Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Santa Cruz Police Continue to "Protect" 75 River Street

Two individuals sat with their bicycles and other survival gear outside of one of the boarded up entrances to the vacant bank building located at 75 River Street in downtown Santa Cruz at about 2am on a weekday evening last week. This was enough to raise the attention of a Santa Cruz police officer in a patrol vehicle, who was then quickly joined by two more vehicles arriving at the location. After issuing one individual a citation, a police officer could be heard telling the pair they would be given 20 minutes to gather their belongings and leave. The police left and the two stayed there for about an hour and a half. 75 River Street has been vacant since 2008. Both the city and county of Santa Cruz have gone to great lengths, and costs, to "protect" the empty building.

Santa Cruz police arrive at 75 River Street last week.

The address of 75 River Street in Santa Cruz became infamous in 2011 when political activists occupied the building for three days during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It had been left empty by its leaser, Wells Fargo Bank. Wells Fargo has another location directly across the street at 74 River, out of which the company actually conducts its business. The owner of 75 River Street is the wealthy and influential developer, Barry Swenson.

Hundreds of people entered the building during the course of the occupation. Activists had hoped to transform the former bank into a community center to provide free services to low-income and homeless individuals. Before the occupation it was common to see homeless people sleeping in front of, and all around, the property at 75 River Street.

Following the occupation, Santa Cruz police expended a great deal of resources targeting individuals who entered the building for arrest. In February of 2012, felony charges were filed against eleven individuals by the Santa Cruz County DA at the time, the late Bob Lee.

Lee stated publicly that someone needed to be held accountable so that Wells Fargo could be reimbursed financially for the damage done to the building during the occupation, which the business estimated to be over $20,000.

Charges against seven of the eleven individuals targeted would eventually be dismissed over the course of many court hearings. To resolve their legal issues, the final four defendants were tied up in court for more than three years at a still unknown cost to taxpayers.

That the Santa Cruz Police Department sent three patrol vehicles to 75 River Street to issue one person a citation this past week is not uncommon for the department. The department spends a great deal of its resources addressing the nuisance crimes committed by members of the city's street-bound population.

In 2012, for example, police statistics showed that 42 percent of all arrests and 32 percent of all citations issued by the Santa Cruz Police Department were for nuisance crimes related to the homeless population. An article published in 2013 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that assistant city manager Tina Shull estimated the police response to incidents involving the homeless would cost the city around $1 million annually when applying that police data.

The bank was fenced off after the occupation. Photo: February 2012

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Activists "Carve Out" Space for Sitting and Relaxing in Downtown Monterey

Community members in Monterey returned to Alvarado Street on February 5 for their first sit-lie protest of 2016. The activists have been organizing protests once a month since February of last year to oppose the city's sit-lie law, which first went into effect in October of 2014. Future sit-ins will continue to be held on the first of the month, with the next protests planned for March 4 and April 1.

The sit-lie protests are organized by Direct Action Monterey Network (DAMN). Sec. 32-6.2 of the Monterey municipal code bans sitting or lying on most commercial sidewalks in Monterey between the hours of 7am and 9pm. Based on their outreach with Monterey's homeless community, DAMN believes the sit-lie ordinance is discriminatory and has been selectively enforced by police.

DAMN posted the following event announcement on Facebook in advance of the February 5 sit-in:

"On Friday, February 5th from 4pm-6pm we will once again sit down on the sidewalk on Alvarado Street in violation of Monterey's Sit/Lie Ban. Once a month, we carve out space for people to sit and relax and simply exist who would otherwise be kicked out by police/security.

"This ordinance is only one expression of Monterey's war against people without homes! End the criminalization of homelessness!

"The police have only given written warnings once in the past year of this campaign. After receiving a warning, you won't be cited if you don't do it again for 30 days. If you don't want to risk a warning/citation you can still stand near us and display signs.

"Meet in front of Walgreens on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey. Bring signs and lawn chairs if you would like. Coffee will be provided! We will continue this action on the first Friday of every month from 4pm-6pm."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Community Sleepout #29

Attendance increased at the 29th Freedom Sleepers community sleepout held at Santa Cruz City Hall on January 26, possibly due to the dry and somewhat mild evening's weather. The next sleepout is planned for Tuesday, February 2.

Since July 4 of last year, group sleepouts have been held once a week at Santa Cruz City Hall to oppose local laws that criminalize homelessness and sleeping in public. Some of the demonstrators have their own homes to go to and some do not, and participants say the location continues to be the only safe place for people to sleep outdoors in downtown Santa Cruz on Tuesday nights.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Remembering the Occudome

The construction of the Occudome at Occupy Santa Cruz in 2011 represented a radical act of reclaiming public space, and the physical structure itself became an object of affection to many involved in the movement. I was looking through my archives and found this set of photos that document activities at the Occudome over the course of its lifespan. Most of these photos have never been published before.

Early in November of 2011, members of Occupy Santa Cruz constructed a large, geodesic dome next to the steps of the Santa Cruz Court House, which was the location the group held their general assemblies every day for months. The structure served as a shelter space that was separate from the large Occupy encampment located steps away in the San Lorenzo Park Benchlands. It would soon be named, the "Occudome." Individuals use of the dome evolved everyday. Inside it were couches, a kitchenette, a tower heater, audio equipment and musical instruments, and information tables. Artwork adorned the interior walls. At one point occupiers installed a solar panel on its exterior.

Inside the dome during a general assembly

An occupier warming their face

Solar panel

Empathy Cafe

"Dome is Where the Heart Is"

"Police Are Puppets"

A tribute to the dome

The early days of the Occudome

Gathering before an Occupy Santa Cruz march

Using the Occudome to dry clothing

Santa Cruz Sheriffs eventually made a move in early December of that year to dismantle the Occudome, arriving outfitted in riot gear and blocking off Water Street during the process. For an excellent photo essay by Bradley Allen that documents the destruction of the dome, see:
Santa Cruz Co. Sheriff's Dept. Dismantles Occupy Santa Cruz Geodesic Dome and Structures at Courthouse

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The "Winter" Freedom Sleepers

A small but dedicated group of "Freedom Sleepers" are facing all the conditions winter has to offer them as they continue to sleep outside of Santa Cruz City Hall on Tuesday nights. The rain stopped just before the beginning of the 28th community sleepout held on January 19, but the city hall area stayed wet all evening, as did some of the sleepers' possessions. Individuals, some with and some without houses of their own to stay in, have been coming together since July 4 for the sleepouts, which are organized to protest local laws that make homelessness and sleeping in public a crime.

The City of Santa Cruz continues to take measures to prevent the sleepers from occupying the city hall courtyard and lawn area. The entire complex at city hall is closed to the public at night, and police have issued countless citations and arrested many during the course of the protests, in order to keep the area clear.

Security guards were on duty all night at city hall on January 19, watching over protesters. For months "Area Closed" signs have been in place surrounding the lawn area, and even in more puzzling locations such as the center of the main brick walkway that leads to council chambers, where the city council meetings are held.

The rain had stopped, but items such as the Freedom Sleeper's tent stayed wet.

Security guards watch over city hall all night during the protests.

An "Area Closed" sign placed in the middle of the main entrance to Santa Cruz City Hall.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Sleepouts at Santa Cruz City Hall Advance to 2016

Homeless individuals returned to sleep at Santa Cruz City Hall on January 5 for the twenty-sixth community sleepout. Facing intermittent downpours of rain, some slept in a large tent on the sidewalk in front of the city hall courtyard. Signs attached to the tent read, "No Sleep Til Justice." Some individuals successfully slept under the eaves of the city offices building itself, which is a no-trespassing zone at night. One person slept directly on city hall's brick walkway with out a blanket. Regardless of the sleep location, it is illegal to sleep in Santa Cruz anywhere in public between the hours of 11 pm and 8:30 am.

Since July 4, community members, many of them calling themselves "Freedom Sleepers," have been organizing the sleepouts one night a week at City Hall to protest laws that criminalize homelessness and the simple act of sleeping. 

Initially they attempted to sleep on the lawn in the courtyard area of city hall, which is also a no trespassing zone at night. In response, police conducted raids at nearly every one of their sleepouts. After many were cited and or arrested in the courtyard, the sleepers moved the location of their sleep-protest to the sidewalk in front of city hall. Eventually the police raids subsided.

To keep the courtyard free of sleepers, the city has instead chosen to hire all night security patrols, who often stand watch over the sleepers for hours at a time. Staying up all night has weighed heavy on some of the guards, who are employed by First Alarm Security Services. Several guards have been caught sleeping in their cars, which is a violation of the camping ban, the very same law the sleepers are directly protesting themselves through civil disobedience. Some of the guards have expressed frustration with the protesters, a homeless woman was roughed up while they were arresting her in the courtyard.

According to reports from the Freedom Sleepers, there were transgressions from the guards at the last sleepout as well.

Toby Nixon, of the Homeless Advocacy & Action Coalition, said that at about 4 am on January 6, a First Alarm security guard began to shine a bright light on the activists' tent and attempted to initiate a "conversation" with the individuals inside it. After exiting the tent, Nixon says he insisted the security guard stop harassing them as they attempted to sleep. He claims the guard responded that he was working there and that it was his right to do whatever he wished.

According to Nixon the First Alarm guard left after some coaxing, and the sleepers inside made it through another night at Santa Cruz City Hall.

Two sleepers under the eaves of city hall during the January 5 protest

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Community Members in Watsonville Demonstrate in Support of Driscoll's Berry Boycott

On January 2, community members in Watsonville picketed in front of the Mi Pueblo Food Center on Freedom Boulevard in support of the international boycott of Driscoll's Berries. The headquarters of Driscoll's Berries is located in Watsonville, and Mi Pueblo is a large chain supermarket that sells the brand. The action was organized by the Watsonville and Sacramento Brown Berets, who noted this was the first event organized for the Driscoll's boycott in Santa Cruz County.

According to organizers of the international boycott, Driscoll's is the largest distributor of berries in the world and the company has a history of repressing union organizing. The boycott of Driscoll's has been initiated in response to the poor treatment of farmworkers who grow their berries in San Quintin, Mexico, as well as at Sakuma Bros. Berry Farm in Burlington, Washington.

In 2013, workers at Sakuma organized an independent labor union named Familias unidas por la Justicia, or Families United for Justice (FUJ). FUJ is asking that Driscoll’s and Sakuma Berry Farms recognize them as the official union representing farm worker harvesters. Additionally, they have issued the following demands:

a- $15 per hour minimum wage and overtime pay.
b- IF a piece-rate wage process is accepted it must be negotiated as an ongoing process with worker representation- Sakuma Farms already agreed to a mutually acceptable process in 2013. The piece rate wage process has been used by Sakuma Farms as a wage theft mechanism that FUJ wants to end.
c- A medical plan for all harvesters paid for by the company.
d- No children or youth in the fields younger than 17 years.
e- Negotiate equitable hiring and firing practices.
f- A pesticide safety committee with union representation.
g- Union representation in the development of supervisor training program.
h- A union label on all harvested products.

In 2015 Families United for Justice issued a statement in support of individuals who grow berries in the San Quintin Valley of Mexico that are distributed by Driscoll's. A general strike was observed by over 50,000 San Quintin farmworkers that year. They organized as an independent union called the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice. The farmworkers initially demanded their wages be increased to 300 pesos a day, but they lowered that figure to 200 pesos, which is about $13. Most of the workers earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike began.

"Farmworker families in both WA and Mexico are asking people to stop buying Driscoll's Berries until they have legally binding union contracts that ensure they have justice and dignity in the workplace. People all over North America are taking action in solidarity with this movement. Tell your local grocery store manager that you support the boycott and ask them to remove Driscoll's berries from their shelves," read a flyer handed out at the January 2 boycott demonstration in Watsonville.

In addition to being organized by the Watsonville and Sacramento Brown Berets, the action was sponsored by the Fresno Brown Berets, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (Sacramento Chapter) AFL-CIO, SEIU 1021, Sacramento Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, Organization of Agricultural Workers California, First of May Civic Union, The Organizer, United Public Worker For Action, Women Take Back The Night.