In the July edition of the Eureka City Newsletter, City Manager Greg Sparks discussed the outcome of the city's annual strategic planning session. Among the positive accomplishments documented in the session were grants for trails and parks, community forums, financial planning and community events. Among the setbacks were syringe litter, "negative public narrative on some issues" and "social media harassment issues." These last three issues appear to be interrelated as many public figures, including elected officials, report an escalation in both online and in-person harassment as the debate over harm reduction and homelessness grows louder and more polarized.
"I've dealt with pretty extreme harassment," says Councilmember Natalie Arroyo, one of six people who responded to an exploratory email the Journal sent to council members, city employees and public figures after Sparks' letter. Arroyo declined to detail the exact nature of some of the offline occurrences, only describing it as "extreme harassment at home and in the community."
Online, Arroyo has ceased posting anything on her public Facebook profile that could stir controversy, sticking to information about community events. There was a time before she changed her approach to the medium last year when she couldn't log on without seeing her name tagged in connection to an insult, with a small but vocal group of people accusing her of enabling drug addiction and homelessness, and "ruining Eureka."
"Mostly on Facebook it's a deluge of expletives," she says. "I'm willing to talk with, and meet with, anyone. But there's not a lot to do with this kind of discourse. I don't spend as much time talking with constituents online because of harassment I and others have experienced."
Arroyo adds that constituents have reached out to her for help with online harassment, or to complain about some Eureka-based Facebook groups that seem to attract residents heaping out abuse, posting pictures of homeless people and piling onto comment threads that advocate "eradicating junkies like pests." But she and others have few options to offer. There is little law enforcement can do to regulate online speech, which in most cases is protected under the First Amendment. In some instances the harassment has ramped up to "doxxing," or releasing personal details like addresses and phone numbers. Brandie Wilson, the executive director of the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, says that she no longer feels comfortable going to some businesses or restaurants because of the narrative around her organization, which provides clean needles, counseling and referrals to clients using intravenous drugs. HACHR has become a third rail for public discourse online, with many people claiming its operations have led to an epidemic of syringe litter.
"I didn't know I was going to become the most hated woman in this community," Wilson says. On June 6 she claims to have received a call telling her that if she doesn't stop "giving out needles to the fucking junkies" she's "going to end up dead." She emailed Chief Steve Watson, who referred her to the Eureka Police Department's main line to report the threat. She also claims that two men who are active on the Facebook groups Take Back Eureka and Eureka Ground Zero came to HACHR's office, knocking loudly on the locked door and demanding she "send the junkies out." Wilson's car has been keyed outside of city hall. She sometimes fears for her safety during the heated meetings.
Asked for comment about Wilson's reports of harassment, Eureka Police Capt. Patrick O'Neill wrote in an email that the department could not comment on open cases, but they were aware of the comments made online and in-person and were "looking into them." O'Neill added that the department often provided extra personnel for high-profile council meetings "for the purpose of assuring that the meeting goes smoothly, order is maintained and all persons' rights are respected."
Wilson says she feels unsupported by the council. Public comment at some meetings has contained language she considers inflammatory and threatening. Despite the rule that people aren't supposed to clap, cheer or jeer, they often do. But Wilson remains optimistic about HACHR's future, saying that the organization's two year report, due for presentation at the city council as the Journal went to press July 17, demonstrates the efficacy of its harm reduction efforts and the relatively high return rates of syringes.
Council members such as Kim Bergel, representing the Third Ward, are receiving criticism from both sides of the harm reduction debate. Bergel, who took office in 2014, has been subjected to harassment on and offline since the beginning of her career. Her proactive role in working with homeless people (Bergel's ward includes the PalCo Marsh, where there was once a 300-strong encampment of homeless people) has made her a target of online trolls. One man, she says, stalked her extensively on Facebook, tagging her in pictures, talking about her in groups. On a picture of Bergel wearing a gold dress during the Rhododendron Parade, he wrote, "How embarrassing!" He constantly texted Bergel pictures of homeless people, saying, "You need to deal with these people." When Bergel filmed a student walkout in April he called the school to complain. He then spread a rumor online that Bergel wasn't allowed to be on school property (she works there). When Bergel blocked him from her Facebook page, he contacted local media claiming she had violated his constitutional right to free speech.
Bergel says that she is thick-skinned and can handle personal critiques, but has concerns about exposing her family to harassment. One person criticized her decision to get braces, saying she should have fixed her son's teeth first. A regular at city council meetings commented on a photo of her and her kids, saying, "Don't do drugs, kiddies." Bergel found it creepy and blocked him. Other Facebook users have commented on her breasts, saying she needs to "put them away." Before Bergel blocked the worst offenders, she says the abuse was "almost daily." She remains willing to dialogue with people who disagree with her but, like Arroyo, says there is little room to grow with the current tenor of conversation. In the past she's asked people who had rude comments to meet for coffee and find common ground, but some people aren't interested in that and some accounts are under fake names.
"I've really worked hard to meet with people," she says. "I say, 'Let's talk about it. You hate me? Tell me to my face.'"
While people aren't always willing to meet with Bergel and discuss commonalities, some of the abuse has spilled over from online into real life. During a recent interview with another news outlet, a frequent online troll and public comment attendee screamed at Bergel from across the street, accusing her of ruining the city. Someone also left a needle on the ground in front of her vehicle. It could have been a coincidence, but in the current climate nothing feels like a coincidence, she says.
Sofia Pereira, mayor of Arcata and director of programs and impact for She Should Run, an organization devoted to increasing the amount of women in public leadership, says the issue does come up for some women who are concerned about running for office.
"I would say I've been fortunate to not experience a level of harassment that I know many other women and politicians experience," she says, adding that she tries to keep her private life very private and that most of the blowback she's gotten in public office occurs via email.
When the debate over Arcata's McKinley statue made it on to Fox News, Pereira woke up to a "barrage of emails" criticizing her vote to remove the statue. She Should Run does its best to prepare candidates for the realities of online trolling and creating a good balance between being accessible and being a target.
"Every situation is going to be different and how a woman candidate is going to set boundaries is going to be individual to a person and their circumstances," she says. She adds that while in-person harassment is an issue, online harassment seems to be more common because it offers an anonymous forum.
While there does seem to be a gendered aspect to much harassment, with female politicians fielding comments about their breasts and families, Eureka Councilmember Austin Allison has experienced abuse as well. During a recent controversy over a public art project, a woman took his picture as he enjoyed a date night with his girlfriend, posting it online and claiming that Allison was insulting a constituent. (Allison insists that he wasn't, and that the photo was taken across the room in a noisy restaurant without his knowledge.) Commenters piled on, doing amateur sleuthing on his girlfriend and claiming that she hadn't actually attended the university where she got her degree, or that she couldn't actually be very smart. Allison says she laughed it off but he is worried about the impact social media is having on efforts to improve Eureka. As part of the hiring committee for the new Humboldt Bay Fire chief, 28 applicants expressed an interest, but none pursued the position after the initial approach. When committee member asked them why, each one said that they had researched the area using social media and were scared off by the negative narrative about Eureka and public safety, Allison says.
"I think it's kind of ironic that the same people asking us to fix the blight are harming our ability to do so," Austin says.
In response to the escalation in abuse, Allison researched, wrote and read aloud an essay about the impact of social media on public discourse at the June 26 city council meeting, citing studies that link social media to negativity bias. On the day the Journal went to print, Allison sent us a screenshot of an apparent response by a proficient local troll.
"When will Austin grow a pair of balls and brain halves and resign as a Council member due to a lack of balls and brain?" the constituent asked, adding a little further down in the comments, "Birth control for the Bergels."
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.
I don't spend as much time talking with constituents online because of harassment I and others have experienced.
— Natalie Arroyo