The June 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Court Upholds Legal Rights of Homeless People

Hunger Rises, Food Stamps Cut

National Hunger Survey

Union Busting in El Salvador

CEO Pay Rises, Worker Pay Shrinks

CEOs Scheme to Privatize Social Security

Dee's Story: The Stigma of Being Homeless

Bush's Chronic Homeless Plan

Pepperspray and Torture

How Earth Day Was Co-opted

St. Mary's Center

Life Stories of Homeless Seniors

Hodges Jones

Jose Querdo

Jeannette Hundley

James Jermany

Ken Minor

Lynn Hoberg

Social Justice in the East Bay

100 Teachings of Gandhi

June Poetry of the Streets

Students Poetry


May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

A Culture of Torture: Pepperspray, War and Ecocide

Believers in the present economic system tend to accept most things about the system, including torture, wars, paving the planet, ad nauseam. Count me out.

by Jan Lundberg

Art by Doug Minkler

It is extremely good news, in these days of crises over environmental devastation, war and diminishing freedoms, that torture by pepperspray-via-Q-tip was held unconstitutional on April 28, 2005. A federal jury in San Francisco unanimously found that sheriffs in Humboldt County, California, had, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, used unreasonable force on nonviolent, passive protesters.

Three lock-down sit-ins were staged in 1997 in the land of coastal redwood forests. The last major groves of unprotected ancient redwoods were falling fast. The Headwaters Forest deal was being fought on many levels, including civil disobedience. The deal would save 7,500 acres out of more than 60,000 in one tract, and deliver a huge windfall to the rapacious corporate raider who had seized Pacific Lumber Company.

Mass arrests of protesters meant that the movement was on the rise. But as the security chief for the timber company said to the first batch of protesters to be peppersprayed in his employer's head office, "You have an education coming."

Instead of the usual grinders to unlock the protesters from their heavy steel sleeves, the sheriff's deputies came and announced chemical agents would be used in five minutes. No negotiations were offered or allowed by the police, except the choice of unlocking or getting a chemical assault from a spray that has been implicated in several dozen deaths, mainly of arrestees and prisoners.

A lot of people were to learn something right then and for years to come, when the protesters would not back down.

The windows of the building were papered over from the inside to stop the public from seeing the torture. The cries of pain and horror were not heard out on the street. One Q-tip was used for eight eyes with multiple applications, while all-male officers held women close, even though they weren't going anywhere, by hugging them between, during and after peppersprayings.

Manhandling teenagers

Officers with badges and guns manhandled a teenage girl whom they knew as a leader, smearing her eyes and risking poking an eye when the victim writhed and screamed. Indeed, it had been her idea, my daughter's idea, for this action on the day when the corporate timber owner Charles Hurwitz of MAXXAM happened to be on trial for savings-and-loan scams.

Some protesters unlocked first, as they were worried about their asthma, for example. But the heroic ones who were peppersprayed only unlocked outside, after being carried out on stretchers, or they were ground out of their sleeves outside. Despite this poor outcome for pepperspray intimidation, the police claimed it was worthwhile and stuck to their story until put in their place by a jury of six women and two men in federal court.

This was the third trial on the protesters' lawsuit, not made easy for the plaintiffs by Judge Illston. She had not allowed punitive damages for this third trial; nor did she allow the plaintiffs to present evidence that the then-attorney general of California had condemned the pepperspraying of the protesters. This evidence was blocked even though defense attorneys had told the jury the attorney general had supported the pepperspraying.

Another difficulty the plaintiffs faced was their non-mainstream tendencies as to healing: they used herbs and fasting for their eyes and to help overcome the ordeal, which went against their case in the minds of jurors, perhaps because there wasn't the usual medical approach (and resulting records) to deal with possible injury and suffering.

I learned of this victory for peaceful protest at the very time I was attending a teach-in on opposing state-sponsored torture, presented by the University of California, Berkeley. I was incredulous and almost overjoyed at the news. However, I did not have a sense of the political system righting itself.

This essay attempts to place the torture of the forest-defender plaintiffs, as well as the torture of foreign targets in the War of Terror, into the perspective of the need for cultural change. Also discussed is the culture of torture and some of the factors involved in desperate, atrocious behavior. I conclude that another world is possible and probable if humanity is to survive.

A complete legal victory

As a father of one of the eight plaintiffs, and friend of the other seven, I am as delighted as all get-out for them and for the precedent achieved. Some folks have lamented or derided the lack of compensation to the plaintiffs, but worse is the news media spin that the outcome was a mixed decision because of the lack of heavy money damages. (The plaintiffs were awarded one dollar each.)

As the plaintiffs had sought to settle this case for years without personal compensation, the case is now in the history books as a complete victory. The plaintiffs hung together for almost eight years, although losing one of their active number after the first trial and having to get a new legal team. Dennis Cunningham led the successful team and was complemented by Tony Serra, Bob Bloom and Bill Simpich.

The losing side claims the fact that major money was not awarded to the victims means the torture was not torture. As Humboldt County, the violence-prone local version of government, anticipates getting a fat legal bill for the sins of its law enforcers, it is hoped by those who did not side with the protesters that a victory for the defense can somehow be seized if the legal damage -- beyond the roughly half-million dollars already wasted by the county -- can be avoided.

When I lived in Humboldt, a county employee told me after the pepperspray incidents that the lead lawyer defending the police and the county, Nancy Delaney, had a teenage daughter and that she (Delaney) had big misgivings over what was done to the teenage protesters. The next bit of scuttlebutt was that she had profited so handsomely from this litigation that she was able to put the daughter through college.

I had held a press conference on police brutality against forest defenders in October of 1996, and had spoken some days prior to the then-Sheriff, Dennis Lewis. I told him that he needed to know what his people were doing to the nonviolent protesters. He responded that it was in reaction to violence against officers. I told him that was a crock. Almost a decade later, he was a defendant saying there had never been violence by protesters.

As to our rights, the main issue is what the police may do next -- not just in Humboldt County, but anywhere in the United States. "We're not going to do a practice that is just going to put us back in court," current Sheriff Philp said last week. Thank you, sheriff.

Analyzing that statement, however, one should question clinging to the idea of needing a court to decide what is decent to do to people. And, the statement seems to pretend there was not a major rebuke that might lead to his resignation, if committed in, say, Japanese society.

Nevertheless, Sheriff Philp made a sensible and comforting remark here. He was the former chief deputy who advocated and oversaw the pepperspray policy under former Sheriff Lewis. Philp won election against his boss a few years ago - partly because Lewis had gone too far against forest defenders in the eyes of the community.

Police chief testifies pepperspraying is 'police brutality'

One juror said that many jurors felt that the jury instructions given by Judge Illston pushed them toward granting only nominal damages. Some of them believed the police witnesses who said pepper spray caused only temporary discomfort rather than the excruciating, extreme pain that plaintiffs testified to. However, a former police chief of Minneapolis testified for the plaintiffs and told the court forthrightly that the pepperspraying of these protesters was "police brutality," and he was identified as persuasive to the jury.

There may be an appeal of the entire case. "Sheriff's Department Spokesperson Brenda Gainey said a decision on whether to appeal hasn't been thoroughly discussed yet, as determination on the plaintiff's legal fees hasn't been made," according to Daniel Mintz, writing in The Independent and the McKinleyville Press.

The possibility of Humboldt County and the sheriff's office appealing was also dealt with in an interview on the popular activist community radio station KMUD in southern Humboldt, on April 29: "Spring (Lundberg) said the jury verdict -- 'a resounding yes, it is excessive force' -- is very important for preserving the public's rights against police misconduct. She called for public opposition to any appeal by Humboldt." This motivates the citizenry to try to rein in the already out-of-step local government.

A Eureka Reporter Internet poll put the ratio of public opposition to the pepperspraying at 2-1 against the practice. The citizens of Humboldt County are more active than in most parts of the country, having, for example, made their region a Nuclear Free Zone many years ago. When people start agitating to stop any appeal of this recent civil rights ruling on pepperspraying, the pressure will carry weight in the court of public opinion.

Mintz reported that the protesters were found to have gone "too far" (by locking down while trespassing). Instead, it may be going "too far" to say the jury felt the protesters went too far. The majority of the jurors wanted to give damages to the plaintiffs. But, as attorney Dennis Cunningham surmised, some jurors must have found the protesters' action "extreme" and thereby did not deserve payment.

To nail the police for brutality was the main point at stake, so a compromise was made for the sake of taxpayer dollars, among other reasons. This allowed a minority of jurors to get fully on board to stand up for civil disobedience. There was some feeling by the minority of jurors that the pepperspray experience was not so terrible; but it's not like they said the protesters had it coming. That notion, and the idea that the protesters went too far, is what the second jury's minority of two claimed when there was a hung jury last September.

There is a basic distinction that some observers of protests don't grasp, partly because they may not be close to the movement: Violence is very different from trespass or even property destruction. Earth First!ers have never hurt a human -- hurting a human, animal, or a rare ancient tree, is violence.

The protesters' entry into Pacific Lumber's office was not violent; they walked in and were methodical, leaning toward boisterous, but not aggressive. One reporter told me off the record that the protesters had "behave(d) violently, via forcible invasion of workplace territory..." This is a serious misconception that can, in some cases, lead to real violence, such as what the police did to the Pepperspray Eight.

Culture of violence and fear

In any overpopulated society, there is going to be strife, usually over land, somehow. Therefore, there must be some laws and regulations to keep the peace. It should not be surprising that we are increasingly treated like animals in pens, because we are animals. And it's logical that there will be police, jails, and other institutions such as college and corporate employers to keep people under control and busy.

When the police do their jobs they will make mistakes. That is what happened here. But this mistake was deliberately committed and then rationalized, so it was not like a mistake of spilling noxious chemical on somebody's face by accident. Yet, the guilty parties in this case were indeed trying to do their jobs, and they had a lot of people behind them to ensure the taming of protesters.

When you own property and, for whatever reason, you call the police about a trespass, the cop comes simply to get the "visitors" out, so for the cop to be always nice about it is not what anyone can rationally expect. The police have a procedure to get tougher with people under arrest (or not yet under arrest) that escalates as conditions are supposed to warrant.

Yet, in opposition to the tendency to blindly respect property rights even when the public interest is on the line, civil disobedience has a role; despite its risks and lack of universal support, civil disobedience is still part of the nation's legal tradition. More importantly, as we protest the destruction of our environment and local economies, we must bring everyone onto the bandwagon of both defending the ancient trees and standing up for human rights.

However, can anyone expect real peace or any progress in protecting the environment as long as overpopulation is suffocating the rest of life? It is a losing game if one tries to make the too-many rats in a cage behave calmly and kindly.

When we activists and disaffected planetary citizens look at the whole world, we know it is mostly terribly wrong. It has gotten to the point that one's soul can feel bereft or adrift without a rudder, although everything seems almost the same -- there are still flowers, dinners, love, etc. Protesters who lock down and make a difference are the real leaders, and they know that a cultural revolution is necessary to restore our souls as well as save the old forests.

A culture out of control

While torture and other fear-producing tactics are more common than the citizenry wants to acknowledge -- and must be stopped if possible -- it is important to put the issue into larger context. We should not be distracted by endless details of mere events and characters playing their roles.

Just as a war -- the ultimate instrument of terror -- keeps people occupied or distracted so that power can stay consolidated where it is, and strategic resources can be seized, other human-rights situations and environmental destruction take our minds off the reality that society is being led out of control.

From an anthropological standpoint, a competing band of primates staged the sit-ins for the redwoods to challenge the dominant gang in an attempt to take back some power. Of course, the kind of power sought was of a different sort than the power wielded by pro-corporate-timber functionaries who serve to maintain the land grabs and the repression that began in Humboldt County about a century and a half ago.

But should we be grateful the timber corporados/sheriff's gang did not use more violence? It is clear that the protesters were nonviolent and were not trying to steal anything, although the lumber and monetary wealth are ill-gotten gains from the clearcutting, as the current District Attorney claims in an historic lawsuit against Pacific Lumber over fraud.

Extinction of the commons

That which should be the commons, where people and other creatures share the land, has become a private, tree-harvesting goliath that spreads diesel all over the debris left over from clearcutting, then burns it, then douses carcinogenic herbicides on the barren landscape in hopes of creating a monocrop of commercial, same-age timber in a few decades.

Those living downstream, whether human or salmon, suffer from poisoned water and floods caused by erosion. The battle for the land goes on before the state water board, the courts, and in the trees where protesters perch for months on end.

Significantly, the very culture that protesters are up against, marked by unsustainable use of nonrenewable resources and by lack of both family cohesion and close community, is usually emulated somewhat by protesters in their private lives. Most occasional protesters buy into the consumer culture, and also prop up the political status quo, such as by campaigning to vote for the lesser of two evils - as if that were the point of conscious politics.

From what I know of the Pepperspray Eight, they are most aware of their own life-choices in terms of ecological impact, and they pursue fundamental political and cultural change with spiritual gusto.

What hasn't been discussed in the news reports of this case -- and editorials have been mostly lacking altogether after this successful trial -- is the bravery and sacrifice of these young people. Let us examine why it is that only a tiny portion of the nation's population seems to care about our fast-eroding common future enough to endure arrest and physical pain.

One reason is that the average person knows that ridicule and stigma, or force and punishment, await our stepping out of line. Even though the average American juror automatically believes the police against citizens -- unless there is uncontestable video as in the pepperspray torture in Humboldt -- people know that the police and military have weapons to control us. They get to call the shots, as it were.

People remember that unarmed students were slaughtered by National Guardsmen in May 1970 at Jackson State and Kent State University. Those activists had to be intimidated, even killed, so thought the enforcers of law and order, because the activists opposed the war and the fear campaigns waged by the Republican and Democratic regimes.

Police brutality in Santa Cruz

Today's college students are not the avant-garde of social change that they were back in the 1960s. However, vestiges and pockets remain, resurrected in such struggles as at a liberal bastion of West Coast hypocrisy, Santa Cruz and its university campus. On April 19, 2005, UC officials "sent 30 cops to strangle, drag, and arrest nonviolent Tent University students for unlawful assembly."

Nonviolent protests over university workers' wages and the plight of the homeless, some of whom are students at the campus, were part of an ongoing dialogue with the university management. Without a resolution or agreement with the administration, 90 people were locked on the ground in the wee hours that night and 19 were arrested most painfully.

Seventeen of those arrested were students, and what an education they got -- pepperspray not included (thanks probably to the lawsuit by the Pepperspray Eight). The experience of the activists during negotiations with police and UC officials before, during and since was marked by "Double-speak and police brutality," according to a report in Street Spirit, published by the American Friends Service Committee.

Empire of torture

If flag-waving Americans want to dismiss Abu Ghraib and do not want to think of the U.S. government as a torturer, what is the use of napalm about? Napalm was used not just in Vietnam but on Fallujah last fall. And, is not depleted uranium -- strewn about Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans -- torture and genocide?

Of course, the United States does some nice things and not everyone in the government is a torturer. Overall, though, the purpose is not to go do nice things for other countries but to control them by force for the sake of private financial interests that control the U.S. government. Perhaps the best description of U.S. foreign imperial policy is a song by the late Phil Ochs: "We're the Cops of the World."

During and after the pepperspray trial in April there were two major conferences on torture. One, held at a church near downtown Berkeley on April 22-23, featured attorney Lynn Stewart, recently convicted for defending a Muslim man in U.S. court, and Rep. Cynthia McKinney from Georgia. McKinney said to the audience, "What kind of resistance are we willing to do?"

The UC Berkeley torture teach-in from April 28-30 was sponsored mainly by Dr. L. Ling-chi Wang of the UC Ethnic Studies Department, and featured such panelists as an El Salvadorean survivor of death-squad torturers; an ACLU attorney, Lucas Guttentag, who is suing Donald Rumsfeld for torture; and Terry Karl, Stanford political science professor who is an expert on U.S.-inspired torture in Latin America.

Listening to these experts, and as we savor the victory of the Pepperspray Eight, one might think the torturers are on the run. Some foreign torturers have been caught and prosecuted in the United States, and it became unsafe for Chilean ex-dictator Pinochet to visit the UK and Spain where his crimes might be prosecuted.

Lucas Guttentag described a "cascade of justice" from above and below, as international treaties (from above) and court actions (below) put pressure on criminals both foreign and domestic who are trying to hide from international law and the U.S. Constitution.

As the pepperspray torture case involves domestic issues and U.S. citizens, it can be thought of as a new dimension of "from within" to go with the "from above" and "from below." As much as a reform movement may wish to clean house in the United States, torture, both the domestic kind and outside our borders, is part of maintaining the economic structure and financial establishment.

Far more than fighting for a cleaner but same-old system, we need to consider changing political systems, or rejecting systems in favor of living as close to nature as possible. Nature is the only system there is, and any competing system doesn't last long. The mainstream U.S. consumer seems to buy into the economic-growth system without a care, despite enormous costs on various levels.

Buying a gadget that we can do without, at Wal-Mart for example, means importing, via petroleum, something made of polluting materials. It also means the gadget was made with severely exploited labor with little environmental safeguards; Wal-Mart is anti-union and sexist. Lastly, one should buy locally produced items for the sake of sustainability and jobs, instead of DRIVING to a huge parking lot that destroyed a wetland. Wal-Mart does, however, have very low prices, so as consumers we sell ourselves down the river for a few coins.

The issue of torture goes to what kind of system we maintain or tolerate. Believers in the present economic system tend to accept most things about the system, including torture, wars, paving the planet, ad nauseam. Count me out. Another world is possible and probable if humanity is to survive.

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