by Alex Darocy
More than two years after originally being cited for illegal lodging on the morning of August 10, 2010, during the Peacecamp demonstrations held to protest the sleeping ban that criminalizes homelessness in Santa Cruz, Linda Lemaster’s trial began on Nov. 6, 2012. After three days of listening to testimony, a jury found her guilty of lodging during Peacecamp, and on Dec. 6, 2012, Lemaster was sentenced to community service and probation by Judge Rebecca Connolly.
In an interview conducted in the aftermath of her trial, Lemaster said she now believes that the police cited her for unlawful lodging in order to break up a political protest by utilizing a law-enforcement strategy that is anti-homeless and has “a homeland security agenda.”
“I don’t think that trial had much, if anything, to do with justice,” Lemaster said. “I think it was a political trial.”
“One of my goals is to get rid of this law,” Lemaster said, referring to the state law against unlawful lodging, California Penal Code 647(e). The law is mostly used as a move-along law for homeless people in San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Monica, according to Lemaster.
“The law seems to be used entirely against homeless people and demonstrators right now in California,” she said. “We haven’t been able to find another recent example of its use.”
She plans to appeal the conviction, saying, “The appeal is more of a chance to focus on the law, rather than me.”
Linda Lemaster had been a social and political advocate for the homeless and an activist in Santa Cruz County for more than 30 years when she was issued a citation for “unlawful lodging” during the Peacecamp demonstrations.
Originally held to protest the sleeping ban in the City of Santa Cruz (Municipal Code Section 6.36.010), which makes it illegal to sleep outside during the hours of 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. in the city, Peacecamp was initiated at the Santa Cruz County Courthouse by a group of local homelessness activists on July 4, 2010.
Community members gathered at the courthouse during the evenings and either slept or protested there to make a strong statement against the criminalization of homelessness locally. The action quickly grew and began to include a large number of homeless community members looking for a safe place to be at night.
Lemaster, founder of the organization Housing Now! in Santa Cruz, attended Peacecamp to make contact with both homeless people and other advocates.
“I use Housing Now! in Santa Cruz as a vessel to stay in touch with how homeless people feel about stuff,” she said.
“Sometimes I’m warning homeless people how to be discreet at night, or this is where the services are. It takes different forms, but because it is ongoing, I think of it as a medium to help me to know when, and how, we can do more. I feel like it is my job through Housing Now! in Santa Cruz to inform other people … to let people know, ‘Look, this isn’t right, you can’t even have a blanket.’”
At Peacecamp, she found the one-on-one contact with homeless people and advocates she was looking for. “I’ve gone to a lot of demonstrations,” Lemaster said. “That’s what is consistent — no matter where I have been, no matter whether it is a few people or it’s a hundred people — there are people who never get to express themselves.”
Eventually, she became part of a support network at the camp and attempted to stay up all night on the evening of August 9, 2010, trying to help a sick friend who wouldn’t leave the Peacecamp.
Over the course of that evening, her friend noticed it was sprinkling and covered Lemaster with a blanket. She lay down on the concrete outside of the courthouse, and may have fallen asleep. When deputies arrived early that morning as part of their enforcement campaign against Peacecamp, Lemaster fit their description of who to target for a lodging citation, and cited her at 4 a.m. that morning.
Later, according to the district attorney, this incident was one of the major pieces of evidence used in court to show that she was “unlawfully lodging.”
The definition of lodging that was used can be applied, according to the California penal code, to both public and private places, and in the case of Lemaster’s trial, was worded specifically as follows:
“To lodge means to occupy a place temporarily, or to permanently or temporarily settle or to live in a place. It may, but does not have to include, sleeping, the laying down of bedding, the storing of personal belongings, or carrying on cooking activities. Lodging means more than merely falling asleep, but less than moving in permanently.”
Lemaster felt that the process of arriving at the legal definition of lodging to be used in her trial was not fair. “To me it was very frustrating,” she said. She feels that the definition of lodging that deputies were using when they cited people at Peacecamp in 2010 was vastly different from the legal definition arrived at for the purposes of her trial in late 2012.
“Four days in a row,” she recalled, “the judge changed her mind out of hearing of the jury about what that would mean.”
Furthermore, whenever the district attorney came in and said he didn’t like part of the definition of illegal lodging they were working on, Lemaster said that the judge “accommodated him every time.”
Even after the trial had begun, the district attorney wanted to change the definition once again, she recalled. “How can you prepare on either side for your trial, if every day it’s a different meaning?” Lemaster asked.
Whether she fell asleep or not on the morning of August 10 at Peacecamp may not have been the primary reason the jury sided against her, according to two jurors who stayed to discuss their motivations after the verdict was read.
“The jury foreman said that they all felt that the lodging law would have pertained to anyone once the policeman made his first warning to go, and so they had no choice but to find me guilty,” Lemaster said. She added, “the other guy, not the foreman, said, like two to three minutes passed and you were still there like you wanted to talk to him.”
Lemaster explained, “I tried to talk to him [the sheriff’s deputy] when they came around ticketing people, which is what made it look like I wasn’t going to leave to some jurors — that I stood while people scrambled, so I wasn’t afraid enough.”
She said the law seemed so vague and “soggy” as to be incomprehensible to ordinary people. “Not moving fast enough makes you lodging, and someone else who is scrambling for cover isn’t lodging,” she said, adding that the slippery, ever-changing definition of lodging “is another good reason that it should be exposed” and eliminated from the law books.
Lemaster said that the jury also apparently felt that using the lodging law was justified in breaking up a political protest. She also charged that the judge in her trial refused to treat Peacecamp as a nonviolent demonstration, but rather as a public safety issue.
“The inclination of Judge Rebecca Connolly was to not acknowledge the demonstration, but look at it as a public health and safety issue,” Lemaster said. “But, as my attorney, Johnathan Gettleman, pointed out, if it was a health and safety or public safety issue, there’s an appropriate department of the county government to deal with that, and they didn’t even think to call them.
“You just can’t have a law that is both landlord-tenant law, pushing-homeless-around law, a status crime, a public safety code, and whatever use you want to put it to…. It’s too broad in general.”
Ultimately, she said she was targeted for lodging because she didn’t leave the scene when deputies arrived. “Because I didn’t scurry in fear when the deputies walked up, I must be guilty of lodging.”
She sees the possibility of appealing her case as a method of challenging the state’s lodging law, but adds that Peacecamp’s original goal of challenging the sleeping ban of the City of Santa Cruz is still the main issue on her mind.
Over the course of the three decades Lemaster has been involved in homeless issues, she has done everything from feeding people through Food Not Bombs, to working for the county in various official capacities to help the homeless community. She has participated in a number of demonstrations, and has chaired governmental bodies concerning homelessness and violence against women. She also has first hand experience: Lemaster has been homeless herself.
She recalls an early success in her endeavors to help those without a fixed address, when she fought for the rights of homeless people to vote.
“Even though it had already been litigated, the county wasn’t letting them register to vote,” Lemaster said. “This was in the very late ‘70s or maybe 1980 and it took an attorney I was working for taking them to court.” The attorney successfully argued in court that even if homeless people were staying “on a heater grate on the sidewalk,” as long as they were willing to describe where that was, and apply to be a valid voter, they were entitled to vote.
Lemaster also helped motivate county officials to establish a location where welfare recipients in Watsonville could cash their checks. There was a time when those living in the southern part of Santa Cruz County would have to travel all the way to Santa Cruz to cash their benefits checks. After Lemaster paid a personal visit to county officials, a solution was found within two weeks.
The manner in which the authorities dealt with Peacecamp was different, Lemaster noticed. “What I think is most different now,” she said, “is there is a set of, I don’t know if they are beliefs, policies, or a driving philosophy, but it seems to me that there is a homeland security agenda that has changed how government responds to some situations.”
Lemaster said that more governmental agencies should have been involved in the decision-making process regarding Peacecamp, but none appeared to take an interest in getting involved.
“Now there were people (going) through Peacecamp, there was someone from the SPCA, someone who used to be a county social worker, people who in their own conscience, during the day mostly, came down and checked out who was there. But in the whole infrastructure of county government, nobody thought to do that.”
In their absence, Lemaster felt that law enforcement was left to deal with Peacecamp on their own, and they handled it as a complaint-driven process.
“They made this plan to wipe the whole thing out,” she said, “and give people like me a ticket based on the complaints they had, as it was shown in the testimony during my trial.”
Lemaster believes local authorities “were remiss” in dealing with the issues surrounding Peacecamp. “They didn’t even think of talking to social workers.”
She said, “All of these executive decisions were left more or less to Plageman [Lieutenant Fred Plageman of the sheriff’s department].” She pointed to Plageman’s testimony during her trial where he stated that he had looked to law enforcement models that were being employed outside of Santa Cruz County to enforce the lodging law, as opposed to looking to social workers within the county.
Lemaster faulted the police decision to “shut down what they knew was a First Amendment protest,” adding that it would have been more appropriate to have officials from the County Administrative Office and County Board of Supervisors setting policy regarding the demonstration.
Instead, deputies handed out fliers at Peacecamp warning participants that they were lodging illegally. Lemaster said, “I know they carefully put words in that warning saying we were guilty of lodging to make it sound like a demonstration doesn’t count at night, but that’s not true.”
Beyond the police-centered decision-making, Lemaster also said that deputies conducted law-enforcement activities in a manner influenced by a “homeland security” approach to dissent.
She said that the deputies’ approach to monitoring the protest shifted notably from a somewhat informal and easygoing interaction with camp dwellers, into a more repressive, law-and-order approach.
“They were like people one day,” Lemaster said, “and then when they decided they got their lodging law and decided on a campaign, they stayed in the role of this military, four-man team.”
She also felt that this “military” approach, as she put it, was expanded on when the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department used similar law-enforcement techniques during the period that Occupy Santa Cruz spent at the courthouse in 2011, which was during the height of the national Occupy movement.
“Because Peacecamp had happened, and up to that point they had gotten away with it, they seemed willing to feel a little more emboldened and capable of (utilizing) this homeland security-type approach at Occupy Santa Cruz,” she said.
An even deeper problem for Lemaster is anti-homeless bigotry, which she feels is “pervasive.” She said it also had something to do with law enforcement’s strategies for dealing with Peacecamp.
“I really believe the sheriff’s deputies would have had a more adequate strategy if they weren’t being reactionary, and I believe they were reacting to people in the County building complaining.”
Peacecamp was reportedly receiving sanitation-related complaints and complaints from County employees working in the building, who were coming into first-hand contact with the demonstration. Lemaster felt the complaints were really about homeless people themselves, and they weren’t fair.
“We don’t go around excoriating each other for smoking cigarettes,” she observed, “but we go around excoriating homeless people for leaving a butt behind, as if they had a choice. As long as they were looking at all the homeless people crashed there, and their friends, as ‘the other,’ they’re not really looking at the whole situation when they have to resolve a problem.
“Homeless people come from the same culture that we come from when we are not homeless, but they have to live in a culture that is much more immediate and much more dangerous. I expect more from law enforcement. When they are bringing extra people out, I think they need to study the problem beforehand.”
Even though Lemaster feels her ability to communicate directly with county officials has changed over the years, she said, “I consider them my allies still.”
“We used to go to the same workshops together,” she said about some of the county officials who had a say in the decision-making process regarding law enforcement strategies at Peacecamp.
“We used to be immediate allies. We used to be part of a team that would confront people. Because of the adversarial nature of the court, we are put like we are on two different sides of a team that is at war with each other, and that is the opposite of what I just tried to do for most of my time. It was frustrating.”
Even more frustrating for Lemaster was how she effectively became silenced during her trial, saying, “I was put out of my life. I was put out of my volunteer work, my relationship to my community, because I had to hold my tongue as far as anything in the county was concerned.”
While Lemaster felt that she was once able to visit in person any county official she wanted to communicate with, being on trial for lodging forced her to hold her tongue in many situations she once would have openly confronted, because her attorneys and the district attorney told her “it was bad form and could infect the legal case to come, if I talk with the other side before trial,” she said.
“I’ve been doing something for 40 years to help poor people, and one part of that is when I find something where the system doesn’t work, I try to show that to people, or even fix it, or help fix it, or find out who can fix it,” she said.
“So if it is people on GA [General Assistance] can’t get GA if they are not already in the system, that’s easy to fix. You just tell everyone, and then they’ll say, ‘OK,’ and it somehow trickles up to the Board of Supervisors eventually.”
“Real people suffered because I wasn’t able to be that liaison for them,” she said.
When defending her decision to not plead guilty, or take a plea deal, Lemaster was not only informed by her outlook as a Quaker, which guides her to never lie, but also by a need to maintain integrity in the community as an advocate for others.
“Doing the kind of changes that affect people in some way in their lives for the better requires a credibility,” she said.
Lemaster said she was offered a plea deal by the District Attorney’s office in 2011 which would have reduced her misdemeanor to an infraction if she would plead guilty to “disturbing the peace.”
“I wouldn’t have minded the infraction’s apparent purpose,” she said. “But I was being asked to say that I was disturbing the peace on Dec 10th at 4 a.m. or so. I mean, they wanted me to say either guilty or no contest. They were asking me to say an outright lie, expecting me to.
Pleading guilty would have felt to her like “totally denying Peacecamp 2010, my new friends from there, and what it had meant to me.” She said that it “felt like being pressed to lie.”
“I don’t think that trial had much, if anything, to do with seeking justice,” she said. “I think it was a political trial, and I feel strongly about that, more so than when I left the trial. I think the district attorney was given political marching orders when they picked him.
“In our country and in Santa Cruz County, is this a homeland security state where the government decides who is a terrorist, or who is a good citizen, or who is not even worthy of naming? Or is Santa Cruz County still under the Constitution that we think of as the lead legal document of our land, where people — even if they happen to be homeless — have certain civil rights, and even some human rights are acknowledged in our constitution, and even more clearly so in the state constitution.”
Lemaster said that she plans to continue raising awareness about the laws that outlaw sleep in Santa Cruz.
She also plans to file an appeal in her case to fight Judge Connolly’s claims that the lodging law is constitutional, and she also wants to begin a campaign that she hopes will achieve statewide participation of “homeless-friendly” groups and supporters to “take the lodging law 647(e) off the books.”
She calls her motivation a “simple and moral imperative,” because, “consequences are way too harsh for houseless and homeless folks. It has to get exposed.”
Lemaster has thought long and hard about why local government officials appear bent on persecuting homeless people and driving them out of public view.
“The legislature is under the same pressures that the court is, and the county is, and their deputies, to keep the homeless out of sight,” she said. “Because within the scheme of things, they don’t have the tools they need to solve the problem.
“So, under pressure from the citizenry at large, and whatever delusions some of them are carrying with them, the police just keep pushing them back, and criminalizing them, sweeping them. If you have to shove them in a van, or put them in jail overnight, at least that curb is clear.
“They are going to have to be a leader, in either a kind of demonic abuse of people, or solutions that are inclusive. One way or the other, just because of the cost of housing here, and not having the infrastructure that a city would have for people when they fall, or when they are hurt, or when they can’t get to the hospital.”
For more information about Linda Lemaster and her work advocating for poor people and the homeless, see her blog at http://hearthbylinda.blogspot.com/