Posted on 23 May 2013.
Occupy Eureka and the Scales of Justice
Guest Post to the Sentinel
Kim Starr, aka Verbena, is one of the people who spent time working with Occupy Eureka when they staged a protest in front of the Eureka Courthouse.
She’s also a member of the group called “Copwatch” which videotapes the police.
Verbena is not afraid to be rude or antagonistic. She was born, perhaps, to be behind a bullhorn.
Like all American citizens, Verbena is theoretically guaranteed certain rights by the Constitution of the United States. These rights only exist to the extent that our elected officials and law enforcement officers are reminded of their existence, to the extent they are told they’ll lose office and perhaps go to jail unless they enforce them.
We all like “freedom of speech” until American Nazis decide they’d like to march — then many people get upset when fans of the Constitution point out that our liberties are only solid if they are applied equally to those we may find
repulsive. When the Nazis lose their civil liberties to march in public, we’ve
all lost our civil liberties; liberties that apply only to the popular are not liberties
at all. People who aren’t fond of Nazis should understand this; not all do.
It’s hard for me to imagine a less pleasant demonstration than the one staged by Occupy Eureka at the courthouse a year and a half ago.
It succeeded in uniting much of Eureka’s population behind one desire — to clean up the courthouse grounds and get rid of the mentally ill people who were staging a 24 hour nuisance and party. If that was not the goal of Occupy Eureka, it can honestly be said that it failed completely and spectacularly.
Occupy, with its noble but problematic concept that decisions be made by consensus of who shows up, and with its antagonism to the idea of leaders imposing directions, was a sitting duck for a takeover of their efforts.
The police did not do a good job of dealing with the mentally ill people who formed a hazard in front of the courthouse, and the compassionate members of Occupy tried to help those people rather than send them away.
When people see a dozen concerned citizens trying to make a point, along with one or two mentally ill people yelling obscenities in their faces, they tend to focus on the mentally ill people yelling obscenities. To the extent that the dozen concerned citizens are the ones who attracted the mentally ill to the area, the general Eureka population proved uninterested in the point the twelve might be making.
Unfortunately, Occupy and its hangers-on generated enough disgust and dismay that the county and city felt moved to restrict rights in the interest of moving it along. With an “urgency ordinance” put in place quickly enough that no real thought was given to its Constitutional problems, law enforcement was able to move in late in 2011 and force the Occupy campers off the courthouse lawn.
On November 7th, in pre-dawn hours, the campers were rousted and instructed to move their belongings across the street from the courthouse.
Video of the scene shows a bedraggled group of perhaps a dozen or 20 people dragging stuff across the street in compliance with instructions from law enforcement. Video shows one guy playing bongo drums and Verbena, camera and bullhorn in hand, shouting. Shortly afterwards, the Eureka Police Department declared the group across the street from the courthouse an “unlawful assembly,” ordering it to disperse. Verbena did not, and was arrested.
Verbena says that some of her property, including a pop-up canopy that remained across the street from the courthouse lawn that morning, was seized by Eureka police. It remained in police hands for five months, ostensibly for use as evidence, though it was never used as evidence.
Despite repeated attempts, including repeated trips to Eureka Police Department, Verbena was never able to get some of the property back. The pop-up canopy came back broken, I believe. I’ve heard that the internal cords holding it together had been intentionally severed, but I haven’t seen that, and I couldn’t know who might have done that or when.
Verbena was arrested again three days later.
According to a digital audio recording made by the arresting officer, Sergeant Guy of the Eureka Police Department, it took about 20 seconds from the time Guy
exited his cruiser to the time he had Verbena in custody.
Guy testified at the criminal trial that he arrested Verbena because she was unruly and encouraging resistance to his mission, which was to keep people from sleeping on the lawn. But the audio recording indicates otherwise, with no shouting preceding the arrest. (I haven’t heard the tape but have heard descriptions of it. At most, Verbena may have said “people need to rest.”)
After the criminal trial regarding that arrest, which included testimony from Verbena, Sgt. Guy, and eyewitnesses to the arrest, a jury ruled 10-2 for Verbena’s acquittal.
Verbena was arrested once again, at the end of the month.
She sued in small claims court, alleging that her civil rights had been violated and that her property had been unfairly taken. The hearing happened over the past two weeks, in front of a judge, Arvid Johnson, brought in from outside the county.
I decided to attend after the first day, at least when I was able, because I didn’t find any reporting of the hearing in the county’s paid media, and I viewed the Constitutional violations used to up-end the Occupy group as tragic.
I never did hear any coverage of the hearing until after it had finished, when the Times-Standard published a press release generated by the City of Eureka. It accurately stated that the judge had found against Verbena on all three events about which she was suing.
I’m writing this because it’s hard for me to understand how an objective observer could listen to the digital audio recording as described and not reach the conclusion that Sergeant Guy’s testimony about Verbena’s arrest was erroneous. Yet that testimony did not pose any problem for the visiting judge, who ruled the testimony credible. If he had not, he would have had to take Verbena’s Constitutional claims more seriously.
It’s nice to be able to think that the problems of society will be dealt with by “someone else.”
You pay your taxes, and, you hope, the government will do its job more or less acceptably; it will fix the potholes, keep you safe, and administer justice. If we can convince ourselves that other people are doing the dirty jobs necessary to run a society, we can remain on the sidelines and feel that things will function without our direct attention.
There are times, of course, when it becomes evident that the government is not doing its job acceptably. When I was in junior high and early high school, increasing numbers of protesters took to the streets against the government’s decisions about the Vietnam War. Few things concentrate the mind as much as the realization that you or your friends might get drafted to get killed in a war against a group of southeast Asian peasants who have done you no wrong.
Somehow, around the time of the affable-appearing salesman Ronald Reagan, we largely seem to have decided as a nation that the government is doing — more or less — an acceptable job of things, and that we don’t need to intervene personally.
But what happens when someone sues for their rights and, perhaps because of their obnoxious behavior, a judge does not attempt to administer justice? What happens when no one from society’s supposed watchdog, the “free press,” bothers to attend the trial, or even mention its existence until it’s over?
On a larger scale, what happens when a set of bankers is allowed to rob a nation’s pension funds, or when a set of executives decide to rob California’s “little old lady” electricity consumers, or when a set of oil executives decide they can risk drilling in the Gulf of Mexico because it is completely safe. What happens when a society continues acting as though more equals better, even when “more” civilization is destroying the environment that supports civilization itself?
What happens when the government doesn’t intervene, because expensive lobbyists represent the bankers and the executives and the oil companies, and lobbyist-Congressmen realize that they need those lobbyists’ money to buy the expensive propaganda campaigns that they must use to convince enough of the electorate to vote against their own interests? What happens when a stint in Congress or government office becomes an entree into the lucrative field of lobbying, instead of an opportunity to take part in moral self-government?
What happens when people protest that despicable behavior, and the disastrous effects that behavior has had on our society, but the population is so bothered by the mentally ill people that are attracted to the protest that they take sides against those who are protesting, even though their instinct, in many cases, is that the protesters are right about the problems to which they tried to call attention?
I think what happens is that society breaks down. Government loses its ability to persuade people to sacrifice for moral reasons, because people no longer see any fairness in what the government requests. I think, eventually, you get a population that sees the government as the enemy, instead of as its self-selected leaders.
And I think that’s what you’re seeing today. Verbena, though obnoxious when speaking through her bullhorn, is right.
What are we going to do about that?
* * * * * * * * *
For those who may be unaware, here’s some background for Mitch’s guest post:
On May 14, a Sacramento visiting judge sided with the City of Eureka and four members of its police force in a civil lawsuit brought by activist Kim “Verbena” Starr.
Starr claimed her civil rights were violated when she was arrested attending Occupy Eureka protests on three separate occasions, according to the Times-Standard and the City of Eureka’s press release.
In addition to Eureka Police Chief Murl Harpham, the suit named EPD sergeants Patrick O’Neil and Mike Guy, and Officer Terry Liles.
In his ruling, Judge Johnson stated that the City and its officers acted professionally, “despite the fact that there was ‘clear and immediate danger’ due to the protest and attempts by Occupiers to deliberately elicit a reaction from Officers,” according to the release.
Starr is just one in a group of people associated with the Occupy Eureka movement who filed claims for damages against the city, its police department and various county offices stemming from several incidents in November 2011, December 2012, and January 2013 in which Occupy protesters were arrested in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse by police.
The Humboldt Sentinel welcomes opinions, submissions, comments and suggestions from all points of view.
(Images by the Humboldt Sentinel. Posted by Skippy Massey)