Salinas Police Arrest Student for Challenging Military Recruiters

July 8th, 2007 - by admin

Kera Abraham / Monterey County Weekly – 2007-07-08 08:27:08

MONTEREY, California (JulY 5, 2007) — He’d gone in with a free ticket, but Alberto Tovar left the Día de la Familia celebration at the Salinas Sports Complex in handcuffs. Weeks later, the recent CSU Monterey Bay graduate’s run-in with police has turned into a hands-on civics lesson that has attracted the support of local teachers, Latino community members and civil rights activists.

In a sense, it was academic curiosity that led Tovar into trouble. The Salinas native, who graduated from CSU Monterey Bay this spring with a degree in human communications, had just completed a 30-page paper on the ways that military recruiters manipulate poor young people of color into enlisting.

As he explored the Latino community event on the afternoon of June 24 with his girlfriend’s 8-year-old brother, Tovar noticed a Marine booth where recruiters were giving away schwag — booklets, bracelets and little bags — to a group of boys who, according to Tovar, looked to be under 10 years old. It was exactly the kind of propaganda he’d been researching.

Tovar asked one of the boys if the recruiter had told him that if he enlists, he might go to war. The child said no. Tovar then challenged the recruiter, asking him why the military lures kids with promises of college money and health benefits without telling them about the risks of combat.

“The research I’ve done shows that a lot of Latino youth don’t think they have a lot of options and think that the military is the only way to go to college,” Tovar says. “That’s why I got upset.”

According to Tovar, the recruiters told him to be quiet and get his facts straight. Then several Salinas policemen approached, echoing the recruiters’ request to be quiet. Tovar balked, arguing that if the recruiters are allowed to express their opinions, he should have the same right to free speech.

Salinas Police Department Cmdr. Al Ruiz tells a slightly different story. He alleges that Tovar was “verbally abusive” and used “offensive words” with the military recruiters, security staff and police, prompting a charge of peace disturbance.

Officer John Avery repeatedly told Tovar to exit the venue, Ruiz says. When the young man protested, the officer handcuffed him and charged him with criminal trespass.

At the time of his arrest, Tovar was wearing a common punk wristband with dull metal spikes, “kinda like you see some of the gothic people wear,” Ruiz says. Because of the bracelet, police charged Tovar with possession of a dangerous/deadly weapon.

By July 2, the Monterey County District Attorney’s office had tacked on a charge of disorderly conduct for public intoxication. According to Tovar, he had not been drinking on the day of his arrest, and police did not test him for intoxication. The DA handling the case was not available for comment.

Tovar claims throughout his arrest-while being handcuffed, riding in the police car, and waiting in jail for the next eight hours-he repeatedly asked what his charges were. “They just told me to shut up, shut up,” he says.

He says he didn’t use offensive words, conscious that his girlfriend’s little brother was watching the altercation. The closest he came to swearing, he says, is when he told the officers his arrest was “bull.”

The day after his release Tovar called his mentor, Alisal High School teacher Rubén Pizarro, who teaches AP government. “Based on his version of the event, I think it’s pretty outrageous,” Pizarro says. “It seems like the charges were trumped up.”

Pizarro sent out an e-mail describing the scenario, noting that Tovar might have struck police as weird. “His appearance is unique-his hair is spiked high and he sometimes wears mascara-but he is a thoughtful, credible young man who deserves better than he was treated,” Pizarro wrote.

Within days, several dozen people had contacted Pizarro to offer support. Among them were CSUMB instructors Debra Busman and Rina Benmayor, who along with Pizarro accompanied Tovar to his July 3 arraignment.

In court, Tovar stood before the judge in a button-up black shirt and gelled spiky hair, and asked for an extension. He says that, though he is inclined to plead not guilty on all counts, he wants time to retain a lawyer and drum up some legal defense funds.

The legality of the criminal trespass charge may hinge on who initially asked police to remove Tovar from the Sports Complex. The First Amendment guarantees people’s right to free speech, but it also grants the right to assemble privately. Property owners, not police, may choose who to let in and who to kick out.

Cmdr. Ruiz says “the people there, in charge of the facility” originally asked Tovar to leave when he began challenging the recruiters.

But Salinas Sports Complex General Manager Roger LaFountain says that neither he nor the venue’s operations manager, the two staff people present, had anything to do with Tovar’s arrest. “I heard there was something going on with the Marine recruiters,” LaFountain says. “I only heard about it after the gentleman had been removed.”

Tony Valencia, promotions director of event sponsor KLOK-FM radio, says that neither he nor, to his knowledge, any of his co-workers requested Tovar’s removal.

Salinas police maintain that people in charge of the facility asked Tovar to leave.

If Salinas police ejected Tovar on their own, or at the request of the military recruiters, Tovar’s criminal trespass charge may be illegitimate under the First Amendment. “Neither the police nor other presenters, it seems to me, have the right to exclude people if they’re not excluded by the host,” says Terry Francke, general counsel for public forum rights group Californians Aware.

Though he’s facing fines and jail time, Tovar says he has no regrets. “It kinda sucks, but I’m glad that it happened because I want people to know what’s going on,” he says. “They’re trying to silence me, and that’s what the military does.”

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