Friday, August 29, 2014

Protesters Confront Salinas Police Chief at Bookstore Appearance in Santa Cruz

To send a strong message that "killer cops" are not welcome in Santa Cruz, community members gathered on August 26 to protest a speaking engagement at Bookshop Santa Cruz featuring Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin. "We are creating a public presence to say loud and clear that the Salinas police chief who oversaw the killings of four Latino men in four months is not welcome in our community," read a flyer provided by Sin Barras, the Santa Cruz-based organization that called for the demonstration. [Top photo: A protester displays a sign inside Book Shop Santa Cruz.

Between March and July of this year, four individuals have been killed by officers with the Salinas Police Department.

Outside of the book shop, which is located in downtown Santa Cruz, one demonstrator held a sign that declared, "Salinas: Our Ferguson."

Several dozen individuals attended the protest, with some traveling from Salinas and other areas in Monterey County to make their voices heard. Organizers say they did not intend to disrupt the speaking event.

Six uniformed Santa Cruz police officers were present at the book shop for security, as was SCPD Deputy Chief Rick Martinez, who personally escorted Chief McMillan in and out of the building and was his driver.

Another sign held by demonstrators read: "Chief McMillin cannot speak for peace while justifying police murder."

McMillin was invited to speak at Bookshop Santa Cruz by Monterey Herald reporter Julia Reynolds as part of a signing event for her book "Blood in the Fields." According to the shop's website, the book documents the history of Operation Black Widow, "the FBI's questionable decade-long effort to dismantle Nuestra Familia [a criminal organization], along with its compromised informants and the turf wars it created with local law enforcement agencies."

One of those agencies was the Salinas Police Department, and Reynolds made it clear she was a supporter of Chief McMillan's, heaping praise on him for his efforts with regards to youth violence.

Community members seeking justice for those killed by Salinas police this year, however, have had to grapple with the department's lack of transparency and accountability. McMillan has refused to release the names of the officers responsible for the killings.

"We believe it is anti-thetical and extremely disrespectful to give Chief McMillan such a privileged voice in a space that is uncritical of his policies and the racist murders he has overseen," the literature from Sin Barras stated. The group also stated it sought to, "expose the brutality and racism of the Salinas cops and media."

Salinas Chief of Police Kelly McMillin

Since its founding, Sin Barras has primarily concerned itself with the intersecting issues of poverty and prison abolition. The Salinas police killings became an intense focus for the group, though, when they learned the fourth person killed this year was Frank Alvarado, who was a Sin Barras member and a dear friend.

Frank was killed on July 10 and since that time very little information about his killing has been released by authorities. They claim he was killed when Salinas Police perceived he was coming at them with a weapon. It was later determined to be a cell phone.

In May, Frank participated in a Sin Barras rally in Santa Cruz. He spoke about his recent release from incarceration, and why he opposed California prison expansion. He spoke passionately about his life and his family. The loss of Frank is still a fresh wound for his friends and fellow activists in Santa Cruz. After his death, Sin Barras immediately contacted his family in Salinas and is in close touch with them.

One member of Sin Barras held a sign at the book shop demonstration that read, "Rebuilding Trust? How about bringing back lives? Frank Alvarado, Carlos Mejia, Angel Ruiz, Osman Hernandez."

Angel Ruiz was killed on March 20 by Salinas police outside of the Wingstop restaurant on Constitution Blvd. Ruiz had reportedly been going through alcohol and mental issues when police killed him after receiving reports he was spotted behaving erratically and in possession of a BB gun.

Carlos Mejia was killed on May 21 outside of a Bakery on Sanborn Rd. Osman Hernandez was killed on May 9 outside of the Mi Pueblo market on Sanborn. In both cases, Salinas police have explained the men were behaving erratically and that they were killed because they felt threatened by the work tools they were carrying at the time of their killing. Mejia was carrying a pair of garden sheers he used for work, and Hernandez was carrying a lettuce knife.

In their literature, Sin Barras presented a set of demands concerning the Salinas police killings. The group demands police release the names of the officers who killed the four men this year, and hold them accountable. They support the families' call to investigate anti-Latino discrimination and violation of federal rights, and they want federal civil rights lawsuits filed.

"Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin denies police racism, but how else do you explain that Salinas' population is 75% Latino, but 100% of those murdered by by Salinas Police were Latino?" the Sin Barras literature states.

After four police killings in one year, the perspective vocalized by many is that Kelly McMillin has clearly decreased public safety in Salinas. One sign held by demonstrators read, "Term Limits for Police."

Near the end of the talk, a group of demonstrators holding signs entered the bookshop to display their messages directly in view of McMillan.

As the question and answer period commenced, demonstrators became more vocal as they realized the questions they submitted weren't being asked.

McMillan may have sensed this, and the last question chosen was more critical, comparing the SPD to a criminal gang.

"I do understand the perception that cops are their own gang, that they are the best paid most well equipped gang," he stated. He insisted, however, that the work they do as police is "entirely devoted to being effective at reducing violence."

A Sin Barras member in the audience then shouted out, "effective at killing our friend...[who was] unarmed."

"Our whole goal is to reduce violence and make Salinas a safe place," continued McMillan.

People in the audience started hissing. McMillan then added he thought every police officer in Salinas was deeply troubled by the four killings. People shouted out in response that Salinas police were "murderers" and "terrorists."

After one person in the audience stood up and attempted to ask McMillan one more question, the chief was silent and the person was cut off by the moderator, who concluded the evening.

When the question went unanswered, protesters began a loud chorus of booing and then chanted, "cops, pigs, murderers" repeatedly before leaving the book shop.

In an open letter penned to Sin Barras the day before the protest, and posted to her Facebook page, Reynolds stated that police legitimacy, "can and should be part of the conversation," but that, "it is not all of the conversation."

One individual addressed this issue in remarks made online directly to Reynolds: "You're a tool of state power. Journalists should always be critical of power, or else they are complicit with it's abuses. And providing a forum for the head of a murderous police department to spew out shit is an even worse form of complicity."

"Police are so obviously on the front line of maintaining the poverty and oppression that leads to the violence that you pretend to be concerned are either dangerously naive or willfully supporting their oppression."

Salinas Police Department Spokesperson Spencer Critchley gets his book signed by Julia Reynolds

Santa Cruz Eleven Defendants Follow the Money from Bob Lee to Wells Fargo at Latest Parade

On August 22, another energetic parade was held in support of the final four Santa Cruz Eleven defendants, who are still facing criminal charges in relation to the 2011 occupation of the vacant bank building located at 75 River Street. The course of the parade "followed the money" from District Attorney Bob Lee, who is prosecuting the case, to Wells Fargo Bank. Community members dressed in green and carried large, gold dollar signs. They followed a suit-clad parader wearing a Bob Lee mask who lead them to the Wells Fargo branch located at 74 River Street. Wells Fargo is the so-called plaintiff in the case, and defendants have recently discovered Lee has a financial relationship with the bank.

Bob Lee in front of 75 River Street

The visit to Wells Fargo felt much like the 2011 occupy protests that occurred there, and many of the other locations visited along the parade also recalled the occupy era. The court house was visited, as was San Lorenzo Park, and the parade traveled the length of Pacific Avenue twice. The parade also made its way past 75 River Street, where the building still sits empty and unrented, as it has for six years now.

Since June, defense attorneys have been attempting in court to obtain information related to a 2010 campaign disclosure form filed by District Attorney Lee with the county that indicated he received a campaign loan from Wells Fargo in the amount of $34,000, with zero interest having been paid on it from February to March of 2010.

When confronted by activists in 2012, Lee claimed that charges were still being pressed against the Santa Cruz Eleven defendants in order to recover financial damages Wells Fargo said it incurred as a result of vandalism that occurred during the occupation.

Though there has been no evidence presented that any of the defendants committed any acts of vandalism, they are being held to felony vandalism charges under a theory that their alleged involvement in relation to the occupation "aided an abetted" the damage to the building done by others. Additionally, the remaining four defendants will be responsible for paying the $20,000 in damages claimed by Wells Fargo if they are found guilty.

Many who participated in the parade wore shirts that read "I was in the Building," which is a reference to the large number of people who participated in the 2011 occupation.

Hundreds if not thousands of people entered and exited the bank during the three day occupation of 75 River Street in 2011, but when charges were filed in 2012, only eleven individuals were targeted for prosecution by District Attorney Lee. By 2013, seven of those had their charges dismissed by Judge Paul Burdick, all due to insufficient evidence presented by the prosecution.

The District Attorney's office has been responsible for many delays in the case, and at one point was sanctioned and fined $500 by Judge Burdick. One defendant estimates the case has required nearly 50 visits to court.

75 River Street

Wells Fargo

Santa Cruz Courthouse

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Activists Protest Talk by Israeli Consul General at Temple Beth El

On August 21, activists with the Palestine Israel Action Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace Santa Cruz picketed outside of a talk at Temple Beth El in Aptos about Israel and Gaza, given by Dr. Andy David, Israel's Consul General for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. The topic of the talk was "Operation Protective Edge," Israel's name for their most recent military assault on Gaza, which began on July 8 and has killed thousands of Palestinians.

The smaller signs in the photo read: "Say NO! to Israeli murder of Palestinian children. Demand U.S. Sanctions on Israel," "Ethical Jews Support Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions," "Ethical Jews Demand U.S. Sanctions on Israel," "What Jewish Law Permits the Killing of Innocent Children?"

About a dozen protesters were present outside of Temple Beth El. A series of large signs with the names of those killed in the war were displayed near the temple's entrance, and individuals held a large banner on Soquel Drive that read "Sick of Gaza Massacre?"

An announcement for the demonstration made it clear that it was not a protest targeting the temple, but "their guest, the Israel Consul General and the policies of the Israeli government."

Many of those attending the Consul General's talk were deeply offended and angered by the presence of protesters outside of the temple.

When demonstrators were handing out information about Israel, one angry person literally smacked the flyer one of them was offering out of their hand, causing it to fall on the street. The flyer listed suggested questions to ask the Consul General, and it also included a list of six "myths" regarding the birth of Israel.

Demonstrators were also called names, but a small number of those attending the talk did agree that the attacks on Gaza were wrong. 

Some of the literature the demonstrators were handing out called Israel's claim that "Operation Protective Edge" was an act of self-defense disingenuous. "The Incredible violence against Gaza is indisputably disproportionate to any threat that Israel faces from the Palestinian resistance to occupation," one brochure stated. It called Israel's attacks, "a siege on an open-air prison."

Gaza has been called an open-air prison because Israel controls its land, borders, airspace, sea, access to electricity, and movement of people and goods, including food, water and medicine. "There is nowhere for people to go," the brochure states. "Evacuation is not an option."

One large sign displayed by demonstrators was titled "Remembering Some of the Victims of Israeli Operation 'Protective Edge'," and it showed pictures of people killed, and included short biographies about them. 

Remembering Some of the Victims of Israeli Operation 'Protective Edge'

The event was not open to the public. Admission was restricted to the members of three Jewish congregations. The event was described on the temple's website as an opportunity to, "Find out first-hand about Israel’s efforts with Operation Protective Edge, as the Jewish State works to re-establish stability for its citizens and fight the daily reality in which millions of its citizens are subject to the whims of radical Islamic terrorist organizations."

The Consulate General of Israel is an official governmental office of Israel and is responsible for coordinating relationships with national and local organizations, offices of public officials, businesses, and citizens.

Consul General Dr. Andy David, a practicing dentist before working for the Israeli government, was was born in Romania and immigrated to Israel with his family. He spent three years in the Israel Air Force and in RAFAEL, the Ministry of Defense's Armament Development Authority. He is a graduate of the Executive Combating Terrorism program at the National Defense University in Washington D.C., and he has been a diplomat for Israel since 1998.

Temple Beth El calls itself "Reform Judaism, Santa Cruz Style," and its website states: "At TBE we reach out to help heal the world through community support activities including a High Holiday food drive to replenish local food pantries, Sunday dinners at the River Street Shelter, and informational programs on a variety of topics including healthcare, the environment and human rights. By our participation in COPA, (Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action) we are a leading institution in Faith-Based Community Organizing working to identify social justice issues and improve our wider community through interfaith efforts."

Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold looks at a flyer while entering.

The entrance to Temple Beth El.