Not exactly on the I-5 tour, since the last leg home is on Hwy 101 through Northern California, but I stopped off last night in Arcata to stay with a friend. On this frosty, quiet morning I made quick visits to Occupy HSU (Humboldt State University) in Arcata and Occupy Eureka, in front of the county courthouse.
The half-dozen campers on the quad at HSU were still awakening when I got there. One, seemingly with a case of the pre-caffeine crabbies, plugged a hot plate into an extension cord that disappeared behind one of the tarped-over picnic canopies that serve as tents there. The Occupiers live in four of these make-shift shelters, next to a couple rickety pole constructions made of branches that serve to hold signs and flyers.
It was all men there this morning. The one I spoke with the most indicated that they were nearly all refugees from raids on Occupy Arcata and Occupy Eureka. One was busted at the Eureka raid and doesn’t want to risk violating his release agreement by going back there. Originally started by students, they have all since left, going back to their dorm rooms and studies. My camp host this morning said that “the energy has changed since the students left,” though he didn’t elaborate.
Apparently, there are regular General Assemblies, attended by 10-20 people. A recent one had nearly 100. The topic was creating a joint Arcata/Eureka/HSU Occupy camp, voted down for now. It’s a topic that he says will be discussed at the next GA.
The camp has the blessing of the University administration, apparently, along with the official student body, but is likely to fold up during the winter school break. Maybe in the spring, come better weather (a relative term for Humboldt County), the camp will get new life. That probably depends more upon what happens with the larger movement in the meantime.
Next stop was Occupy Eureka, about ten miles away to the south down Hwy 101. They once had a significant camp there (for a small town), but it was busted up about a month ago and the grass area surrounded with inhospitable chainlink fencing adorned with “No Camping” signs. Occupiers had felt-penned letters “K” and “W” through the fence, so some of the signs now read “Know Camping.” Occupiers are now limited to the concrete areas and courthouse steps, with no tents or camping structures allowed. Likewise, nothing may be affixed to any County property or structures.
This became an issue minutes after I pulled up. A Eureka Police Department officer walked over and began ripping down any signs attached to the fence or railings, including a large banner. People confronted him when he began to take down a large plywood sign covered in stapled-on flyers that had been leaning against the chainlink fencing. A minor confrontation ensued, with the officer calling for a backup unit and a crazy guy with a portable radio, which he pointed at the cops like it was a camera, screaming nonsense. (I turned around and told him to stop, that it wasn’t helping and he quieted down for a few minutes before starting up again.)
Another EPD officer arrived shortly, along with a Humboldt County Sheriff deputy, both of whom stood by without involvement. I think they might have been a bit confused by me filming with my Flip camera and tweeting frantically with my iPhone, since I had my local, somewhat official-looking volunteer fire dept. sweatshirt on and, well, probably didn’t look like I was part of the usual-suspect group there.
I know this will bother some people, but in this case I thought the confrontation was needless and could have been easily avoided by the occupiers. While we can argue about whether or not signs should be allowed to be attached to County structures, is an easy rule to live with if it avoids confrontations with law enforcement. The first cop, the one on the right in the photo above, also appeared to ask the meditating protesters to remove the other banner before removing it himself. (I was behind him filming, with road noise, so I couldn’t hear exactly what he said, but that is how it appeared to me.)
Either way, the occupiers lost their banner and the cops wasted a bunch of time and got caught on camera looking mean. Let me suggest that all occupiers try to take the moral high ground in these situations and consider what they’re spending energy on, who they’re pissing off and what impression they might be giving to passers-by.
Three people had been meditating quietly in their white long-johns on the top of the first flight of steps when I arrived. After the cops left, a handful of occupiers gathered back there on their makeshift cardboard meditation mats to talk. A woman with a friendly smile showed up a few minutes later with a tin of what looked like homemade marshmallow brownies for everyone. Every few minutes a motorist would give what I took to be a friendly honk.
Not being allowed tents, they are sleeping in the open on the concrete. This must be difficult enough on sub-freezing nights like last night, but once the rains return, will become impossible, if not life-threatening. I think that’s the County’s strategy. Prohibiting them from any presence would be a clear violation of First Amendment rights, but by preventing structures or shelters, officials in Eureka, never known for having much affection for protesters, can simply freeze them out. One guy said he would get a tarp and “burrito-up” in it, though I can’t imagine this being viable for long. On the other hand, he’s been living on the street for years, so he might be used to it.
And that brings up the question: who is Occupy Eureka and what role do they play? There are some people who hang out there who clearly have behavioral or mental-health issues. This is true to varying degrees in virtually all camps, though some, like Tacoma seem to be good at kicking disruptive people out. Other larger camps absorb these people as part of the encampment, dealing with bad behavior as it arises.
On the one hand, I can’t imagine many people being inspired by the disheveled vibe of the camp as it presented itself this morning. When reporters, especially hostile ones (and hey, guys, I’m sympathetic!), go to Occupy sites like this, they get the material to discredit the movement as just crazy, homeless people messing up public property. Like all camps, I’m sure the energy changes regularly based on who shows up and the Facebook page is very active. But still, it’s not a place that most people I know would want to be associated with. While democracy and cultural diversity may be messier than some people like, there is a point where it pointlessly gives opponents ammunition against us and unnecessarily turns off potential supporters.
On the other hand, based on the car-horn honks and regular donations of food and other material to the protest—it’s not actually a “camp” anymore—it seems that at least some people appreciate some visible presence of the Occupy Wall Street movement in their town. As the movement expands into new arenas such as occupying foreclosures, strikes and shutdowns, bank transfers and who knows what else, will Occupy’s signature image of the tent in the square be so necessary to maintain at all costs?
(This post is probably not finished, but I don’t want to belabor it tonight. I debated about putting in the sentences critical of the messy appearance and behavior, but in the end I always think directness is better than propaganda. I’ve never been much of a propagandist. If anyone is offended by what I wrote, take it as an opportunity for improvement. Once I get a Youtube channel set up, I’ll post the video I mentioned.)