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Concrete Activists 

As the courthouse camp crumbles, Occupy protesters seek more fertile ground

On a misty Tuesday evening, as the setting sun shot liquid silver through an overcast sky, a couple dozen progressive activists came together at Sunny Brae's favorite (and practically only) gathering spot, the Coffee Break. The activists, a casually dressed bunch that skewed toward middle age, had recently split in exasperation from the local Occupy movement. Tonight they were in high spirits, especially for such a small group of people, in such a remote part of the world, bent on redeeming a corrupt society and rescuing a damaged planet.

It was after hours, but a thin young barista in braids and natural fabrics had stuck around. She filled drink orders while the activists murmured hellos. (Progressive activism on the North Coast is an insular scene; most faces here were familiar to each other.) The wand on the espresso machine screamed foam into a pitcher of milk while bright-eyed locals stepped through the door smiling. A bearded, hyper young man called Falstaff had slipped a Guy Fawkes mask onto a wooden pig sitting on a bookshelf, and the image seemed to tickle him. "I did that," he told a new arrival.

The upstart organization calls itself Humboldt Village, and the attendees hadn't come to hold up signs or erect a tent village. They'd gathered inside Sunny Brae's artsy little drive-through/sit-down coffee shop to watch a couple of YouTube videos and brainstorm project ideas. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which had begun four months prior, lit a fire under their collective backsides, as it has for countless others across the country and beyond. Even hardened cynics have regained some hope that change might be possible. The tough part is figuring out where to start.

Trinidad resident Larry Goldberg, a robust, 50-something tech guru with a thick gray beard and a deep, authoritative voice, brought the meeting to order. Standing with his back to an upright piano, Goldberg introduced Bayside resident Lois Cordova, a soft-spoken woman with silver-streaked hair pulled into a loose bun atop her head.

"Humboldt Village was a figment of my imagination," she said quietly. Several people hollered for her to speak up, so she repeated herself a bit louder, adding, "It's getting bigger and more fun every day."

After a round of introductions, the overhead lights were turned off and Goldberg fired up the YouTube videos, which he projected through coiled cords from a laptop onto a slide screen. The short videos -- one called "Who Killed Economic Growth?" and another called "The Story of Stuff" -- offered simplistic, Schoolhouse Rock-style lessons on the limits of an economy fueled by frenzied consumerism and finite natural resources. (When the sound cut out midway through a sentence about "perceived obsolescence," one guy quipped, "Welp, time to throw out that computer!" A hearty laugh rippled through the room.)

In the discussion that followed, there seemed no limit to project ideas and suggested local actions, ranging from bicycling to work to launching an alternative currency (an idea with a long history of failure on the North Coast). Goldberg brought up permacultures, peak oil and sustainability, suggesting Humboldt County join a multi-national movement called "transition towns." There was a brief debate about the wisdom of killing your TV, some commiseration about the lousy state of public transit and lots of talk about the wisdom of self-sufficiency. Ultimately the group decided that the best way to move forward would be to form smaller focus groups -- one would do community outreach; another would focus on economic analysis; a third would develop a clearinghouse for work trades, teach-ins, drum circles ... anything!

There was palpable energy and excitement in the room -- and it wasn't just the caffeine. "This is what I hoped Occupy would be," one woman enthused, and nearly everyone murmured their agreement.




How did the local Occupy movement let them down? Plenty of other locals have complained about the full-time protest outside the county courthouse. Some even held a counter-protest a couple weeks ago, urging people to "Take Back Our Courthouse."  Humboldt Village activists still believe in Occupy's main messages -- calling attention to lopsided inequity and the corrupting influence of Wall Street -- and yet they chose to disassociate themselves from the Occupy name, and they moved their strategizing away from the county courthouse.

This inter-movement turmoil isn't unique to Humboldt County. Rifts have been emerging in Occupy protests across the country, most notably in Oakland where violent clashes with police officers -- including a recent melee where more than 400 people were arrested -- have sparked debates about appropriate tactics and targets.

In Eureka, as in Oakland, there's a seemingly un-bridgeable divide between protesters who view cops as potential allies in the 99 percent (or, at worst, as irrelevant gun-toting stooges) and those who see cops as the oppressive arm of the state -- front-line foot soldiers defending our corrupt system.

So that's one source of tension. Another comes from trying to synthesize all the different perspectives under the wide Occupy umbrella. Critics of Occupy have knocked the movement for being ill-defined, and the protesters themselves proudly proclaim that they have no official spokespeople or leaders. This inclusive approach presents a challenge when you want to move beyond protesting.

"By staying general it's allowed Occupy to be a big tent," protester David Boyd said while standing in front of the courthouse. "But I think specific goals need to be addressed, and I think the way that's gonna happen is through independent working groups."

In a recent phone interview, Goldberg said that the local Occupy General Assemblies had grown hopelessly messy. These meetings, where activists from all three local protest sites (HSU, Arcata and Eureka) gather for updates, discussion and strategizing, kept devolving into arguments. "I mean, we couldn't even agree to do nonviolent [actions] only," Goldberg said. "There were people there who were arguing that trashing property should be OK. Well, I don't agree."  

Last month, Eureka police officers arrested six self-identified Occupy protesters, all in their early- to mid-20s, who'd allegedly broken into a vacant house on O Street in Eureka. According to police, the protesters had torn out wiring, spray-painted the walls and set up residence in the house. They claimed to be occupying it in part to protest against foreclosures, evidently unaware that the house hadn't been foreclosed on; it was rental that happened to be between tenants.

Since the beginning of October there have been 142 calls for service and 150 arrests or citations related to the courthouse Occupy protest, Interim Police Chief Murl Harpham said last week. Nearly half of those arrests were for violations of the Eureka municipal code, including the city's no-camping ordinance. Then there are the complaints of littering, public drunkenness and urination and defecation. (Who can forget the infamous viral video of News Channel 3's Betsy Lambert demanding to know "Who pooped and peed on the bank?") Harpham estimated that Occupy-related overtime costs for his department have reached $5,000.

There have also been injuries. A sheriff's deputy struck a protester in the leg with his baton. Another protester hit his head while being arrested. County jail staff refused to admit the man until he'd been checked out at the hospital, where he received four staples in his scalp. A third protester, Hans Ashbaucher, had several ribs cracked when an officer came down on him with his knee during a struggle.




The figurehead for Eureka's more militant protesters is seasoned agitator Kim Starr, who goes by the name Verbena. Her activism with such local groups as Redwood Curtain CopWatch, People's Project (an advocacy group for the homeless) and Richardson Grove Action Now is characterized by in-your-face provocation -- often followed by arrest. And while there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the Eureka Police Department's handling of the protest at the county courthouse, the Verbena-style tactics there have steadily eroded public support for the local Occupy movement.

Even Goldberg and other Occupiers say they're tired of the courthouse encampment. "I think it's counterproductive," Goldberg said. "But there is a group within Occupy [Eureka] that wants to stay there forever." Goldberg was appalled by the break-in and vandalism of the house on O Street, so he contacted the owner and has organized a group of volunteers to repair some of the damage.  As for Verbena, Goldberg said, "If I didn't know better, I would suspect that she's a saboteur."

Westhaven resident Sylvia De Rooy, a veteran activist who recalls standing with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, went even further. The local Occupy movement, she said, has become "a complicated mess. And Verbena is at the heart of that mess."

The Journal recently sat down with Verbena at an Old Town coffee shop to discuss her goals and tactics. Looking a bit worn out, she said she hadn't slept well the previous night. And she struggled with the first few questions about the big-picture objectives of the Occupy movement. "There's this control thing where there's a small percentage, like the whole 99 percent, 1 percent that is controlling, or always trying to control all the resources, um, everyone else's lives, and everything on the earth," she said.

Verbena seemed on firmer ground talking about the small-scale specifics of protesters' encounters with Eureka police officers in front of the county courthouse. In fact, she spoke of that area as a sort of Gettysburg for her numerous causes. "We cannot stop the highway expansion through Richardson Grove or create the environment we need to create so Wal-Mart isn't here if we can't even hold a sign in front of a courthouse and we can't even stand on a lawn there," she said.

And she rejected the idea that the courthouse protest has become counterproductive. If anything, she said, there should be more protesters, more presentations, more signs. Why? "So that people realize the absolute relevance and importance and significance of us holding that space until it is the people's space to protest again."

For Verbena, the Occupy movement's battleground is the Humboldt County Courthouse. Her complaints almost never address the vanishing middle class, wealth hoarding by the top 1 percent or corporate influence on government. They're about the cyclone fence around the courthouse lawn (ostensibly erected to let the grass recover from damage inflicted by Occupy campers). They're about police officers removing protest signs from that fence. And they're about her longstanding allegations of police brutality. Regardless of the merits of these complaints, many in the local Occupy movement feel that Verbena has lost perspective -- if she ever had any to begin with. And they resent her for co-opting the Occupy banner.




County officials have lost patience, too. At a Board of Supervisors meeting last month, the board directed staff to work on an ordinance that will set certain restrictions on the time, place and manner of protests allowed at the courthouse. Under the First Amendment, local governments are allowed to place reasonable restrictions on speech. But defining "reasonable" is always a bit sticky.

"This is obviously something that's the subject of a whole body of constitutional law," County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said last week. "I hope I won't have to read through every case the Supreme Court has decided in this area."

Smith-Hanes has just begun working on the ordinance by looking at similar guidelines in other California communities. Meanwhile, protesters are complaining that the county has already placed unreasonable restrictions on their constitutional rights. In a recent interview on local radio station KMUD, protesters Jim Decker and Janelle Egger argued that the county should remove the cyclone fence, allow some type of shelter to be erected and even provide portable bathrooms for the "night crew."

"We politely declined that request," Smith-Hanes said.

Second District Supervisor Clif Clendenen joined in the KMUD conversation and tried to instill some camaraderie between local government and the protesters, saying, "We're shoulder-to-shoulder with the Occupy folks" while insisting that "we need to treat the courthouse area with a level of decorum."

If anything, tensions between protesters and government seem to be increasing. In December, Egger submitted a Public Records Act request to the county asking for copies of all Occupy-related communications from District Attorney Paul Gallegos. The documents provided to Egger included emails in which Gallegos expressed concern about the public safety risks posed by allowing tents in front of the courthouse. "The risk of potential harm is too great," Gallegos wrote in a Nov. 18 email to Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace. "All you need is 1 McVeigh guy."

This reference to the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber was seized on by protesters as an inflammatory accusation. They characterized it as part of an "unlawful government conspiracy to vilify and suppress" their movement. This line of reasoning strains credibility when you consider the context. Gallegos wrote only to Supervisor Lovelace and confided, "Candidly I support the movement." He also said that he'd "resisted the urge to go and join them" only because he didn't want to appear biased in any prosecutions. Plus Gallegos said, "I do not suspect that any of those tents contain any explosives or otherwise dangerous materials." He just couldn't be certain, which made him nervous.

Even Harpham, widely regarded as a conservative "Good Old Boy," said in an email to Gallegos and Eureka officials, "I too supported the basis [of the] movement, but it has morphed into something ugly that [has] little to do with the original intent."

A county official who asked not to be identified told the Journal last week that staffers found piles of rocks stacked in discreet locations around the courthouse building. Last month, a planning commissioner's car window was smashed while the commissioner was inside, but there was no evidence that the window was broken by an Occupy protester. Still, some people who work in the building are on edge.

The Journal asked Verbena if she knew anything about the broken window or the piles of rocks. She said she didn't, but then she remembered a phone conversation she'd had earlier in the day. A fellow protester had said, "They took our rocks," Verbena recalled. She assumed he was talking about the rocks protesters use to keep their signs from blowing away, but she wasn't certain.




Many of the complaints about the Occupy protesters at the courthouse concern their appearance, hygiene and erratic behavior. At the counter-protest a couple weeks ago, Occupy protesters were called dehumanizing names like "vermin," "freaks" and "human waste." (There was name-calling going the other direction, too. And, it should be noted, there were some civil conversations between people with opposing views.)

Many of the folks who have gathered at the courthouse are homeless. Some have substance abuse problems, and a few have serious mental health conditions. The Occupy movement may not be about these societal problems in any direct way, but a case can be made that these very people -- the ones living near the bottom 1 percent -- are the first casualties of a corrupt, consumer-driven society. Trouble is, they're typically not the best spokespeople for their own cause.

Interim Chief Harpham said the courthouse protest has become a haven for the mentally ill. "And unfortunately there's not many places for those people because Ronald Reagan, when he was governor, closed all the state mental hospitals."

On a recent Friday evening outside the courthouse, Occupy Eureka protesters gathered amid tables and signs for a weekly event they call a "celebration of our determination." A long, portable card table had been covered with informational fliers and framed portraits of progressive heroes: Martin Luther King, JFK, RFK, Gandhi, Dennis Kucinich. A hand-painted banner draped along the front of the table read, "DISSENT IS NOT TERRORISM! Support Occupy Eureka."

Many people cradled bowls of food or sipped coffee from paper cups. Bright rays from the setting sun bounced off the concrete walls of the courthouse, but the temperature was dropping fast. Men shoved their hands deep into the pockets of their heavy coats and hunched their shoulders up around their beanie-wrapped heads.

A woman named Martha Devine, who wore a knit orange hat with long ear flaps and tassels, explained the gathering. "Every Friday we get together and have potluck meal," she said. "The purpose is to share and to build the kind of community we want to live in, i.e. the kind of place where people feed each other, take care of each other, etc."

With a joyful shout, a young man leaped sideways in front of a reporter's camera, a huge grin plastered on his face. "Can you tell I'm high?" he asked. His name is Daniel Lee Powers, but people call him Hatchet Face, he said, showing off a scar on his forehead. His favorite protest activity is "bumming the man" -- having sex on the concrete in front of the courthouse so that the cops can see his ass on the security cameras -- "which I've done many times," he added with a giggle. "That's my way of protesting against the cops."

A few feet away, a woman named Nezzie Wade offered to ladle out a serving of the soup she brought. She lifted the lid off the white metal pot to reveal a hot broth swimming with noodles, carrots, potatoes, beans and cilantro. Wade brings soup every Wednesday and Friday. She spreads the Occupy message through outreach and often brings supplies to the courthouse for sign making.

Wade was in mid-sentence when a fight broke out on the sidewalk nearby. A large homeless man named Oklahoma got shoved to the ground. He scrambled to his feet and briefly returned the other man's menacing stare before walking away.

"You better walk away, bro!" the shover said. Oklahoma did, making his way to the courthouse steps where he sat in a wide-leg stance and let the blood drip from the fresh scrape on his hand. Nearby, a woman started yelling angrily and incoherently at no one in particular. Someone flagged down a passing fire truck belonging to the Eureka Fire Protection District, and before long there was a huddle of EMTs, fire personnel and police officers on the scene. They tended to Oklahoma's hand, asked if he wanted to press charges and eventually took him to the Eureka Rescue Mission, at his request.

Wade, meanwhile, remained behind the small table with the checkered tablecloth, offering up soup. "That's one of the things that people see as the public face of Occupy that they don't like," she said, referring to the scene that just occurred. Wade thinks such people are missing the point. The homeless and mentally ill have flocked to Occupy protests all over the country because the movement represents inclusiveness, she said. "People in publicly elected offices don't like the public face of Eureka [Occupy protests] because it looks like things they don't want people to see. ... It underlines what we're not doing well."

Most people passing by in cars and walking up the courthouse steps seem to be missing that subtlety. They see the homeless and mentally ill as the face of Occupy, and suddenly a movement that was teeming with optimistic energy is saddled with two of society's most difficult and persistent problems. They see protesters who use signs more to mark territory than spread messages. Occupy was launched from populist outrage about widespread corruption and inequity -- a message aimed at 99 percent of Americans. A fight over tents, a fence and portable toilets has a much narrower appeal.

"It's such a complex issue," fellow protester David Boyd said. "It's not like ending the war in Vietnam or Iraq, or getting voting rights or civil rights. You're talking about a corruption in society from top to bottom."

Though he stood with the Occupiers in front of the courthouse, Boyd said he thinks that site may have run its course. Still, he's thankful that people have gathered there. "Now that we've found each other, we're taking some time to step back and figure out what the best way to move forward is," Boyd said. "In Humboldt County you have hundreds of energized people who are now talking about issues."

Increasingly, that discussion has moved away from the courthouse. By last Friday, the number of protesters there had dwindled to five. (Or maybe 12; a group of seven was lounging on and around the benches -- occupying but not actively protesting.) Meanwhile, Humboldt Village had taken to Facebook, where it had a population of 111 and growing.

NOTE: The printed version of this story said that a police officer struck a protester in the leg with his baton when in fact it was a sheriff's deputy who struck the protester on the morning of Nov. 14, 2011. This online version has been corrected to reflect that fact.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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