Local Activists Call Out Police and Find Themselves Flagged as Threats

Doesn't take much to get on the watchlist

Who's watching who?: Activists Louis Moncivias and Catherine Bonandin (Illustration by Jason Stout / Getty Images)

The Chronicle continues its coverage of a trove of documents hacked from a multi­-agency intelligence center operated by the Austin Police Department. The hack, called BlueLeaks, contains documents meant to be kept secret, originating from the Austin Regional Intel­li­gence Center (ARIC) and other such "fusion centers" across the country. In recent weeks, we've reported on ARIC's threat liaison officer program, which enlists law enforcement and private citizens as secret spies, and the ethnic profiling practiced. This week we talk to notable activists whose legal speech and conduct was flagged by ARIC as a threat, in conflict with its own policies, and examine training programs hosted by ARIC, which support its spy network and promote practices and techniques that have been discredited by experts.

All it takes is one social media post critical of the police for someone to show up in a law enforcement database. After live­streaming on Facebook a rambling video rant urging protesters to visit the homes of local police officers, environmental activist and Austin native Louis Mon­civ­ias unwittingly accomplished just that. Yet it turned out that Moncivias was onto something. Several months later, the chief of the Blanco Police Department resigned for the reasons Moncivias had called out – he was caught moonlighting as security for the controversial Permian Highway Pipeline being built by Kinder Morgan Energy to transfer natural gas under Hill Country communities.

The "Situational Awareness" bulletin about Moncivias and his video is included in the BlueLeaks hack of fusion centers, including ARIC, that work with the U.S. Depart­ment of Homeland Security. As a response to the perceived failures of intelligence sharing that preceded and enabled the 9/11 attacks, centers like ARIC were designed to "fuse" information from multiple agencies that could help them avert terrorism and criminal activity. The Moncivias bulletin was based on a report made by a law enforcement threat liaison officer with the Blanco County Sheriff's Office, and likely was entered into a database used by both local and federal law enforcement across the nation.

The original TLO report was dated February 12 of this year, the day after Mon­civ­ias made his video. (BlueLeaks contains material from ARIC's founding nearly a decade ago through this past June.) Using Moncivias' real and different last name, it explains that "he is a protester that has been following Kinder Morgan projects all across the county and trying to stop them" and "has been seen at the pipe storage yard on Lindeman Lane in Blanco taking pictures and video." Included with the report are screenshots made by Moncivias. They show images of his face, a map of Blanco County, and a photo of the pipe storage yard.

Emphatically Anti-Police?

This "suspicious activity" was coded (using the standard categories for TLO reports) as: "Expressed or Implied Threat," "Testing or Probing of Security," "Recruit­ing/Financing," "Observation/Surveil­lance," and "Officer Safety." The Situational Aware­ness bulletin developed from the TLO report, accurately titled "Anti-Fossil Fuels Activist Targeting Kinder Morgan Pipe­line Calls on Supporters to Provide Home Addresses of Local Law Enforce­ment," tells ARIC agencies and likely other fusion centers of Moncivias' Facebook video. It reprises his call for the addresses "of all who go against the community," adding that he "expresses emphatic anti-law enforcement sentiment."

The bulletin then explains Moncivias accused the Blanco police chief (Mike Ritch­ey, who goes unnamed in both the video and the bulletin) of "colluding with Kinder Morgan" by providing off-duty officers for a pipeline security contract; it quotes from the video describing these officers as "going against the community by protecting the pipeline" and "f***ing sellouts." The bulletin does confirm the Blanco officers as "working the Athos Security contract" for Kinder Morgan.

Louis Moncivias' "Situational Awareness" bulletin was one of the hundreds of thousands of files exposed in the BlueLeaks hack of fusion centers like ARIC.

In a section marked as "Background," the bulletin reveals Moncivias "previously targeted the residences of Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners [another pipeline firm], and Juan Sanchez, former CEO of Southwest Key," the Austin nonprofit that became notorious for its lucrative contracts to run immigrant detention centers. It adds that he "recently shared a photograph and Google map of the Houston residence of Kinder Morgan Energy Part­ners' Executive Chairman Richard Kinder to a public-facing social media page."

This "Background" section describes Mon­civias as having "an extensive history of ideologically inspired activism that includes engaging in unlawful and disruptive tactics to further his agenda, such as trespassing, harassment, and intimidation." However, the bulletin admits he "is not known to engage in violent conduct."

In a phone interview with the Chronicle, Moncivias acknowledged the intelligence in the bulletin is mostly accurate, although he denies trespassing and says he was never arrested at pipelines or people's homes. Moncivias described Warren and Kinder as "earth criminals who need a finger pointed at [them] and need to be brought to light and ... held accountable for their actions" that pollute the environment.

Moncivias visits the homes of pipeline executives and their law enforcement protectors, to “go after these people with the intention and the intent to bring fear [at the] thought of what they’re doing. Because they know what they’re doing is wrong.”

Texas law makes it a felony to "interrupt" pipeline operations, so Moncivias visits the homes of pipeline executives and their law enforcement protectors to "go after these people with the intention and the intent to bring fear [at the] thought of what they're doing. Because they know what they're doing is wrong." He then posts videos and calls for supporters to follow up with actions of their own, but Moncivias believes the intimidation and harassment he brings is neither violent nor criminal.

He has a record of misdemeanor offenses, including one for criminal trespass during a Sixth Street Halloween celebration 37 years ago. But the ARIC documents do not refer to any specific trespassing charges or arrests. Regarding his other convictions, Moncivias insists, "I've paid my debt to society." He believes the bulletin could make him an even more visible target, speculating that law enforcement he might encounter in the future could "immediately treat me differently as a human."

Protesting at the homes of officials is a popular tactic, as shown this summer by proponents of de-policing who gathered outside the residences of City Manager Spencer Cronk, Mayor Steve Adler, and Council Member Kathie Tovo. In itself, this is not a criminal act and does not always involve trespassing. As outlined in its privacy policy – a level of intended protection that many fusion centers don't have – ARIC's guidelines say it "shall collect and retain information only where there is reasonable suspicion that a specific individual or organization has committed a criminal offense, or is involved in or is planning criminal (including terrorism) conduct or activity that presents a threat to any individual, the community, or the nation; and the information is relevant to the criminal (including terrorist) conduct or activity."

The policy also calls for a designated community advocate to safeguard individual privacy interests – currently Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Peter Steffensen. He says the policy "only permits the dissemination of information that is linked to an active criminal investigation, or is necessary to prevent a criminal act or threat to public safety. ARIC's report on Mr. Mon­civias does not, on its face, meet that criteria." Steffensen goes on to explain the bulletin "highlights speech that falls far short of calling for any imminent criminal act, nor does it identify any proposed activity that would present an imminent threat to public safety. In fact, the report itself seems to dispel those concerns by explicitly noting that Mr. Moncivias 'is not known to engage in violent conduct.'"

Several months after Moncivias made his video, as part of a separate investigation, KXAN-TV discovered Chief Ritchey was indeed providing off-duty pipeline security for Kinder Morgan through a contract with Athos Security. According to KXAN, Ritchey announced his resignation from the Blanco PD the same day the station's report was released.

Watching the Watchdogs?

As a separate report indicates, you don't have to protest outside an official's home to attract attention from ARIC. On June 24, 2016, an APD TLO reported to ARIC a Facebook post made by local activist John Bush about an event he was holding at a bookstore. The report also mentions Catherine Bonandin, who was married to Bush at the time, as well as an APD officer whom the couple considered a friend.

Described as the "primary suspect," Bush is labeled an "anti-government activist" in the report. Although it claims the couple owned the now-closed bookstore, Brave New Books, which is also characterized as "anti-government," Bush insists he was only its operator. In a phone interview with the Chronicle he defined himself as a libertarian anarchist or "volunteerist." He acknowledged having a history of radical activism in Austin, and he does hold anti-government views, although he prefers the term "pro-freedom." His suspicious activity is coded as "Expressed or Implied Threat," "Recruiting," "Officer Safety," "Regional Crime Trends," and "Other." The report includes screenshots of Bush and Bonandin's Facebook posts and profiles, including photos with their children.

In the post that prompted the report, Bush proposed the question: "What if instead of standing by and filming, organized groups of freedom fighters rushed the police, subdued them, and expelled them from their communities?" Referring to a mutual aid network Bush claims has over 3,000 participants, he continued, "Freedom Cells are an answer to police brutality." Bush sees the network as a way to "support one another without the need for government."

In an email to the Chronicle, Bonandin described Bush's Facebook post as "a discussion about how to handle violent cops who repeatedly violate the rights of free humans." She added, "We have a right to talk about solutions and [John] did not make a threat." Along with a link to the bookstore event, Bush included a link to a video titled "Organizing Against Violent Cops" from its featured speaker, activist and author Derrick Broze, who also supports Freedom Cells.

After sharing Bush's Facebook post, the report mentions an APD officer who "is a connected 'friend'" of Bush and Bonandin. It then acknowledges, "The depth of the relationship is unknown, but this Officer ... is well known for his firm stance on government conspiracies, and it's [sic] connection to a more biblical front." (The Chronicle has redacted the officer's name but has confirmed his friendship with Bush and Bonandin.)

“This report shows me that we were being targeted by a bully cop.” – activist Catherine Bonandin

For Bonandin, what makes the report even more significant is the APD TLO who filed it. According to her, in 2011 that officer stalked her on Facebook using the pseudonym "Max Rock." She claims the officer dumped screenshots of their online interactions in her lap when they encountered each other at municipal court. Bonandin supplied the Chronicle with copies as evidence of the officer's undercover social media pursuit. She said the officer "should never have the authority to profile John or I after the things he pulled in 2011, cyber-stalking me and harassing me," adding, "This report shows me that we were being targeted by a bully cop."

As part of their activism, in 2010 Bush and Bonandin visited and filed public information requests with fusion centers around the country. As ARIC was being established that same year, Bush, along with Texans for Accountable Government and the American Civil Liberties Union, worked with then­-Council Member Laura Morrison to develop safeguards to put into ARIC's operational policies. Bush said he was "well aware of the potential problems," which is "why we worked so hard to ensure that there was a privacy policy that would prohibit the collection of noncriminal information of a political, religious, or social view."

Bringing up the current push for police reform, he remarked, "I would like to see the Austin City Council take it upon themselves to ensure that this type of information isn't collected, and to put a leash on [ARIC] so it doesn't cause more harm." The spending framework for de-policing that Council approved along with the fiscal year 2021 city budget proposes to reallocate $2 million in ARIC funding into the new $50 million "reimagine safety" fund, to be used to support initiatives that arise from the ongoing community engagement process.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle