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Community Organizer Spied on by FBI and Colorado Springs Police Speaks Out

“This was one of the worst moments of my life,” said Jacqueline “Jax” Armendariz Unzueta, who is suing the agencies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has sued the FBI, the Colorado Springs Police Department and local officers for illegally spying on local activist Jacqueline “Jax” Armendariz Unzueta and the Chinook Center, a community organizing hub in Colorado Springs. “This was one of the worst moments of my life,” says Unzueta, who describes the investigation by law enforcement as “incredibly invasive.” The lawsuit accuses the agencies of “unconstitutional and invasive search and seizure of the phones, computers, devices, and private chats of people and groups whose message the Colorado Springs Police Department dislikes.” This comes after revelations the FBI had infiltrated the Chinook Center by sending an undercover police detective named April Rogers to volunteer at the center in 2020, first exposed by the investigative reporter Trevor Aaronson, who writes for The Intercept and created the Alphabet Boys podcast. “For more than a year, she was undercover for the FBI,” says Aaronson, who reports the officer, who used the name Chelsie, surveilled the Chinook Center and unsuccessfully attempted to entrap local activists in gun-running conspiracies. This was part of a broader FBI effort to infiltrate racial justice and left-wing groups in Colorado after the police killing of George Floyd.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermee Shaikh.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has sued the FBI, the Colorado Springs Police Department and local officers for illegally spying on a local activist and a community organizing hub in Colorado Springs. The lawsuit accuses the agencies of, quote, “unconstitutional and invasive search and seizure of the phones, computers, devices, and private chats of people and groups whose message the Colorado Springs Police Department dislikes,” unquote. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a local activist and the Chinook Center, a community organizing hub in Colorado Springs.

This comes after revelations the FBI had infiltrated the Chinook Center by sending an undercover police detective named April Rogers to volunteer there in 2020. This was part of a broader FBI effort to infiltrate racial justice and left-leaning groups in Colorado after the police killing of George Floyd. The FBI’s role in infiltrating protest movements in Colorado was first exposed by the investigative reporter Trevor Aaronson, who writes for The Intercept and created the Alphabet Boys podcast. In this clip, Aaronson describes what happened when April Rogers was forced to testify in another case.

TREVOR AARONSON: Charles Johnson’s lawyer is named Alison Blackwell. She believes the charges against her client are politically motivated. So, during a hearing, she calls April Rogers as a witness, over the objections of prosecutors, who do not want the undercover cop to testify. For the hearing, a lawyer presenting the U.S. Department of Justice is sitting at the prosecution’s table.

ALISON BLACKWELL: When you were marching in the housing march, were you doing that for the Colorado Springs Police Department?

APRIL ROGERS: I was under the authority of the FBI.

ALISON BLACKWELL: OK. And how many other FBI agents were in that march?

APRIL ROGERS: I respectfully decline to answer.

ALISON BLACKWELL: Does the Colorado Springs Police Department know that you’re working for the FBI?

APRIL ROGERS: Yes.

ALISON BLACKWELL: So, I want to talk about — going back to the Chinook Center, did you feel guilty about that?

APRIL ROGERS: I respectfully decline to answer.

TREVOR AARONSON: April is wearing a black dress, with a black face mask to protect her undercover identity. She has long, dark brown hair, but it looks like a wig — a good one, but a wig all the same. On request, while on the witness stand, April pulls down her face mask, but only to her chin. Attorney Alison Blackwell asks April question after question, and nearly every time, April answers, “I respectfully decline to answer.” She keeps looking over at the lawyer from the Justice Department. It’s a truly bizarre scene, one of the strangest I’ve ever witnessed in a courtroom. This is a state courthouse. And in this case, the United States government is not a party, and yet a Justice Department lawyer is instructing a local cop not to answer questions about a criminal case she helped investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the podcast the Alphabet Boys about how the FBI infiltrated activist groups in Colorado Springs.

We’re joined now by two guests. Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, known as Jax, she’s in Colorado Springs, a community organizer who’s a plaintiff in the new ACLU Colorado lawsuit. Also with us, the award-winning investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, contributing writer to The Intercept and the creator of the Alphabet Boys podcast. His new article is headlined “Lawsuit Targets FBI Probe of Racial Justice Activists.” He’s the author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.

Trevor, lay out more fully this case. This undercover cop, who was working for the FBI, known to the group in Chinook as — what? Her name was — they called her “Chelsie.” She had pink hair. She implied she was a sex worker. Take it from there.

TREVOR AARONSON: Yeah. So, the FBI recruited April Rogers, a Colorado Springs detective, to infiltrate the Chinook Center. And she went in as a volunteer. She claimed to be a sex worker. And she was given tasks, administrative tasks, in the organization. And for more than a year, she was undercover for the FBI, you know, gathering information about members of the Chinook Center, its activities, and then providing that back to the Colorado Springs Police Department and the FBI. She was also attempting, unsuccessfully, to entrap activists in gun-running conspiracies that the FBI was trying to engineer. And her role appeared to be twofold: one, a blanket surveillance, that she was collecting information about activists, and, two, that she was trying to entrap some of these activists in crimes, ultimately unsuccessful in the latter effort. But for more than a year, she was undercover gathering information. And so, the —

AMY GOODMAN: And this was what year?

TREVOR AARONSON: — the search warrant — this started in 2020, in the summer of 2020, and continued through the summer of 2021, so for more than a year. This was a significant time investment by both the FBI and the Colorado Springs Police Department in using an undercover in this capacity. And so the search warrants at question are part of this larger effort by the FBI to basically surveil and investigate the Chinook Center under, essentially, a domestic terrorism investigation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Jacqueline, you’re one of the plaintiffs in this case. Could you talk about when you found out that there was this FBI informant, and what the consequences for you personally have been?

JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Thank you. Yes, that’s right. Good morning from Colorado Springs.

So, you know, this was one of the worst moments of my life. And I only found out the extent of this violation of our constitutional rights when I realized — you know, I demanded to see the search warrant for my home when they came and acted if I was some sort of criminal. Then I realized that this was some sort of effort that involved, you know, the Joint Terrorism Task Force with CSPD. And as I mentioned, I had never been arrested before in my life. I happened to be at the housing march that day, because I was actually at the time a U.S. Senate staffer, and we were working on a particular project with the housing crisis. So, I came to participate, because I believe housing is a human right. And I came to observe, do my job, understand what the local community was saying.

And I can tell you that I’ve never been the same, since the CSPD decided to violate my constitutional rights, invade my privacy. And let’s not forget the real part of this story is that CSPD was targeting and retaliating against us. They sent me a very clear message to “Shut down. Sit up, little girl. Know your place.” They criminalized our speech, which is that Black lives matter, housing is a human right, white supremacy is domestic terrorism. And they tried to use that as a basis to criminalize us.

And I would just add that, really, this behavior from SCPD stems as far back as 2019, because today is the four-year remembrance of the killing of De’Von Bailey, who a CSPD officer shot as he ran away. They shot him in the back and killed him. And our community started organizing to demand accountability from CSPD. And ever since then, we’ve been a target for CSPD. And this case clearly shows that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jax, can you tell us about what happened to your personal devices, your personal data? How did the authorities take them?

JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Absolutely. So, they came to my home to arrest me for a false accusation involving my participation in the march. And I demanded that they show me the search warrant. And it was a warrant for all my electronic devices. This included, you know, personal devices, my work devices, which at the time were the property of the U.S. Senate. And this included devices that, you know, I hadn’t used in years, an external hard drive from my middle school, high school days that had nothing but MP3s. So, it was incredibly invasive, so much personal content, you know, content from another litigation that I was involved in.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jax, we only have 30 seconds, and then we’re going to do a post-show and put it online at democracynow.org. But when did you realize that Chelsie — this so-called activist had joined your group — was actually —

JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — an undercover police officer working for the FBI?

JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ UNZUETA: Well, that’s the funny thing. It was only through my court case that we had that kind of break in information, because I refused to plead guilty to the crime of which I was accused. And as a result, the discovery revealed, from the bodycam of the officers talking amongst themselves, that there were multiple undercover officers who had infiltrated us. And so, I shared that with my co-defendants, my fellow organizers. And that was a huge break in the case for our understanding of just how thoroughly our constitutional rights had been violated.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue with Part 2 of this discussion and post it at democracynow.org. We want to thank Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, a Colorado Springs community organizer, a plaintiff in the new ACLU of Colorado lawsuit, and Trevor Aaronson. We’ll continue with you, as well, award-winning investigative journalist. We’ll link to your new piece for The Intercept, “Lawsuit Targets FBI Probe of Racial Justice Activists.” I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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