Occupy Arcata Protest Grows – October 25, 2011
Kevin L. Hoover
PLAZA – The kind of confrontation the City and Occupy Arcata (OA) protesters had been working to avoid took place Monday afternoon.
The City had tolerated various municipal code violations such as dogs and smoking on the Plaza during the protest in favor of compromise and reining in more permanant installations such as camping. City officials had said they would draw the line at tents and tarps, but Monday, they began to appear and police stepped in.
According to witnesses, an individual identified as “JR” had set up a tent on the Plaza center’s north side. When an APD officer issued him a citation and asked him to take it down, several others crawled inside the tent to prevent it from being removed.
At some point, according to Police Chief Tom Chapman, the man “physically bumped up against the officer, more than being obstructionist.” Witnesses with OA later disputed that account, and blamed the officer for overreacting.
The man was then arrested on a charge of interfering with an officer, and, said witnesses, was dragged across the North Plaza lawn to a waiting police cruiser.
The spectacle set off a huge reaction from Occupy Arcata participants and sympathizers, who swarmed around the police car as officers attempted to load the arrestee inside.
Units from Humboldt State and the California Highway Patrol arrived to asist, but were not required. Some protesters became extremely upset at the police response, chanting and yelling epithets at the officers.
Once the police cars drove away, the Plaza’s center still sported two dome tents. OA organizer Lois Cordova said the group had voted at the previous night’s General Assembly to go ahead and set up the tents and tarps Chapman had told them wouldn’t be permissible.
“We cannot condone camping,” Chapman said. “They obstruct access to the Plaza for others. How many tents do we say are enough?”
He wasn’t sure what would happen next, but Chapman said the tents were an unsustainable situation. “That’s going to be a problem,” he said. “When they put up tents, it’s going over the line.”
Following the confrontation, Chapman said “things need to cool off.” he said he was hoping cooler heads would prevail within the protest.
Chapman said Manila resident and former City Council candidate Geronimo Garcia was playing a particularly unhelpful role.
Garcia’s previous run-ins with police have earned him jail time, and even among anti-authoritarians, he seems to respond particularly poorly to law enforcement direction.
“It doesn’t help with Geronimo being an agitator and being confrontational,” Chapman said. “He’s yelling and making it difficult to work with people.”
It wasn’t clear whether the Plaza situation would further degrade or settle down, but the superheated tensions were not always thus.
For a brief, shining hour last Friday afternoon, all the usual no-nos were non-issues on the Plaza.
There, a passel of pooches mingled with pot and cigarette smokers as Occupy Arcata protesters and police officers chatted amicably. Members of the Chamber of Commerce swarmed Jada Brotman’s Queen Doubles stand while gaggles of orange-clad high schoolers gathered to watch the annual Arcata High Tigers Homecoming Parade.
Propelling the unprecedented pluralism was the politics-not-as-usual protest by Occupy Arcata, then in its 21st day.
An Arcata iteration of the movement which has swept downtowns across the globe, occupy Arcata’s driving force is Trish Tillotson.
Some have wondered what there is to protest in Arcata, where so many progressive values have already been implemented. Further clouding the OA protest’s mission were the dozens of individuals sitting around smoking marijuana and cigarettes, playing with dogs and other leisure activities just like any other day, except at the Plaza’s center rather than on the fringes.
One observer characterized Occupy Arcata as “two protesters and 40 of the same people who are out here all the time.”
While Occupy Wall Street is focused on wealth inequity and the cozy relationship between financial institutions and the government, Arcata’s protest focuses on homelessness and hunger issues.
“I see a lot of poor people on the Plaza without a place to sleep,” Tillotson said. “Community members turn a blind eye.”
She said one accomplishment of the OA protest was to get the City Council to resume consideration of a public restroom. However, Mayor Susan Ornelas had revived that project prior to the appearance of the OA protest.
Tillotson said a longer-term drive is to unify the community and promote social justice. “We need to communicate, get along and work together,” she said. “We’re trying to keep it all-inclusive.”
Not feeling included was Plaza food vendor Jada Brotman, whose Queen Doubles stand was getting only about a fourth of its usual business because of the OA protest and its discouraging effect on pedestrian traffic.
Brotman said she had started out supportive of the OA protest, “but as the days wore on and the customers ceased to appear, my heart broke into a hundred tiny pieces.”
Following publicity of her plight on Facebook, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce called for a mass Queen Doubles lunch-in on Friday. Numerous Chamber members and others turned out to enjoy the spicy Trinidadian chick pea tacos, and Brotman sold out that day.
The cooperative spirit carried over into Saturday, when the OA base camp moved to the Plaza’s southeast quadrant in order to accommodate the Farmers’ Market. Even the protesters’ dogs were taken away so as not to jeopardize the market’s health code permit, though patrons continued to bring their animals to the market in defiance of signs and verbal warnings from North Coast Growers’ Association personnel.
Monday evening, OA participant Lois Cordova said the group had consensed that tents are important to the protest and “part of the issue.”
“Human rights include a place to sleep,” she said. “That’s what occupations are.”
She said the Monday incident would likely bring more protesters to town to show solidarity with Occupy Arcata.
“That’s not where we started, but that’s where we are,” Cordova said.