Two Sunday mornings ago, my mother returned from walking to church in town. "There's a Hooverville down the street," she told me.
My mom is just old enough to remember the shanty towns that popped up in urban areas during the Great Depression, where homeless families lived in makeshift shelters made from packing crates and cardboard.
But this homeless encampment was something different: no packing crates; and cardboard signs, not roofs. Large tarps were attached to a chin-up bar in the green area adjacent to the D Street Neighborhood Center, technically a city park. The tarps covered a kitchen area and a central shelter for sleeping. A half dozen camper's tents had been erected that first rainy night. Sleeping bags were drying on the fence separating the park from the freeway.
A table with leaflets set up on the corner was surrounded by cardboard signs: "Human Rights Direct Action," said one. Another demanded, "Support a Free People-Run Campground."
The camp residents were eager for dialogue: about the plight of Vietnam vets on the streets, about how the police had removed the portable toilet that People Project had paid for on Saturday.
Kim "Verbena" Starr stood at an information table. Starr's a direct action veteran: She spent time in the Humboldt County Jail for her part in forest protests. She also served on Arcata's Homeless Services Task Force, where she advocated for establishment of a free campground. The leader of the People Project said this protest was about the city's no camping ordinance, something she and other "houseless" folks see as sleep deprivation and akin to torture. I gave her my number and asked her to call when the police showed up.
The call came just after 6 a.m. last Wednesday morning. "It's going down. They're here," said a male voice. "Come when you can."
The protest camp had grown to a dozen or more tents since Sunday. Captain Tom Chapman, of the Arcata Police, was telling the campers to either take their things and go, or face arrest. A core contingent had formed a circle in the center of the camp on a tarp, linking arms. Police officers were still arriving - dozens of them.
At 6:35 a.m., Chapman addressed the Circle: "Can anybody tell me what we need to do, within my power, to get you to voluntarily leave? When the time comes to arrest you, how do you want to do that? My preference would be if anyone wants to be arrested for this, you'll be able to step forward and do that. Can anybody talk to me about this? Nobody? Again, any compliance from you guys?"
Chapman also asked for help in establishing a system to identify the property that was about to be packed up: tents, backpacks - for some in the Circle, all their worldly possessions. "We don't want to get your property mixed up," he said. "We need to be able to account for it."
Again, the Circle was silent.
Dismantling the People Project encampment, inventorying and hauling off a truckload of gear, took a couple of hours. Taking apart the Circle and arresting the protesters took a bit longer.
A growing crowd of supporters, many of them Humboldt State students, tried out various chants as the police did their work. They eventually settled on "Let them go!" It seemed an odd choice: Those being arrested were engaging in civil disobedience. Putting your body on the line is the whole point.
Each protester reacted differently when pried from the Circle. Starr, the first to be arrested, seemed to go willingly. Others struggled or went limp. Some cried. Hans Ashbaucher went into convulsions as officers prepared to put him in the paddy wagon. An ambulance took him to the hospital.
By 10:45 a.m., 16 protesters had been spirited away along with a supporter who'd broken through the police line. As the officers retreated, the supporters pushed down the barricade that had restrained them and followed them chanting, "Shame on you."
The green area was reclaimed by remaining campers who proclaimed, "We're not going away!"
The protest reconvened on the lawn of Arcata City Hall, with signs demanding the return of "stolen property." They spent the next two nights there, and eventually many got their stuff back. Saturday morning, the campers and supporters disbursed for a time, only to reassemble, first on city fire department land on M Street, then later at the entrance to Redwood Park at Union and 14th streets, where yet another camp was established.
That's where I found them Sunday morning, some still in their sleeping bags, others getting breakfast together. Hans Ashbaucher was taking a bagel from a bicycle cart and spreading it with cream cheese.
"This is our action to show that there are people who are homeless - we're not trying to take over private property," he declared between bites. "We broke down camp at City Hall. That was just to make a statement that they took our things. They were going to allow us to stay there and make spectacles of us. We're made spectacle enough, being homeless, traveling around with everything on our backs." Ashbaucher said he has not yet received his property, specifically his "legally owned" shopping cart.
"We're not finished here," he said. "We would like to have a campground, a free space for travelers, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, a place to stay."
A young man in a hooded jacket with a large patch on the front saying Cop Watch saw the protest as a success that was misreported. "It was an amazing community event with people coming together, that was run really beautifully - but a few people, because of whatever prejudices, played on the stereotypes and fear of drug-addicted, out-of-control people all over. That's so untrue, but that's what gets written up. It's all `according to the police.'"
Kim Starr was still in her sleeping bag. She said she found the arrests unusual in that the police were not specific as to why they were being arrested. "I've never been in a situation where they did not identify what we were doing wrong. They just said, `Are you going to get up?' In forest activism it was always trespass."
My suggestion that it was obvious the protest was going to be busted since it was on city property was met with disagreement bordering on derision.
"Are you familiar with the 9th District Court of Appeals decision, Jones v. Los Angeles?" asked a relatively clean-cut guy calling himself Tom Joad, after the character from Steinbeck's novel of Hoovervilles and resistance, The Grapes of Wrath.
He said being ticketed for sleeping in the city is "a violation of the 8th Amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. That's the situation going on here in Arcata. ... Sure the potential existed and I think everyone there was aware of that, but they did not have to arrest everyone."
Tuesday morning, Captain Tom Marshall said he was "worn out," from the week's actions. He said the police were "as compassionate and considerate as possible under the circumstances."
He was particularly bothered by a People Project press release that said, "...some accounts say [Hans Ashbaucher] may have been stunned with a tazer gun," and that "police made no apparent effort to call an ambulance for the man, protesters themselves called an ambulance."
"As soon as the officer recognized that he was experiencing a medical difficulties they called an ambulance right away," said Marshall. "I heard the broadcast go out." As to allegations that Ashbaucher was tazered, he said, "That's just ridiculous."
Was the protest effective in bringing the issue of homelessness to the public attention? No, said Marshall. "What this put on the front page was people getting arrested and the public health issues. They were arrested because they wanted to get arrested. It wasn't about some cause, some issue greater than themselves. Those are not the people we're dealing with here. Did this help facilitate a community discussion about homelessness? I'm not sure. A lot of the sentiment I'm picking up on is disgust in the manner these people are conducting themselves."
This Tuesday, an e-mail from Squiggy Rubio said the PEOPLE PROJECT Human Rights Encampment would end its 12-day moving protest the next day, Wednesday, May 2, with an afternoon march and rally.