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The Big Chill



Back in April 2007, some 3,500 people peaceably gathered in Redwood Park in Arcata to celebrate weed. I wrote about it in this column, noting how amazed I was that in a county of 130,000 the two daily newspapers we had back then skipped the event.

I get high on large, peaceful gatherings. It is one of the things I miss about San Francisco. In the city there's always ginormous gatherings of people for all kinds of reasons: they celebrate this or protest that.

I can't remember the last time there was a really sizeable outdoor gathering here. Even last year's Oyster Fest was a dud after organizers decided to charge money for it.

I'm beginning to think there is a concerted movement among local political leaders and police agencies to quash our social and political outdoor gatherings. And that's a big problem. The right to assemble is one of our most important First Amendment rights.

Consider: In November 2011, Eureka police arrested 32 people when they cleared out a group of protesters, known as Occupy Eureka, that had camped out in front of the county courthouse. Last April, Arcata police closed off Redwood Park to stop the annual afternoon pot party known as 420. And in June, Arcata Main Street charged Oysterfest goers a $10 entry fee to "change the dynamic and energy of the event."

There's an ongoing tree-sit near Strawberry Rock right now, but the last sizeable protest here was a small gathering of people in front of the courthouse in support of businesses vexed by a lawyer suing on behalf of disabled people. And the last "spontaneous" gatherings were "cash mobs" — groups of people who swoop down on a local business all at the same time to spend their money. That's in lieu of flash mobs — instant Twitter-driven protests in countries where announcing a protest ahead of time will result in a faceoff with heavily armed police.

This isn't the same Humboldt County I found when I arrived 10 years ago. I came up here to teach, in part, because of its history of activism. It was here that Julia Butterfly Hill sat up in a tree she called Luna for two years to keep chainsaws at bay. It was here that a group of people continued to link arms in anti-logging protests even after police pepper sprayed them, and where District Attorney Paul Gallegos had the gumption to sue logging company Pacific Lumber Co., the county's largest private employer, for business fraud.

Around the world, people risk their lives gathering in mass demonstrations for, well, the right to assemble. Here we have it but we don't use it. Why?

I think it is because of the small steps our local government leaders and police agencies have taken to reduce, prevent and punish outdoor assemblies because the type of people who tend to assemble aren't the types of people they want hanging out.

But the First Amendment doesn't say that only some people have the right to assemble. It says government "shall make no law... abridging ... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." You can't try to prevent a peaceful gathering of people just because they are unsightly and smell, or because when they leave there will be litter to cleanup.

Two years ago I wrote about an emergency ordinance the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors enacted that made it a misdemeanor to camp out at the courthouse or stick signs on to the courthouse walls or fences. It didn't outlaw protests but it did send a clear message to the citizens of this county: We don't want you in front of the courthouse and we will find reasons to boot you from it.

In April, I expect the Board of Supervisors to reconsider the emergency ordinance at the behest of the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission. Last year, the commission drew up a draft policy statement that says, among other things, "The Humboldt County Courthouse is the seat of county government and is centrally located one block from Eureka City Hall. It is reasonable to expect that members of the public may regularly use the courthouse grounds, and other county-controlled properties, to address their elected officials and the public through public displays, protests or other expressions of free speech. This has historically been the case, usually without incident. Public expressions of free speech are particularly important for those whose resources are limited."

On April 20 people around the county will gather in various places to celebrate marijuana. Typically, the Humboldt State University campus clears out around 3:30 p.m. Redwood Park is a short walk away. If my students gather to smoke dope, I'd prefer they don't drive home. But there's this too: Smoking marijuana these days is a political statement. A gathering of thousands of people to smoke marijuana is a big political statement. You may not agree with that kind of politics. But the First Amendment wasn't written to protect politics you agree with. It was intended to protect politics with which you disagree.

And as for any cleanup needed after such a gathering? Well, that seems to be a perfect use for the money Arcata has raised with its recent utility tax on grow houses.

Let's be clear. I am not calling for people to set up camp outside the courthouse. Nor am I advocating for thousands of people to illegally smoke a controlled substance at 4:20 p.m. on April 20 in a city-owned park. I am saying that we should allow people to advocate for the legality of smoking a substance that the state has declared lawful for medical purposes. The Bill of Rights gave us the right to assemble. The people of Humboldt County need to start asserting that right. And, as our representatives, our local leaders need to protect that right, not work to restrict it.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. At 4:20 p.m. on April 20, you will likely find her tending her grow: romaine, kale, collard greens and chard.

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