by Linda Ellen Lemaster
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eaceCamp2010 started on the Fourth of July weekend last year outside the Santa Cruz Courthouse, and lasted until a few days past Labor Day. When I first visited the camp in July 2010, I was moved to offer my support to the ever-changing group of protesters.
People I met in the first week were totally focused on bringing attention to the public about the insidious criminalization of sleeping, camping and lodging used to banish homeless people from any public areas and force them into hiding.
After sheriff deputies banished the demonstration from the lawn in front of the courthouse, the sleep-protesters returned to City Hall, intent on renewing the primary message of the demonstration: to show that the Santa Cruz ordinance that criminalizes sleeping and camping in public is too broad, too prohibitive and too dangerous.
I had recently testified in court as an “expert witness” about homelessness in Santa Cruz, so I had already met some new friends who also turned up at this Fourth of July demonstration, which ultimately kept on going like the energizer bunny.
In early July of 2010, nobody I met realized that PeaceCamp2010 would continue for several months, and then be abruptly terminated by Santa Cruz County sheriff deputies working in four-person teams. Joining the peace camp carried a price. On Sept. 19, 2011, I go to trial for getting a ticket claiming I broke the State of California’s lodging law, 647(e).
PeaceCamp2010 located itself right in front of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, where citizens traditionally gather to share ideals and to bring concerns to their government.
Local attorney and philosopher Ed Frey was deemed a hero by many homeless people who found their way to the demonstration in support of the right to sleep even while homeless. Frey, with the help of long-standing homeless ally Paul Lee, had found the means to provide a porta-potty nightly at the peace camp, and mounted the rented utility on a small trailer behind his pickup truck.
Frey had been listening carefully to reveries of homeless folks and their allies, hoping to figure out all the “health and safety” issues in advance. His conclusion was right-on: “potty” was the missing ingredient for sustaining many earlier pro-homeless and anti-sleeping-ban rallies, marches and demonstrations, including several held at this very location.
PeaceCamp2010 was like a living kaleidoscope. While a number of folks stayed with it — the regulars, you might say — a majority of faces at the camp changed every few days. It was run as though we were all adults — most refreshing. Sure, leaders emerged, receded, emerged again. Yet there was a “live and let live” air to this sleep demonstration that seemed to welcome all comers.
Once publicity about the camp began, an average night might find two dozen folks sleeping there, though at times PeaceCamp2010 exceeded 50 folks with blankets and sleeping bags unfurled on the lawn and concrete plaza.
Mass media fuels stereotypes
The demonstration received abundant, even front-page, press coverage. Most of it was negative, in my view: the press was feeding off stereotypes and playing to the resentments of the general housed population. The television news was gentler — vague yet visually honest. PeaceCamp2010 denizens responded by cultivating Social Media to get their message out.
Later, tensions began to build around antagonisms and fears of County employees and citizens on business at the County offices, many of whom did not appreciate having to see the artifacts of homelessness while on their way to work.
It was apparent that holding a “sleep demonstration” as a legitimate message of protest went far over the heads of most passers-by. We were following a long tradition that reckons sleep in this context as a necessary form of free speech.
So many other venues for protest had not worked locally, and some even backfired — as evidenced by troll-busting murders and assaults in Santa Cruz, by the ever-growing numbers of anti-homeless laws and regulations, and by the broadening acceptance of those overt haters of visibly poor and presumed homeless folks.
I believe our inability to get our message shared in the media, without extreme distortion, in the past 25 years also helps fuel this growing “blame the victim” mentality.
Ultimately, the last few determined, demonstrating sleepers were flushed off the campus of City Hall by the police. Because of the protest, political officials and the city police continued to tighten the rules about being present at City Hall and the Santa Cruz Library. Police were ruthless at best regarding our signs and the personal property they confiscated.
Santa Cruz officials made it functionally impossible for demonstrators to get their belongings back once confiscated, and the police grabbed people’s possessions several times a night.
From Albany, Calif., to Orlando, Fla., most homeless people can’t turn their backs on their belongings for a minute, and police pose as many risks as thieves and desperados. I note the property destruction because over and over homeless people have been protected by the courts on this issue, only to have this “justice” conveniently forgotten when political protesters enter the picture.
Criminal acts of sleeping
Demonstrators had formed the peace camp specifically to protest the laws that criminalize anyone found asleep in public at night. Ironically, during the final days, they were cited and displaced by police using the very laws they were protesting: the State of California’s lodging law, and the City’s sleeping ban ordinance.
Santa Cruz officials continued attacking the remaining few demonstrators for camping on the sidewalk at night. They used many new tricks, including klieg lights and a huge blaring generator that spewed toxic exhaust all night, until finally neighbors a block away complained. They confiscated our protest signs as fast as we could create new ones.
The hostile attitude toward any public presence of homeless people is not new here. It continues despite what now even the courts have ruled is true: a person cannot live without sleeping. Enforcing the sleeping ban while no other alternatives exist is destructive and life-threatening. The County’s purpose in citing demonstrators for sleeping and lodging was to stifle our political expression.
Gary and Star were the troopers throughout the final stages of PeaceCamp2010, stoically enduring until after Labor Day. They and others were arrested and given many citations for trying to continue PeaceCamp2010. Laying down for the right to sleep is dangerous in California.
Ten months later, tickets started cropping up on court dockets like mushrooms after a spring rain. Some charges were swept away, some traded out informally for “lesser” charges. Some who were cited during the sleep-out have disappeared.
By April 2011, local judges had casually determined that California’s anti-lodging law, 647(e), would not be deemed unconstitutional despite the law’s controversial history and its current misuse. Five homeless defendants engaged Ed Frey as their attorney. He also represented himself.
Three homeless men and one homeless woman, plus Frey, went on trial together; ultimately two defendants testified on their own behalf during the four-day trial. Watching Frey interview himself and then answer himself was a highlight of their trial in May 2011.
Humans guilty, dog acquitted
The jurors found all but one of these “sleep criminals” guilty. Actually, it was a homeless man’s dog who was found not guilty, but the jurors let the man go free on behalf of his dog. One juror was unable to accept the fate of a dog in the hands of police, then the pound, due to a criminal homeless sleeper.
The homeless defendant (Bob is his street name), would have had to pay several hundred dollars to avert the dog’s death, with almost zero turn-around time, if the court had convicted him for being “lodged” at our demonstration.
Shortly after the verdict, the jury foreman said that a woman juror who loves dogs hung the jury in relation to Bob’s lodging charge. (The other 11 had not come around to her viewpoint.) The other four defendants were found guilty.
Becky Johnson’s blog, One Woman Talking, describes the post-trial interview with jurors: “A homeless person should not have to gas their dog, to use one of our local homeless shelters for the night. Eleven jurors disagreed. No one can sleep well tonight in Santa Cruz County.”
Lucky for Bob this time — he will not have to face six months in jail for being asleep at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. at the Courthouse. Unlucky for Santa Cruz, where dogs seem to get better legal protection than do its uprooted people.
The other four defendants, including attorney Frey, were found guilty, based partly on the district attorney’s sleight-of-hand display of two theoretically potential — but not actually accessible — shelter beds on a hypothetical night. Her careful chart was developed to thwart an otherwise viable Eichorn necessity defense.
I also question the value of the expert witnesses selected by the district attorney, given their paychecks rely heavily on City and County grants.
A month flew by, and Frey and Johnson returned to the scene of the trial for their sentence. Early in June 2011, in a tense moment, they were carried away in chains to jail, where they were stuck for two weeks due to a $50,000 bail. Each.
Attorney Peter Leeming finally got Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge John Gallagher to reconsider the hefty bail imposed on Frey, in that he was presumed employed and not homeless by the legal system. The $50,000 bail was changed to $110 through this intervention, so the two men were released, pending appeal.
I joined with PeaceCamp2010 to help bring attention to the unsafe situation endured by homeless people on the vanishing margins of society, and to wake folks up about the criminalization of homeless people for ordinary behaviors, such as sleeping, or being visible in public.
Now, I could be found guilty of the “criminal” act of lodging, like Ed, Gary, Star and Art, because I was cited while allegedly sleeping when sheriff deputies came to bust up the sleep demonstration on August 7, 2010.
My trial is slated for September 19. Attorney Jonathan Che Gettleman is working pro bono to defend me. I hope he will be allowed by the court to focus on free speech rights so there is some relevant context with this lodging charge.
The trial of the PeaceCamp2010’s Lodging Five prevented any explanation of the context of their demonstration, except for a hostile and untrue comment from the district attorney, suggesting that gathering citations by protesters was a “competition or game.”
From my perspective, muffling the true reason for our demonstration by using legal maneuvers is an absurd misuse of the court system. I resent the way the legal system in burying our protest just when people were beginning to engage in real dialogue about critical issues.
The legal system plays fast and loose when its targets are presumed homeless and thus powerless. Accuracy and truth become homeless when the power brokers are allowed to redefine social and political events to suit their purpose instead of sharing the history with its rightful heirs — all of us.