Santa Cruz Police Violate First Amendment Rights

The Freedom Sleepers are determined to rouse the conscience of the city against the Sleeping Ban. They plan to return to the park every week in increased numbers to press the community to support restoration of civil rights for homeless people. And they intend to force police to withdraw or arrest them.

by Robert Norse

At midnight on August 11, ten police officers converged on 20 Freedom Sleepers at City Hall in Santa Cruz, some of them awake on the public access way, and some asleep on the grass. The officers refused to respect the legal right to view public agendas posted at City Hall, or the language of the “Park Closing” law.

The Freedom Sleepers angrily objected to the demands of police that they leave. Two people were given additional stay-away orders for 24 hours. Israel Dawson, a UCSC documentarian working to film and record the protests, was handcuffed and arrested for “not identifying himself” and “walking away,” according to the officer who arrested him.

Santa Cruz homeless advocates are continuing the protests, and remain determined to rouse the conscience of the community against the Sleeping Ban.

This was the most intrusive and aggressive police response yet. On the positive side, the activists, angry at the arrest of an innocent photographer, returned to the park with the intention of forcing police to withdraw or arrest them.

Santa Cruz police, apparently after conferring with sheriff’s deputies, may have been advised that the jail authorities weren’t interested in taking a dozen or more people into custody.

Police ignored the wording of the municipal ordinance (MC 13.04.011), which exempts passageways through parks, on which I, for one, was standing. They also declined to suggest a legal place where homeless people — who made up half our group — could go to sleep.

Earlier that evening, in the Santa Cruz City Council meeting, Freedom Sleepers read the text of the Department of Justice statement supporting the right of homeless people to camp in Boise, Idaho. In response, Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane cut off Oral Communications before 10 people in line could speak.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Speakers, angered by the unconstitutional and unnecessary police intimidation, continue to sleep on the sidewalk and plan to return in greater force for the next actions. sleepouts have been held every Tuesday in the months of July and August.

The UCSC documentarians Lauren Benson and Israel Dawson had been videorecording the protests with their lighting and cameras on tripods. They had videoed extensively throughout the last four protests and sleepovers, as well as prior Freedom Sleeper breakfasts at Highway 1 and River Street in Santa Cruz.

Indybay photographer and writer Alex Darocy also covered all the Freedom Sleepers protests and published photos of the actions. All three reporters were cited or arrested earlier in the night. Add me to the list since I extensively record police interaction with protesters for broadcast on Free Radio Santa Cruz. I received my second citation and my first-ever Stay-Away-from-City-Hall order (for 24 hours).

Lauren Benson got a ticket for “being in a park after hours” (MC 13.04.011), as well as a stay-away order for 24 hours. I had the honor of getting this phony citation several minutes before Lauren. Sgt. Forbus denied my right to be on the access pathway through the City Hall courtyard and my demand to be allowed free access to the posted city agendas along that passageway.

Perhaps his primary concern was my audio recording of each ticketing encounter. Perhaps it was my loud denunciations of police shutting down the right to assemble at the seat of government. Police also cited Darocy for being in the park as he took photos of the event. This is the first time when all four reporters were cited.

Israel Dawson reported that, when told by a cop to get his ID, he started walking towards his backpack, at which point he was seized and handcuffed, charged with “resisting arrest,” held three hours at the jail, and given a misdemeanor charge. His court date is in mid-September and he could face six months or a year in jail.


“Make Sleeping Legal.”  People even display protest signs in their sleep in Santa Cruz. Photo by Alex Darocy,

“Make Sleeping Legal.” Even while they are sleeping, Santa Cruz protesters display protest signs calling for an end to the city’s sleeping ban. Photo by Alex Darocy,


Police sought to drive protesters out of the park with citations and an arrest. They seemed upset that the demonstrators didn’t simply disperse, but responded with angry questions, and declared an intention to return to the City Hall courtyard in front of the mayor’s office.

Once most of the people had been pushed to the sidewalk, police began ticketing people for “blocking the sidewalk” or “lying down on the sidewalk” when they attempted to set up their bedding there — in legal areas. The police also threatened to confiscate the fruit and vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, and other food items. Abbi Samuels of Food Not Bombs responded hotly that they could take the table, but Freedom Sleepers would not be driven away.

Another officer ignored Samuel’s attempt to explain to him that the public sidewalk in front of City Hall is not covered by the ban against lying down (not just sleeping). The City Council had passed that ban in order to make Pacific Avenue hostile and off limits for poor people, street people, youth, and travelers two decades ago.

Demonstrators were very upset with the soft-spoken Israel Dawson’s abduction for “resisting arrest.” In response, Rabbi Phil Posner and others declared they would immediately return to where they’d been resting or standing and, if necessary, go to jail in solidarity with Dawson.

Perhaps this challenge to their authority prompted the police to abruptly leave. It might also have been the appearance of four sheriff’s deputies seen consulting with police. Hours later when Dawson was released, he noted he was not held because of the bed shortage in the jail, so perhaps the deputies asked the cops not to send more folks into a crowded jail.

Folks did get back to sleep, though in reduced numbers. There were probably at least 10 sleepers on the sidewalk. I slept in my car adjacent to the sleepers. All of this is “illegal” under MC 6.36. which bans all sleeping on public property or in cars after 11 p.m.

The police did not return at all in the morning. Interestingly, no one got sleeping, blanket, and camping ban tickets, perhaps to sidestep the embarrassing reality (and legal liability) that Santa Cruz has no legal place for homeless people to sleep and yet simultaneously enacts a law making sleep outside a crime.

After some discussion in an impromptu General Assembly, the protesters decided to maintain both their right to protest at City Hall and the right of the homeless to sleep without being declared criminals.

The Freedom Sleepers plan to return every week in increased numbers and press the community to support restoration of civil rights for the homeless (as well as the basic right to be at City Hall for peaceful petitioning, assembly, and protest at night — denied since 2010 by administrative edict). Join us in these protests if you believe in the right to sleep — and the First Amendment.


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