A few Saturdays ago, three women joined the merry throng of Farmers' Market hula hoopers and other revelers in the Arcata Plaza and took off their tops. The band was playing. Jugglers were juggling. Produce was tumbling into shoppers' bags and woven baskets. Other than the half-naked hoopers, it was a typical market day.
The topless women picked up their hoops and began to sway rhythmically, conducting intricate maneuvers with their arms in typical hooper fashion. An observer, standing over by People's Records at the time, jaw agape, noticed that several Arcata police officers had taken a keen interest in them. She saw words pass between the women and the cops, and then one of the women flung an arm out to point, it seemed, at a bare-chested man nearby who lounged easily in the grass, soaking up the blessed sun.
The police stepped back and remained in position, one talking on a radio. The women resumed their hoops, still topless.
Were the topless hula hoopers cited? Arrested? Did screaming break out on the plaza, or a stampede?
Of course not. It's Arcata. And, actually, it's California -- where communities can take their own, locally appropriate, approaches to enforcing the section of California law pertaining to "indecent exposure."
"The key component to the code is the word ‘lewd,' " says Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman, over the phone. "For there to be a violation of ‘indecent exposure,' the person who exposes private parts must be doing it in a lewd manner. So, simply being topless wouldn't necessarily violate the section."
But that sounds rather subjective. What is ‘lewd' ? Not simple nudity? "Namely," says Chapman, "it's an act or some behavior that draws attention to the exposed private part for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or affront." That is, the nekked person has to be trying to turn herself or someone else on. And, of course, there has to be a third party around to suffer the effrontery, and the offender has to be aware of that possibility.
So, a person could actually sit naked on a bench in the plaza, then, reading a book?
Chapman sighs at the question and you can almost hear him thinking oh boy, now we're in for it. Yes, he finally says, you could. But he wouldn't recommend it.
"It's not illegal," he says. "Is it respectful of others on the plaza? Not really. It's not something that's necessarily appropriate."
Even though Arcata's got a wilder-than-most reputation, women going topless isn't really all that common. The last time Chapman saw such behavior was 20 years ago. "It was kind of tied in with Redwood Summer, more of that environmentalist movement," he says. "At that time, all of a sudden it started to pop up -- topless women appearing on the plaza on sunny days. And a lot of complaints came in to the police department."
Three people complained this time around, says Chapman.
But yeah, it's legal. In Arcata, for sure. Not all towns interpret the "lewd" factor the same way. Just try naked hooping in Eureka, or Fortuna.
"I would say that somebody out there hula hooping and bouncing their naked breasts around certainly could be considered lewd, especially with families and children around," says Eureka Police Sgt. Steve Watson over his crackly cell phone, sounding a little amazed someone would even have to ask the question. "And we definitely would get complaints."
At the minimum, he says, such women would be warned to go put their tops back on. "And if they refused, delayed or repeated that offense, I would expect that they would be arrested. Each incident is viewed on its own merit. But we would put a stop to that behavior one way or another."
Just recently in Fortuna, some women were walking around topless, taking in the sunshine, at the Hops of Humboldt beer festival in Rohner Park, says Fortuna Police Sgt. Scott Hillman. Nobody was cited or arrested -- it would take some pretty obviously sexual conduct for that to happen, Hillman says. But police officers on duty at the festival did tell the women to put their tops back on. And then, says Hillman, the festival coordinators asked the women to leave. It was a private function; they could do that.
"Different towns have different views on those kinds of things," Hillman says. "We're a pretty quiet, close-knit community down here. We have a lot of older folks that come here to retire ... and they're just not used to that kind of behavior."
It is pretty rare behavior, even in Arcata, as Chapman attests to. Is it going to become a new trend? Will the hoopers be topless every sunny Saturday from now on?
Hard to say. We tried to reach hoopers with the group Chakra Nation, whose members bring their hoop moves out to the Arcata Plaza every Saturday during the market, to see if they knew anything about the topless hoopers. We heard back, once, from a woman named Nicole, who hadn't heard about it but said she'd ask around.
"That is hilarious!!" she wrote. "Sadly, those days are over for me."