A Rough Week For Occupy Arcata – November 8, 2011
Kevin L. Hoover
CITY HALL – Last week was the best and worst of times for Occupy Arcata. It achieved a substantial milestone in its central demand – the go-ahead for a public restroom – at the City Council meeting, when the council agreed to proceed with development of proposals for such a facility.
“I am at the City of Arcata City Council meeting, and we totally nailed the bathroom issue! Yay!” wrote Trish Tillotson, the self-described “founder” of Occupy Arcata in a Facebook posting.
But the exuberance was short-lived, as conditions in the camp out on the front lawn were deteriorating into an unpleasant form of anarchy, complete with freezing rain.
Protesters complained of interlopers showing up at all hours, raiding the kitchen area by the flagpole and loudly partying as others tried to sleep in their tents. Cigarette and marijuana smoke engulfed the front entrance to City Hall, while the alley by the Arcata Ball Park had become the after-hours toilet area.
As City Hall staff and members of the public became increasingly impatient with the messy camp, Occupy Arcata protesters battled with the constant influx of new campers who didn’t appear to understand or participate in the encampment’s core mission, nor follow its rules and Good Neighbor Policy.
Another issue was a leadership crisis in a movement which attempts to be leaderless. Original members Tillotson and Lois Cordova were less of a presence at the City Hall camp than Geronimo Garcia, whose Utopian vision of a semi-permanent homeless encampment clashed with both newcomers and others who were attempting to bring order to the situation.
Meanwhile, Andrew “Kami” Schneider, another leader/non-leader, challenged Tillotson for “pushing her personal opinion WITHOUT THE CONSENSUS OF THE [General Assembly].”
The occupiers struggle to reconcile the leaderless, consensus-oriented nature of their movement with the unruliness of some participants and the need to set and enforce firm rules. The situation poses a conundrum, as any authority is viewed with skepticism. Further, no one among the lawn residents has any legal authority to direct the actions of others, nor to eject them from the public space.
Much energy is spent on establishing politically correct communications parameters which include hand-raising to speak and “twinkling” of fingers to signify approval. These rules must be frequently and time-consumingly repeated, and aren’t well-observed.
At Friday’s assembly, Schneider was openly exasperated with the new arrivals who required continuing re-education as to the purpose and parameters of the camp. “This isn’t a rainbow gathering,” he declared. At his urging, a young woman and a man with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth emerged from one of the tents to attend the assembly.
Another man repeatedly asserted that the City Hall restroom was a taxpayer-supported facility with an employee compensated to attend to it. “You pay for the electricity,” he said. “It’s public.”
On repeating this at length, Scheider grew impatient and told the man to “Stop! Just stop!” At this, the man stalked off to a large tent, from which he could be heard vehemently rehashing the same point to others inside.
Schneider said that the protesters need to “start clearing out the ‘non-productives,’” for the long-term sustainability of the camp. “We have to start being dicks about it,” he said.
“We’re being dominated by a fringe group that has nothing to do with the protest,” said Calvin Martin, one of the original protesters who had come over from the Plaza. He said that at 5 a.m., the benches outside City Hall had become “party central,” with open containers and what he called “other drugs than marijuana.”
On Facebook, Tillotson related a tale of taking a half-gallon of whiskey away from a man at the camp, but she was upbraided by Schneider: “You have every right to ask disruptive people to leave, but you have NO right to grab someone’s property and destroy it.”
For those who work in City Hall, the impacts – mostly various forms of smoke – were seriously degrading their quality of worklife. One employee with an office facing the camp had to evacuate the polluted space and go home ill.
“These guys are smoking dope and cigarettes constantly,” said City Manager Randy Mendosa. He said the sound of hacking coughs is more or less incessant outside his office window. “From our point of view, it’s a big party,” he said.
Mendosa bought out Arcata Stationers’ entire supply of “No Smoking” signs and posted them near the entrance to City Hall. The sidewalk across the street by Spotlight Video was designated a smoking area by protesters, though compliance was sketchy at best.
Other problems included what Mendosa called the “trashing” of the City Hall bathroom, a dog urinating on the front door and, as documented in police dispatcher logs, the use of the alley between City Hall and the Arcata Ball Park as an open latrine.
Schneider urged those who need to medicate with cannabis to use the designated “sacrament tent,” which Martin, dubbed the “medicine man,” had named it.
Garcia had asked that the City provide restrooms and modify the drinking fountan’s plumbing to better accommodate dishwashing facilities. Mendosa said that if the City supports the protest, it could be liable for any injuries that result from the “high risk” behavior taking place there, including fighting and drinking.
Garcia’s aggressive leadership style inspired complaints by others. “You’re riding my ass,” complained one man whom Garcia had admonished over smoking. “You’re riding my ass,” Garcia replied. “You ride my ass, I ride your ass.”
Garcia was reportedly shot with a BB gun sometime during the week by a disaffected protester. “He was across the street and started plinking shots into the crowd,” Mendosa said.
The squalid condition of the camp’s “kitchen,” with unrefrigerated food strewn around on the ground, was another problem. A health inspector was due for a visit, Mendosa said.
As rains swamped the camp and the City Hall lawn became trampled and muddy, someone spread straw between the tents.
“It was not authorized,” Mendosa said. “Someone out there just did it and we’re hoping it’s not full of invasive seeds that will infest the lawn this spring.”
Updates on the Eye’s Facebook page.