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Escalated Government Attacks on Homeless, Journalism, & Public Criticism: Santa Cruz & SJ

by Steven Argue
[Photo: December 4th, poor refugees driven from their shanty town homes by the San Jose Police (Reuters/Beck Diefenbach)]
Escalated Government Attacks on Homeless, Journalism, & Public Criticism by the Santa Cruz and San Jose City Governments

By Steven Argue

On Tuesday, January 13th, hundreds of people turned out to protest the Santa Cruz City Council. The protest was against the city government’s new anti-homeless banishment law, against the city government’s purchase of a new $251,000 military assault vehicle, and against new so-called “decorum” rules against Robert Norse recording city council meetings for his radio show. The protest was organized by the Revolutionary Tendency, Project Pollinate, Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, and Code Pink.

So many people packed the city council chambers in protest that the fire marshal ordered some of the people out of the city council chambers. Outside we were supposedly able to watch the proceedings on monitors, but the speaker system “failed” so that the speeches by the irate public could not be heard. In addition, large numbers of speakers were prevented from speaking at all by Mayor Don Lane on two of the major topics.

Strike One, City Council Attacks Independent Journalism

The first point of scheduled protest was at around 2:30 PM when discussion opened up on so-called “decorum” rules. The rules were subsequently passed by the Santa Cruz City Council. In reality, the new rules have nothing to do with decorum and are instead about interfering with the recordings of meetings that are done by journalist Robert Norse. After making his recordings, Robert Norse regularly uses them on his twice weekly show on Free Radio Santa Cruz called Bathrobes Pierre's Broadsides. That radio show strongly criticizes the Santa Cruz City Council’s routine harassment of homeless people through multiple anti-homeless laws. Robert Norse’s recordings are regularly used to draw public attention to those abuses by the Santa Cruz City Council and this is the only reason he is being singled out by the Santa Cruz City Council for harassment. Of course, the city council’s laws don’t specifically mention Robert Norse by name, but since Robert Norse is the only person doing audio recordings, there should be no question that this law is directed at him.

The new rules are an amendment to the old law. The absurd old rules of the Santa Cruz City Council banned Robert Norse from having an unattended recording device at the podium. In 2014, when Robert attempted to leave his tape recorder at the podium, Santa Cruz Police repeatedly shut-off his tape recorder and confiscated it. On April 1st, 2014 this harassment was escalated and Robert Norse was outrageously arrested for leaving an unattended recording device at the podium.

Skilled video producer and homeless service advocate, Brent Adams, described the arrest:

"Robert Norse was cited tonight at City Council for placing his tape recorder at the podium and walking to the back of the room. Just like he has done [at] nearly every council meeting for no less than 15 years running. Tonight new mayor Robinson decided to have the police arrest him for disrupting the meeting. They issued him with a misdemeanor ticket and ordered him to leave the room or be arrested. I videotaped the whole thing. She definitely is changing things up in quite a creepy way. ... I think this is a problem."

Steve Pleich of the Homeless Person’s Legal Assistance Project also denounced Robert Norse’s arrest saying:

“From a purely civil libertarian point of view, the arrest and citation of Robert Norse during Tuesday evening's council meeting was both alarming and disconcerting. In an age when government at all levels seems interested in exerting more power over the affairs of ordinary citizens while simultaneously restricting access to the decision making process, the right to simply be heard is more important than ever. Regardless of the animus some feel toward Mr. Norse, let us not further chill the medium in our haste to quiet the messenger.”

After April 1st, enforcement of rules prohibiting an unattended recording device forced Robert Norse to sit at the podium with his tape recorder in order to follow the rules. Now, the new rules passed by the city council have ended Robert Norse’s ability to even put his recording device at the podium at all, instead forcing him to place his recorder far to the side of the room where he is unable to properly pick up sound, especially when sound systems fail as they did on January 13th.

During the meeting, council members claimed that the meetings are recorded and then placed on-line so there really isn't any need for people to record the proceedings. That is pure nonsense. Those recordings are not released in a timely manner. The City Council site does eventually release audio and video recordings, but the most recent posting on their site is from June 26-27th of 2014, so unless one wants to wait half a year, one needs to record the meetings separately.

These blatant attacks on independent journalism were denounced by speakers from the public. Pat Colbe desired to speak specifically on this agenda item in defense of independent journalism, but it was at her turn in line, and with others waiting to speak as well, that Mayor Don Lane shut down public comment. This author then spoke out against this violation of the accepted decorum rules for public input, and was ejected from the meeting by armed cops who threatened me with arrest if I re-entered the meeting.

The Santa Cruz City Council unanimously passed this frontal attack on independent journalism. Votes in favor of the anti-journalism law included Don Lane and Micah Posner, giving lie to the idea that there is any significant left-wing among the capitalist Democratic Party politicians who comprise the Santa Cruz City Council. This has long been true. In 1998, this author was arrested and beaten by the Santa Cruz Police for writing and distributing an article that exposed the police murder of homeless activist John Dine. In court, the liberal Santa Cruz city government argued against my right to sell newspapers and their appointees on the Citizen’s Police Review Board found no wrong doing for my arrest, beatings, and 4 day jailing for selling newspapers. In federal court, however, Judge Ware ruled that my First Amendment rights were not only violated, but the way in which the Santa Cruz City Government tried to defend itself proved that it is city policy to violate First Amendment rights to freedom of press.

Rally Outside of City Hall

Independent of the City Council and outside of their hall, activists spoke out at a planned rally against the new anti-homeless law and the city’s new urban assault vehicle. Speakers included Sherry Conable of Code Pink, Steven Argue of the Revolutionary Tendency, Robert Norse of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, and Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs.

At the 3:30 PM rally, people were encouraged to later speak out against the city government’s new assault vehicle during oral communications at around 5:00 PM and against the city government’s proposed worsened anti-homeless laws at around 7:30.

Strike Two, City Council Shuts Down Public Discussion on Assault Vehicle

Hundreds of people were prepared to speak out against the city government’s new assault vehicle. This urban assault vehicle was bought with our tax dollars through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The total listed price is supposed to be $251,000. This is part of the federal government’s current $3 billion dollar per year project to militarize local police forces through grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

This latest military acquisition fits with the Obama Administration’s stated goal of militarizing police forces across the country. As austerity, low wages, racism, and foreign wars devastate much of the American working class, the U.S. ruling class is not spending money to ameliorate these problems; instead they are preparing for war on America’s poor, people of color, and working class in general. Similar military vehicles have been deployed against the American people in places like Ferguson as outrage over the ability of the police to murder people with absolute impunity has reached the boiling point.

Rather than allow public criticism from the hundreds of outraged people who showed up, the Santa Cruz City Council instead outrageously cut public comments down to only one minute. Under threat of arrest, this author stayed outside of city council chambers at the beginning of oral communications, but later risked arrest by entering the city council chambers and getting in line to speak. A large line continued to form behind me as well, as large numbers of people from the public spoke out against the city government’s new assault vehicle. With a long line still present, just before I was scheduled to speak, Mayor Don Lane ended oral communications, once again undemocratically cutting off public comment. In protest, I once again spoke out against Mayor Don Lane’s improper shutting down of oral communications. For doing this, I was once again escorted out of the city council chambers, this time by two armed cops who once again threatened me with arrest if I returned.

This was the silencing of public comment on an item that had already been rushed through city council and approved without consulting the public in December. On December 9th, the people of Santa Cruz were given only a day to respond to the city council’s latest military acquisition from the Department of Homeland Security.

In protest in December, a number of people in the Santa Cruz community were mobilized on short notice. Under pressure, City Councilperson Don Lane pulled the acquisition of the vehicle from the consent agenda, where the purchase of the military vehicle would have been approved without discussion. With discussion opened up, one speaker after another then stood up from the community making various demands including the release of a picture of the military vehicle to the public, assurances that the vehicle wouldn't be used on protesters, and the tabling of the vote for a future city council meeting where the community would have a real opportunity to consider the purchase and respond. In addition, a large number of speakers, including this author, demanded that the purchase be voted down.

Listening to the community to some degree, City Council member Micah Posner introduced an amendment that would have supposedly given a guarantee that the militarized vehicle would not be used on protesters and that future military acquisitions would be given more time and information for public review. This extremely weak amendment was voted down 5 to 2. Micah Posner and Don Lane were the only two who voted for it. The next vote of 6 to 1 approved the purchase with only Micah Posner voting against the SCPD’s assault vehicle. Micah Posner expressed the fact that he has his finger in the air and senses prevailing winds saying, “After Ferguson, let’s be honest, it’s a muddy time for it.” Yet, he was timid in explaining his vote, clarifying that he was not voting that way because he was anti-police, he was only voting against the assault vehicle due to the lack of any guarantees. Yet, once the police have this kind of equipment, there really are no guarantees.

At that December 9th meeting, in response to the city council’s vote, members of the public broke out into chants of: "Shame! Shame! Shame!" Then Mayor Lynn Robinson responded by ordering the police to clear the chambers. After the council hall was cleared, the city council decided to table the rest of the agenda for the next meeting which was held on January 13th, 2015.

Strike Three, City Council Worsens Santa Cruz Anti-Homeless Laws

Among the items tabled as a result of the December shutdown of city council was the final adoption of an amendment to an existing anti-homeless ordinance. That amendment will make the existing law far worse. At the January 13th meeting, knowing people were scheduled to arrive to speak out against the new anti-homeless banishment law at 2:00 PM and 3:00 PM, the city council scheduled that agenda item for nearly as late in the evening as they possibly could. Some people stuck around until late in the evening to speak out against it, but public comment was reduced through this scheduling tactic. The worsened anti-homeless amendment was passed by the Santa Cruz City Council with only City Councilperson Micah Posner voting against it.

Both the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Homeless Person’s Legal Assistance Project have declared the law unconstitutional. Steve Pleich of the Homeless Person’s Legal Assistance Project says he encourages diversity of tactics and is promoting fighting the law in court. Both the Revolutionary Tendency and Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom oppose this law on many grounds and are calling for actions in the street to oppose it.

The previous banishment law (Section 13.08.100 Order to Vacate), before it was amended, gave the authority to the police and park officials to banish people from locations in much of Santa Cruz. Banishments are for minor “offenses”, including being homeless. The locations where the ordinance is enforced are any that are maintained by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. This is much of Santa Cruz and includes parks, beaches, and the San Lorenzo Levee area. These banishments can be for violations of any law, no matter how minor, as well as violations of Santa Cruz’s anti-homeless laws. Santa Cruz anti-homeless laws include one that, under threat of hefty fine, makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep at night. Banishments are currently issued at the discretion of police and park authorities and they are not overturned if the homeless person is found innocent in court. Violations of banishment orders are punishable by up to a year in prison and by substantial fines.

The new amended banishment law will give police and park rangers the authority to banish people for up to a year for repeated violations. The old banishment law, currently in effect, only gives them the authority to banish people for 24 hours. Banishment for up to a year on the say so of cops and park rangers will be a major violation of constitutional rights to due process. The new banishment law is also retroactive, so a large number of people will be receiving new longer banishments for past infractions.

While there tends to be no justice in the capitalist courts, this ordinance has taken us one step further away from the supposedly constitutionally protected right to due process. As Obama carries out extra-judicial executions of whole families by drone in countries exploited by U.S. and European imperialism where people’s skin color brown, the local city council of Santa Cruz has likewise adopted extrajudicial punishments to be meted out on the say-so of city cops and park rangers.

While the city government and corporate media portray this worsened anti-homeless law as a needed response to terrible violent repeat criminals, actual statistics paint a far different picture. Raven Davis compiled data on over a thousand people cited with infractions that were eligible for banishment. These were infraction tickets from July 2013 to October 2014. All of the tickets could have been used to banish people and 52% actually were. Of the total infractions, she found that 14% were for sleeping, 20.2% for setting up bedding, 23% for setting up a campsite, 17% for smoking in a public park, 5% for the consumption of alcohol, 9% for open containers of alcoholic beverages, and 21% for limits to access violations in public parks (usually associated with trying to find a place to sleep). Nearly 100% were non-violent “offenses”.

Far from being directed at problem criminals, this law is directed at homeless people. In fact, Raven Davis found that at least 69% of the citations written by park rangers were to homeless people. Also, 78.2% of infractions were directly about being homeless because they deal with homeless sleeping issues. In addition, anti-smoking laws are widely believed to be selectively enforced against people who are homeless. Public alcohol charges are also far more prevalent for people who don’t have a living room and can’t afford to drink in a bar. Whatever one thinks of smoking and drinking, the vast majority of citations are for sleeping, bedding, camping, and being in parks after dark.

It is entirely possible that we saved one or two or even several lives by delaying the passage of the amended banishment law on December 9th by shutting city council down. This is because people were not banished immediately in the cold of winter from public spaces where they can set up camp in attempts to stay warm and dry while they try to get some sleep. Yes, they could still be cited for “crimes” like sleeping and be banished for 24 hours as well as forced to pay hefty fines, but they were not facing larger banishments that will now severely punish survival activities on publicly owned land under threat of a year in jail. Now that the amendment to this law was passed on January 13th, it will take effect thirty days after its passage, and there should be is no doubt that it will kill people. Similar attacks are being carried out against homeless people across the United States, including over the hill in San Jose.

San Jose Police Destroy Shanty Town in Torrential Rain

In the beginning of December 2014, a shanty town in San Jose, California known as The Jungle was destroyed by over 30 armed cops accompanied by bulldozers. The Jungle housed about 350 poor people. Many of these people were scattered as refugees, homeless and muddy in the pouring rain. The targeted people, afraid of the cops, were unable to pick up anything more than the most minimal of belonging before their housing and personal things were bulldozed into large piles and discarded.

The Jungle sits under the shadow of the massive wealth of Silicon Valley giants Google, Apple, Yahoo, and eBay. Embarrassment over recent national coverage probably played a role in the destruction of the encampment.

Nancy Ortega, while watching her things being destroyed by a bulldozer said to an AP reporter, "It's just junk to everyone else but to us, that's home. That's our stuff."

While many left immediately, others refused to do so. These included journeyman construction worker Valentine Cortes, who said he was staying in his shack. When asked about police threats for those who do not leave, he said, "Then I guess I'll be arrested."

In solidarity, about 50 protesters gathered with signs saying "Homeless people matter", "Stand with The Jungle”, and “The Jungle, The Only Affordable Housing in S.J. Without a Waiting List”.

Instead of actual solutions to homelessness, one of the primary methods the U.S. capitalist state uses to deal with the growing ranks of the houseless poor is by criminalizing their every activity and trying to force them to move on. In different municipalities there are laws against everything from sleeping outside or in a vehicle to laws against feeding the hungry, covering up with a blanket, setting up a camp, and even laws against sitting down. With the backing of city and county governments, police selectively enforce these laws against people who look like they are poor and homeless. Enforcement includes everything from tickets with large fines people can't pay to arrest, beatings, and even police murder with impunity.

Among the victims of police terror against the poor who lack housing was Kelley Thomas who was unarmed and beaten to death by the Fullerton, California police. Last year the cops who beat Kelley Thomas to death were found not guilty despite being filmed in the act of the brutal murder as the unarmed Kelley Thomas pleaded for his life. Kelley Thomas had committed absolutely no crime and was murdered by police simply for being homeless. Kelley Thomas kept saying he was sorry and begged for the police not to kill him as he was punched over and over again. He died a few days later in the hospital from the wounds he received.

The heart of the capitalist state is its cops, prisons, courts, and military. The capitalist ruling class of this country encourages brutal cops with impunity for their crimes because they know that it is only these people with no connection to humanity who will defend their wealthy interests against the majority of the people. To end police brutality against poor and working class people in general, African Americans, people of color, and political activists will take smashing the capitalist state in a proletarian socialist revolution.

Likewise, it is the capitalist system that creates homelessness in one of the richest countries in the world. Many people like to credit the wealth of the United States on hard entrepreneurial work through the greatness of the capitalist system. This myth is simply a blatant lie we’ve all been told. The wealth of the United States was built up through the theft of Native American and Mexican land, slavery, super exploitation of the working class, and imperialist plunder of the wealth of the world through U.S. imposed dictatorships combined with lopsided investment and trade policies. The United States is constantly at war to defend its imperialist plunder of the world. Yet, while the extremely wealthy benefit from imperialist wars, less and less of this wealth trickles down to the working class.

The capitalist system in the United States imposes on much of the working class a brutal combination of low wages and high rent. Those of us who fall through these cracks wind up scurrying for shelter and food under the constant threat of police and vigilante “justice”. The capitalist propaganda of the corporate media, however, portrays the victims of this cruel injustice as the criminals while the actual criminals, from cops to politicians and capitalists, are portrayed as the heroes.

We are not represented at all in the capitalist government. Labor action for higher pay and rent strikes for lower rent could help. Yet, for these to be successful we must revive the fighting tactics of the unions in the 1930s when the labor movement was being led by communists including Leninist-Trotskyists. It was this labor movement that forced Franklin Roosevelt to enact the New Deal to avoid a revolution.

Today, the situation of the working class of the United States continues to deteriorate because the government does not properly fear us. What is needed is the building of a revolutionary workers party that revives the fighting tactics of reds in the unions in the 1930s and fights for proletarian socialist revolution. Our socialist revolution will immediately expropriate the greedy landlords, banks, and corporations to rapidly eliminate rent and unemployment and alleviate massive income inequality through a planned socialist economy. This planned socialist economy will be one where decisions on production can be based on human and environmental needs rather than profit. Capitalism does not allow this, corporations that think like this under capitalism would be driven under. This planned socialist economy, controlled by a government with authentic workers democracy, will be the only means to save our planet and a sinking working class from destruction and barbarism.

-Steven Argue of the Revolutionary Tendency

Revolutionary Tendency

For related articles by this author see:

Murderous Cops, Liberal Snake Oil, & Revolutionary Solutions
(With an extensive “Homeless Lives Matter” Section)

Do Our Protests Accomplish Nothing? A Response to a Smug Cop

Some History of Blatant Political Repression in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz Protest Against Arrests For Feeding People

Also see video of the December 9th meeting shut down in protest, by Brent Adams.

* This is an article of Liberation News, subscribe free:
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