Chilling Crackdown on the Santa Cruz 11

In a chilling strategy to crush political dissent, activists in Santa Cruz face felony charges for a peaceful occupation of a vacant bank building. Six of those charged are journalists and high-profile critics of the police and city council, prompting many to call it an attack on the First Amendment

Bradley Stuart Allen celebrates dismissal of all charges outside the courtroom.

 

by Robert Norse

 

On August 20 in Santa Cruz, seven defendants with seven separate lawyers will go before Judge Paul Burdick, charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors each. The seven and four others call themselves the Santa Cruz 11 — three women and eight men.

They are charged with a three-day occupation of a long-vacant Wells Fargo-leased bank last winter which attempted to turn a building that had been vacant for three years into a community center and possible homeless refuge.

This was a nonviolent demonstration and occupation to show the community what the building could be used for, as well as a focus on the abuses of the multi-billion-dollar bailout bankster Wells Fargo, the leaseholder, whose business was just across the street.

The building, leased to Wells Fargo Bank, remains empty, supposedly available for rental at $28,720 per month. It and three other banks within a four-block radius are now empty structures.

The charges are unusually severe for a peaceful protest that ended with no arrests, indicating what may be a new strategy to deter Occupy Santa Cruz protests — spreading fear by filing heavy charges against observers months later.

Gabriella Ripley-Phipps is tackled to the ground and arrested when she protested the crushing of the Occupy Santa Cruz encampment. Photo by Bradley Stuart

 

The charges are more serious than most of the protesters have ever experienced before: “conspiracy to vandalize and trespass” (a felony), “felony vandalism.” and two different kinds of trespass (misdemeanors). The potential penalty: up to seven years in prison.

Evidence of “vandalism” to the vacant building is spotty and overblown, if linked to the occupation at all. A “No Vandalism” rule was posted on the wall by the demonstrators and second-hand reports indicate the occupiers took special efforts to clean up the building.

At two preliminary hearings, charges against six of the defendants were dismissed for lack of foundational evidence. However, Assistant District Attorney Rebekah Young refiled charges against two of those defendants.

Harsh and Selective Charges

The charges are unusually harsh, both nationally for similar occupations, and locally for Santa Cruz. This is the largest mass trial in Santa Cruz memory and the most serious for peaceful activists there.

The charges are so flimsy that none of them have stood up to preliminary hearings (required in felony cases before trial).

None of the testimony against the named defendants even suggested a prior conspiracy agreement. None of it showed any evidence of vandalism by the defendants personally. Even the lesser misdemeanor trespass charges required that those in the building be warned and given a chance to leave or that it be shown they “lodged” inside and weren’t just observing.

The charges also seem selective. Police reported that former Santa Cruz Mayor Katherine Beiers was in the building. After months of silence, head District Attorney Bob Lee acknowledged on video that he didn’t prosecute her because she “was trying to get you to leave” — an unsupported and irrelevant claim.

In an attack on the alternative media and the First Amendment, District Attorney Young argued that two of the Santa Cruz 11 — Alex Darocy and Bradley Allen, journalists for Santa Cruz Indymedia, an on-line news service — were “the media arm of the conspiracy.” Young claimed they “advertised the occupation” and cited their “special access” to the building as evidence.

Indeed, six of the 11 charged were journalists of one sort of another — high-profile critics of the Santa Cruz Police Department, Santa Cruz City Council, and other local authorities. It seemed to some most convenient to tie up six writer/photographers in months and months of court hearings. Four still face felony charges.

Though defendants had great difficulty in securing the SCPD video tapes of the three-day Occupation (and perhaps never did fully), the tapes and reports indicate very little police investigative work. Police never attempted to enter the building after the first day of occupation. Though they posted video clips and asked the community to identify and inform on the activists, there was little or no subsequent police follow-up.

Turning Protest into Crime: The Aiding and Abetting Gambit

Unable to show that the defendants actually trespassed or vandalized, District Attorney Young claims that in being at the occupation, the defendants “aided and abetted” those who actually did trespass or vandalize — whom the police failed to even identify, cite, or arrest.

This requires proving various elements in order to make the district attorney’s legal case. The prosecution must show that the defendants (1) knew the perpetrator intended to commit trespass; (2) intended to aid and abet the perpetrators; and/or (3) in words or conduct did aid or abet the perpetrators.

So far, Judge Burdick has found that none of the elements have been shown sufficiently to forward the cases to trial. District Attorney Young, undaunted, has refiled two of the cases and moved (unsuccessfully) to disqualify Burdick.

Burdick will confront these questions again when the seven defendants and their seven lawyers show up in the mass preliminary hearing. District Attorney Lee insists that this and the 20 other hearings aren’t costing the county any more money or resources. Defendants claim the tab is over $100,000 in taxpayer funds, not to mention burdening other prosecutions of real crimes.

Homeless Punished for Occupying Bank — Repression Intensifies

The day after the building was occupied (by an autonomous group not claiming specific affiliation with Occupy Santa Cruz), authorities compressed the homeless encampment across the river, thereby reducing its size by two-thirds in violation of a prior agreement. This restriction crowded the community severely.

“Journalism Is Not A Crime.” Steve Pleich holds a sign in support of the Santa Cruz 11. Many people are calling the charges an attempt to muzzle journalists and activists, and an ominous attack on the First Amendment. Photo courtesy of HUFF

 

Four days after occupiers of the building left the bank quietly without incident or arrest (and apparently without police observation), dozens of police in military formation moved to crush the reduced homeless campground entirely.

The paramilitary force drove 150-200 activists and homeless folks into the bushes. This action destroyed tents, compacted homeless property, and created 100-200 refugees without shelter, who had previously found food, shelter, community, sanctuary, and purpose there. Several activists who objected were arrested and held on high bail before charges were mysteriously dismissed a day later.

Occupy Santa Cruz activists who marched on the City Hall offices to demand an explanation were blocked by Police Chief Kevin Vogel and a line of riot police who threatened arrests, and surrounded and harassed photographers, backed by dozens of cops bivouacked nearby.

At about the same time, new “No Trespassing 7 PM to 7 AM” signs appeared around the County Building where Occupy Santa Cruz had set up tents and a blue “Occu-dome” as part of their ongoing protest. Citations and arrests began shortly thereafter for trespass.

Sheriff’s deputies dismantled and destroyed the dome and forced the removal of the dozen tents set up there to provide medical help, information, food, and other community support.

Dormant Real Estate Versus Human Lives

Becky Johnson, a longtime homeless activist/journalist and one of the Santa Cruz 11 wrote: “I never entered the building, but have already been handcuffed and removed from my home while cooking breakfast for my ex-husband, who is recovering from cancer, and jailed for a day. I was shackled, and brought before [Judge] Symons — the same judge who signed the warrant for my arrest, with its baseless charges.

“Now, due to pending felony charges I am unable to earn a living and my landlord has changed his mind about renewing my lease — all punishment prior to conviction, and apparently, the point.”

Johnson has written articles on her blog that are critical of District Attorney Bob Lee and Judge Ariadne Symons.

Even worse, Desiree Foster, the youngest defendant at only 19 years old, attempted suicide shortly after she was charged. Foster is the caretaker for her mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment, and her family was already financially stricken. Fortunately, the Santa Cruz 11 held a fund-raiser to aid Foster and her family.

Foster, Johnson, Brent Adams, Gabriella Ripplyphipps, Franklin Alcantara, Cameron Laurendau, and I will be returning to court on August 20 to seek dismissal of the charges in a preliminary hearing.

Outrageous Prosecutions and the Broader Picture

District Attorney Bob Lee has indicated in an unusual (and some say highly improper) exchange with activists that his office is seeking to wring $30,000 in “restitution” money from them, even though the group is poor and partially homeless.

Perhaps the purpose is to terrify the defendants into producing more names of wealthier participants whom the district attorney can squeeze for money. This “quest for cash” has led some to call Lee the “bankster bagman for Wells Fargo.”

Six of the 11 charged were journalists of one sort of another — high-profile critics of the SCPD, Santa Cruz City Council, and other local authorities. The trial and repeated hearings (more than 15 so far) diverted six writer/photographers from covering other stories as well as chilled other Occupy activists for fear their presence at protests would later be charged (however falsely) as felonies.

Even more insidious was the repressive impact of the subsequent Santa Cruz 11 prosecutions on Occupy Santa Cruz and homeless civil rights movements.

Occupy Santa Cruz abandoned its 24-hour campsite and the numbers attending its meetings dropped drastically. Activists contesting the designation of the homeless campsite as a “public nuisance” abandoned their lawsuit. After the February raids, longtime activists and new Occupy Santa Cruz recruits grew fearfully silent to avoid any hint of involvement and entanglement in life-hobbling felony prosecutions. Occupy participation shrank to conventional lobbying activity.

The abusive assertion of power by the police and district attorney has had other consequences. Activist attorney Ed Frey is being sent to jail in August on a six-month sentence for a peaceful homeless protest. Gary Johnson received a two-year suspended sentence for sleeping on a bench outside the courthouse with a “Sleep Is Not a Crime” sign.

Police have begun systematically cracking down on survival homeless campsites throughout Santa Cruz, publicizing a “snitchline” where those who regard homeless people as garbage obstructing their view of the beach can call and alert “disposal squads.” Each week the police publish a weekly tally on their website.

 

More Information:

Those interested in these cases should check the SC-11 support website at santacruzeleven.org. Other blogs covering the case include indybay.org/santacruz and Becky Johnson’s blog, Becky Johnson: One Woman Talking.

The legal cases of Ed Frey and Gary Johnson are covered at fullspectrumdemocracy.org, peacecamp2010.blogspot.com/, and peacecamp2010insider.blogspot.com/.

Activist and Street Spirit writer Linda Lemaster also faces 6 months in jail for “illegal lodging” with the PC2010 group. Her blog can be found at hearthbylinda.blogspot.com/.

 

“Chalky Smogster” another of the Santa Cruz 11, who prefers to remain anonymous, contributed to this article.

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