities. So I understood the story to be about an FBI crackdown on political dissenters, one that was all the more disturbing given the absence of any viable antiwar movement at the time. Only after doing more research and talking to Montes at length did I realize that he had played such an important role in the local Chicano movement and that he had fled the country in 1970 and lived in hiding for seven years because he feared he would be either killed or set up by police. The story, I realized, was not just about what was happening now. It was about a much longer history: of movements that have challenged war, racism, and police brutality and of fairly consistent repression of those movements by local and federal authorities. It also opened a window into a chapter of local history that has been largely bleached out of L.A.’s collective memory. More people were killed by police protesting the Vietnam War on Whittier Boulevard than at Kent State, but the Chicano movement has been largely expunged from our narratives about the sixties. L.A.—and the Eastside in particular—has a long history of political militancy that shouldn’t be forgotten.
His daughter only learned of Montes’s role in founding the Brown Berets in a college class at Berkeley. Lots of parents neglect to tell their children about their own youth. But Montes was fighting for a cause—more educational parity, an end to police discrimination, more economic opportunity. Why keep that a secret?
Montes never kept his activism a secret. His daughter, Felicia Montes, told me she grew up going to community meetings and protests with her parents. But they never talked about the past in any detail. Many activists of Montes’ generation—and particularly African-American and Chicano activists—were forced to make some pretty enormous sacrifices. Pressure from the FBI and police was relentless in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Dozens of Black Panthers were killed by police. Others served long prison sentences or went into exile. Montes spent two years in Mexico and five years in El Paso living under a false name. He and his wife were still in hiding when their children were born. He had fled arson charges in L.A. and was facing the possibility of many years in prison if he were discovered. He was ultimately acquitted, but I think it’s safe to speculate that he learned early on that it was unwise to talk about those years.
In a way, your feature is a story about the decline of Montes’s form of activism. Some of Montes’s former colleagues have either abandoned activism altogether or opted to work for change within the system. Why do you think Montes has stuck to the same mode of opposition that he adopted as a young man?
When I started reporting this story last spring, there was no large, grassroots political movement of any kind in this country, unless you count the Tea Party. Since then the Occupy movement has taken off and Americans in hundreds of cities have taken to the streets, many of them facing down police responses similar to those that Montes and his friends dealt with in the late 1960s. All of that works as a felicitous and somewhat ironic coda to the story, although you’re absolutely right—for most of the last 40 years, activism of the kind that Montes engaged in has been a pretty lonely business. Clearly he is both stubborn and committed, but so were a lot of people who ended up following very different trajectories from his. I think at least some of his consistency (for lack of a better word) has to do with the fact that he missed out on the collapse of the Chicano movement—and of the New Left more generally—in the early 1970s. Many of the activists who stuck around were severely disillusioned by the end of that decade, but Montes was spared witnessing the movement he helped found crumble under the weight of factional infighting and police pressure. I wrote in the article that he was a sort of Rip van Winkle: he returned to L.A. in 1977, jumped back in as if nothing had changed, and never changed course.
He received a felony conviction for throwing a can of soda at police during a protest in 1969?
That is the crux of the case currently against him. The District Attorney’s office is charging that Montes committed perjury when he signed the paperwork to register the guns he owns because he failed to mention that he had been convicted of a felony. Interestingly, the protest in question was a strike at East Los Angeles College. Students were demanding the creation of a Chicano Studies department. They won that battle, but the issue is no less contentious today: Chicano Studies programs have recently been outlawed in Arizona schools. And Carlos Montes is facing prison on the basis of a 43-year-old charge.
Montes’s home was raided last May by the sheriff’s department after prompting from the FBI. The reason stated by authorities was that he was a felon in possession of firearms. Montes knows the rules, so why were the charges a surprise to him?
Because the case is pending, Montes didn’t want to comment in any detail on the charges, but he did tell me that he believed his guns had been legally registered. I think it’s safe to say that the sheriff’s department doesn’t normally pursue allegations of illegal weapons possession with anything close to this degree of vigor.
What’s been the FBI’s stance in all this?
Across the board, the authorities have been silent. An FBI spokesman refused to comment, as did the Sheriff’s Deputy in charge of the investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, which coordinated the raids on activists in the Midwest, has also refused to speak with the press.
Montes could go to jail for 22 years. Does he see any irony that he’s in this much trouble today, given how quiet his life has been since his heyday as an activist?
Montes was certainly surprised, but I think he found it more consistent than ironic. The authorities behaved with a good deal of paranoia in the ’60s and ’70s, and they appear to be doing so again. I certainly found it ironic—and frightening—that the government would go after him and other activists at a moment when activism seemed in such a state of decline in the U.S. Remember, in May, when Montes’s house was raided, protesters had been filling the streets in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Greece, Spain, England, France, Chile, Portugal—everywhere but here, it seemed. And yet the FBI was expending enormous efforts to pursue a tiny and fairly ineffectual group of protesters. Now that there is once again a protest movement underway in this country, Montes’s prosecution should give us all cause for serious anxiety.
To read “Never Stop Fighting,” pick up a copy of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands