by Linda Lemaster
Remembering a sunny day in Santa Cruz in 2012, I found myself walking briskly with a dozen other allies and supporters, following Gary Johnson outside the courtroom, fresh from a trial where he was found guilty of sleeping, again.
Johnson headed for the nearby jailhouse. Trailing him from the courthouse plaza, we passed within a few car-lengths of the scene of his “sleep crime.”
Someone pointed out the singular stout bench where Gary had not been permitted to rest. And now he would serve a jail sentence for that crime of being caught asleep in the city of Santa Cruz at night.
Gary Johnson was one of thousands of people experiencing homelessness outside when the county sheriffs came with a single-minded intent to roust him.
This “criminal” has been smacked down repeatedly by The Law: ticketed and jailed and his dreams literally ripped off precisely because he was experiencing homelessness. He was being hit with both the state’s lodging law, 647(e), and the City of Santa Cruz’s anti-sleeping/anti-camping law, MC 6.36.
Using the Law to Destroy People
Laws used to prevent sleeping in Santa Cruz combine with the proliferating “behavior laws” designed at all levels of government specifically to banish and criminalize and impede homeless people. It works like a double whammy to effectively paralyze and destroy people — as if folks living on the street aren’t already being harassed enough in their daily double-bind.
Johnson strode across Water Street and the two public lawns between the courthouse and jail. He turned himself in after Judge Mulligan ruled that he was “guilty” of sleeping in public, after having been told not to do it again by the same judge.
Earlier, I had seen the same judge putting Johnson’s attorney Ed Frey in chains for attempting to suggest that His Honor might use a definition of “sleep” from a source other than rank personal prejudice. Judge Mulligan called it contempt.
So Gary Johnson approached the jail’s makeshift entryway (“under construction”), tall and alert in his burgundy jersey. He grinned a bit, reminding me of his perseverance during the Peace Camp Vigil in 2010. He cheered up the harried booking clerk at her temporarily overcrowded desk.
The judge had insisted, “Go right over to jail.” But when the staff finally got to Gary, nobody at the jail could find the right sentencing instructions. They told him to go away. He replied, “No thanks.” So we sang songs for the workers along with our “Free Gary” chants.
Right to Exist
Johnson was going to jail for six months because he had gotten a ticket for sleeping near the courthouse. This was near the beginning in his odyssey for the right to sleep.
Perhaps we were merely a glimmer of solidarity preceding his plight with imprisonment. And we were there to bear witness.
Then came several more sleep tickets he got shortly after he was released from jail. More trial. More dickering, which he disliked. More guilty verdicts. An appeal and another appeal. Always less sleep.
And unlike most of us when reduced to the streets and curbs and wild things and vagaries of police enforcement, Johnson stood his ground. He didn’t go hide like a rodent under the ivy or stow away in some stranger’s parked car.
Two Years in Jail for Sleeping
Now our sleep criminal himself hasn’t been sighted in several years, but a few weeks ago, his attorney returned for a second appeal of four citations, four distinct moments of criminal sleeping. Longtime HUFF courtwatcher Becky Johnson (not related to Gary) said Santa Cruz Superior Court’s appeal panel, Honorables Burdick, Guy and Salazar, sentenced Gary Johnson to two years in jail for four nights of being found sleeping.
Gary Johnson is not alone in having his sovereignty violated over and over by being deprived of his inherent and necessary right to sleep. Last year in Geneva, the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations condemned this rampant and growing criminalizing of homeless people here in the United States.
Calling it, “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” the UN Human Rights Committee said that using government laws this way violates international human rights treaty obligations, and they called upon our U.S. government to take corrective action.
The UN Human Rights Committee statement was part of its Concluding Observations on reviewing U.S. government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a 1992 treaty.
Now the federal government is under pressure to rein in rampant local and state anti-homeless laws multiplying across the entire nation in towns and cities, colleges and public parks, whole shopping districts and cafe chains.
These anti-homeless laws denounced by the United Nations exist in every state in the union.
Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, noted that California has by far the greatest abundance of anti-homeless laws in our country by every measure the United Nations uses. With the Right to Rest Campaign, homeless people and their friends, and anybody concerned about civil capacity building, and about justice, can help to bring this illegitimate growing dungeon of punitive and harmful laws into broader public focus.
“A Plague on Homeless People”
And we don’t have to wait for the Feds to start cleaning up. Bay Area civil rights attorney Osha Neumann recently took the lodging law to court for his five homeless clients. He went to court, in his words, “specifically to show that it is, I believe, unconstitutional. It is a blot on the legal code, and it should be stricken.”
Vagrancy laws, loitering laws, and status crimes were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the late 1960s. By continuing to selectively enforce the mother of this lodging law, California continues to defy the U.S. Supreme Court. Neumann spoke of 647(e) as “a contamination, a plague on homeless people.”
“Its total and only use known is to criminalize people who are homeless for not doing anything. It is in essence an anti-homeless law.”
Gary Johnson, wherever he is free — or not free — to sleep, shares his analyses, connecting the Right to Rest Campaign’s SB 608 with California’s archaic anti-lodging law 647(e) on his blog. (See PeaceCamp2010 insider.blogspot.com)
Johnson’s blog states: “If past (California legislators’) behavior is a reliable guide, SB 608 will probably be described as too expensive, and not allowed out of committee. Too expensive to protect the civil and human rights of a persecuted group by modification of 647(e).”
Johnson, his attorney Ed Frey, two other homeless people, and later myself, have been convicted for illegal lodging in Santa Cruz jury trials.
Johnson, the criminal sleeper, continues, “It would be more accurate to say the reversal of the blatant disregard for the civil and human rights of a group widely treated as less than human would be too expensive. A group that includes veterans that are placed in harm’s way by draft-dodging politicians.
“To be expected, I suppose, given a government founded on the concept of some humans being created equal and some humans being considered 3/5 people and 2/5 property.”
Will the Right to Rest Campaign, now being organized in three states, be able to help reverse these convictions, thereby saving a lot of people’s lives and health while saving the state considerable court and incarceration expenses? Even more, will the People wake up to this totally illegal and rampant and expensive tragedy before it eats away at more families, even while realtors, developers and landlords push their gentrify-for-usury agenda?
Johnson’s blog suggests that the lodging law — the same kind of discriminatory law which was once used to banish Black people, to criminalize Okies, and to chase hippies out of fountains and away from civic centers — could benefit from a rewrite in the legislature. But will lawmakers risk humiliation and worse by reprising the vagrancy law’s history in public?
“If past behavior is a reliable guide,” Johnson suggests, “SB 608 (Right to Rest) will probably be described as too expensive, and not allowed out of committee.”
“Too expensive to protect the civil and human rights of a persecuted group by modification of 647(e). It would be more accurate to say it would be too expensive to recognize and respect those civil and human rights long denied.”