(Published in Greenfuse- June 5, 2017- before the fire in late June, and beating of another elderly houseless resident a few days prior- more on those stories next month)
Pt. 2 Vigilantism in Humboldt County California, a Brief History?
It’s a dreary late night in November, imagine you and your family traveling north of the Willits bypass, you hit an enormous pothole and hear a loud clank, and your RV breaks down as you approach the Southern Humboldt county line. After exhausting all of your savings on exorbitant towing fees, spent touring all of the closed campgrounds in Southern Humboldt, you succumb to getting dropped off at the nearest pullout near Dean Creek “Campground” in Redway to camp out for the night. An hour doesn’t pass before you hear a pounding on the door…“Open up, I am a local volunteer, here on behalf of the Sheriffs Department!”
Accusations, assumptions and threats ensue, including ‘I am going to abduct your young children, you must be druggies, breaking down/traveling/not having more money is child abuse,’ These violent threats go on for over a month, even though you have calmly explained that you ‘acquired work the day after breaking down here, to fix the situation.’ Regardless of your attempts, both sheriffs’ deputies, local vigilantes, traumatize your family almost daily as you work out how you are going to move your traveling home to a safe location.
Undoubtedly you’d be left questioning, wait are these my public servants? Giving authority to vigilantes to working on their behalf to harass my family, all while they are not only not offering alternative options, but there are none- How is this lawful?
I began covering violations of human rights abuses in Southern Humboldt late September 2016, following many reports of ongoing violence against poor people, as well as expropriation of common gathering spaces and life saving property. This families’ story is not a rare occurrence, but echoed in hundreds of testimony obtained just like it.
Since the generation long war on drugs began (or War against People-as many call it), Southern Humboldt has seen greater community support and number of vigilante forces, who for better or worse, move to take their idea of law into their own hands. A predictable phenomenon, after all, who needs law when you’re trying to live outside of it?
A Vigilante is “A civilian or organization acting in a law enforcement capacity (or in the pursuit of self-perceived justice) without legal authority. “Vigilante justice” is often rationalized by the concept that proper legal forms of criminal punishment are nonexistent, insufficient, or inefficient. Vigilantes normally see the government as ineffective in enforcing the law; such individuals often claim to justify their actions as a fulfillment of the wishes of the community…Vigilante conduct involves certain degrees of violence. Vigilantes could assault targets verbally and/or physically, damage and/or vandalize property, or even kill individuals.”
Today, one of the largest vigilante groups in Southern Humboldt is the “Locals on Patrol,” aka LOPs, or Southern Humboldt Locals on Patrol, as they like to be called since late 2016. The SHLOPs have undergone numerous identity changes- some members born of similar-themed groups such as; “No Bums in So. Hum” and “Saving So Hum,” and many more.
I will never forget that first jaw dropping moment when I encountered the green-vested, self-appointed police-like group, patrolling on our communities behalf, laying out demands on tourists, workers, and the poor, in a manner that indicated they had some kind of authority over public discourse; the misinformation in action, the unconstitutionality, the total inhumanity.
What Our Children Teach Us
According to Federal Law economic refugees are not considered a “protected class” (as children, women, minorities, handicapped, LGBTQ etc.) so crimes based on status bias, are currently not considered hate crimes yet in California (RIP Assembly Bill 5 2012-2014, and SB 608 2015-2016). However, many states have effectively introducing legislation to protect homeless from hate crimes including; Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, Colorado, and Florida. A report by the National Coalition for the Homeless compiled for the FBI defines hate crimes as: “A criminal offense committed against a person, property or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias.”
The National Coalition for the Homelessness has broken hate crimes against homeless into 3 categories and state, “Most hate crimes/violent acts are committed not by organized hate groups, but by individual citizens who harbor a strong resentment against a certain group of people. Some are “mission offenders,” who believe they are on a mission to cleanse the world of a particular evil. Others are “scapegoat offenders,” who violently act out their resentment toward the perceived growing power of a particular group. Others are “thrill seekers,” those who take advantage of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group in order to satisfy their own pleasures. Thrill seekers, primarily in their teens, are the most common perpetrators of violence against people who are homeless. Seventy-two percent of hate crimes/violence against homeless persons in 2010 were committed by perpetrators under the age of thirty, and alarmingly, nearly fifty percent were under the age of twenty.”
Local early-twenty-something Zachary Brown received 2 years probation and a small fine for nearly killing a homeless man. http://kymkemp.com/2017/01/29/two-of-sohums-most-wanted-arrested/
As we saw in the late 1800s, the propaganda and political negligence of the day inspired expulsion, and an influx of violence against the various “ruffians” of the day, themselves victim of the major depressions. Similarly today, as the economy collapses on those who can least bear the weight, while industrial circumstances grow unstable, housing non-existent and economic inequality extreme; people look for someone to blame. The displaced blame turns to hate and an increase in hate crimes, which can be seen in the influx in violent crimes. There is little doubt the scene is intense; but it’s time we cease being shocked by the trash, needles, alcohol, addiction, poverty, crime and the like- this is the direct output of the system we are using and the policies in place. According to the experts this is predictable behavior for regions with vast economic inequality, as we have experienced in Humboldt for hundreds of years.
Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham- co author of ‘The Spirit Level’, has studied the social effects of income inequality and how it has affected human health, for decades. Wilkinson lays out statistical evidence that, “Among developed countries, societies that are more equal – with a smaller income gap between rich and poor — are happier and healthier than societies with greater disparities in wealth distribution… Well-being bears no relation to per capita income.” Wilkinson demonstrates the adverse effects on all levels of society, from mental health, crime, obesity, and teen pregnancy, to levels of violence and addiction, even life expectancy are affected by the psycho-social stress caused by this economic paradigm fueling inequality.
Interestingly, our county administrators define and anticipate variations of homelessness rather eloquently in their Housing Element. The stated goal is, “Sufficient and affordable housing opportunities for seniors, disabled persons, homeless, nomadic, single-parent households, farm workers, and large families,” they lay out their definition of nomadic lifestyles, in three categories:
Economic refugees: homeless campers who choose camping as an alternative to staying in a shelter during a transition period. These campers typically have been confronted with an economic hardship that resulted in the loss of shelter.
Separatists: Are homeless campers who choose to camp because of the privacy and isolation of the forest environment. They may experience mental illnesses that make crowded areas and social situations especially undesirable. They may also be distrustful of agencies and staff or the US government as a whole.
Voluntary Nomads: are homeless campers who move between camping sites as a part of a transient lifestyle that involves traveling. They are not seeking to transition from long-term camping into a homed environment.
Sounds great! In action however, it is a contrasted scene as Cal Trans, government and law enforcement agencies, criminalize, exterminate and entirely inhibit progress in the accommodation for nomadic lifestyles.
Recently revealed internal government e-mails documented by local journalist Linda Stansberry in Part 2 of her exposé, titled “Swept” shows us a contrasted non-solution-based sentiment is shared throughout the county. Sgt. Mike Guy, Eureka Police Department’s homeless officer wrote to the city’s Parks and Recreation director Miles Slattery saying, “So just between you and me, these people get free food, free medical, free dental, free vision, free vet care … and now free garbage pick up?! WTF!“ Slattery replied that he “couldn’t agree more,” adding he hoped “the disruption would separate the truly destitute from the entitled. The liability stuff to me is irrelevant … I think we need to inconvenience them as much as possible. If we have a weekly presence … some of the ‘I think it’s hip to be homeless’ inbreeds will stick to couch hopping or move on.” WTF is my sentiment exactly. It is offensive to our community’s intelligence that someone so totally unaware, would be in charge of something so critical to those the very lives of those they are paid to “serve”.
When Sheriff Looks the Other Way; Deputies and Vigilantes Will Play
It became very clear based on hundreds of testimonies obtained that “educating people about lack of services,” translated in the field to unlawfully evict of people from public and private land on using the authority bestowed on the SHLOPs by Sheriffs Deputies. What I found most inhumane is that most houseless locals do not have any other options, as they, work in town with no access to viable camping or public transportation. This disproportionately impacts the disabled, veterans, families, workers, tourists, and mentally imbalanced who tend to camp closer to town for ease of obtaining basic resources, you know, to survive.
I spoke with one local establishment which has over 50% homeless employees, another upwards of 60%, who make due camping nearby, and in their cars, but have to deal with the SHLOPs and Deputies harassment on a regular basis. No camper I spoke with has ever been offered alternative options from deputies and vigilantes.
The only campground that is open on Shlops flier is Richardson Grove, which allows for a one week stay maximum and costs upwards of $40 per night, which if it were possible to stay longterm equates to over $1200 per month, which is approximately what one person makes on minimum wage in town.
Jennifer, a young woman without a home, who grew up in Southern Humboldt, and works as a local dishwasher, is one of many who shared stories of vigilante violence with the community and Human Rights Commissioners in the February meeting,
“Untrained un-investigated people are looked at as having authority over the citizenry, although they have no true authority. They seem to believe that they are somehow in charge of things to the point they can take peoples personal property, confiscate it, throw it away or keep what they want for themselves, with no consequences. In reality they are nothing more than common thieves who have a superiority complex, who decide who can be where, deciding for people what among their property is worth keeping, and destroying and sense of hope and security, by taking any sense of safety they have, and all while claiming to help, using words like community service, volunteer, to justify their actions, the actions of common thieves.”
Jennifer continued to explain that the SHLOPs are carrying firearms, while “homeless are being made scapegoats,” there is a “slanted news media,” a “Climate of hatred and fear which is getting much worse,” and she felt there are two sets of justice- for those who own property and those who do not. Adding she suffered from the housing crisis for years, hotels were substandard housing that cost many people upwards of 3k a month, and the shelter did not serve her needs (approximately 1% of the Houseless in So Hum. Used the temporary shelter last winter-the location of the fire late June 2017) and of course “there is a total lack of services in So Hum.”
During Downey’s tenure as Sheriff, Deputies in the field authorized the SHLOPs authority to post “No Trespassing” notices on the Sheriff’s behalf on MANY occasions. This was documented by the Stevens family Dec. 2016, and can be seen on youtube (“brokedown caravan”). Stevens asks a So Hum Deputy, “So the locals on patrol have the authority to post notices with deputies logo and Sheriff Mike Downey’s name on it, with or without you present,” The Deputy replied, “Yes that is accurate they [SHLOPSs] can post no trespassing signs, authorized by the sheriff on our plastic placers, yes.” In Nov. 2016 I asked recently (May 2017) retired Sheriff Mike Downey about the continued harassment and notices left by the SHLOPs, he claimed, “They (SHLOPs) are not putting the notices up, those are my deputy sheriffs doing that, they [SHLOPs] don’t have the authority to put those up, if I find out that they are I’ll deal with that, they have no authority to put those up.” This statement contradicted all testimony on the ground.
(One man traveling with his family on a tourist visa pictured with the notices he received from the Shlops without Deputies present)
Well there’s a new Sheriff in town and his deputy, Lieutenant Fridley shared his interpretation of the law with Greenfuse contributor John Hardin, stating:
“A citizen cannot go into someone’s camp, slash their tent and take their stuff, that is vandalism, theft. Weather you are trespassing or not that’s still your property and you have a right to not have your property destroyed. That would be something I would be extremely concerned about if one of my guys did that, they’d be in some hot water.” There is still no acknowledgment or sign of prosecuting those who continue to threaten the lives of tourists and workers in our community.
What is “The Issue” to You?
The people living on the streets do not have the privilege of denying the actual issue; they experience it every day. Yet the definition of “the issue” is the root of where government officials, housed members and Human Rights activists of So Hum appear split (and communities’ globally).
One active group sees “the bums, poor, addicts, tourists, homeless, veterans, survivors, families, workers, growers” as the problem individually. With a comparable sentiment to Trumps, desiring to exclude “the bad guys” in order to “Make Humboldt great again!” The ills of society in which we all participate, are cast at the scapegoat of our day “the uncivilized,” leaving one to justify a starvation of basic services and the many adverse effects of this ignorance. The only solution I can see to this narrative is expulsion, inhumanity that we see happening worldwide today, and ultimately extermination.
Another perspective in our community is one of broader and historical awareness, an acknowledgment of larger economic and political circumstances, which continue to cause the oppression of entire segments of the population, systematically disenfranchised by a system, not inherently evil, in-and-of themselves. This group posses a strong sense of compassion for victims, refuses to be silenced speaking on their behalf, and organizes around solutions. The issue is not a matter of convenience for them, but a matter of life and death. They are often cast aside and ignored by government.
We will never resolve the actual issue in a lasting way if our perspective lens is too narrow. The scapegoating of homeless, the belief that it is 100% a choice, a sign of laziness, criminality, drug addiction or other maladaptive behavior, parallels that of scapegoating addicts. Scapegoating allows for some to deny history, ignore all facts on the ground, the frailty of the economy, industry, and their own security based on other’s insecurity.
(One of the leading Redway Shlopers describes her interpretation of why people are homeless and/or addicted)
As the reference to the Housing Element shows not all homeless people can be identified as something as simple as “addicts,” “criminals,” or immigrants to be eradicated, as is commonly propagated by Governments and their vigilante forces throughout time, but this is no doubt the “groupthink” of our day. World Renowned Author, Dr. Gabor Maté, specialist in neurology, psychiatry, psychology, and addiction explains,
“The expression the scapegoat is very specific. The term in the Bible means a goat on whom the community symbolically imposed all its sins and then chases it into the desert…we scapegoat them and think that way we are getting rid of our own sins… first of all recognize that these people are traumatized and what they need is not more trauma and punishment but more compassion.”
Sure, some houseless residents are struggling with addiction, or mental illness, and/or disabilities exacerbated by being houseless, if you were in their shoes statistically you would be too. Southern Humboldt County’s homeless population is over 35 times the national average; that is roughly 10-20% of our Redway/Garberville community who are struggling with homelessness (2015 PIT/current data is inaccurate). County wide we rank about 4 times higher than the nation, of which; 13.4% are veterans, 33% have addiction issues, 30.7% mental health, 47.9% a disability, 17.7% are elderly, 37.4% are victim of domestic violence, upwards of 1,000 children, and 1,000 college students. In what circumstance is victimizing victims appropriate? Modern psychology tells us a common way for a victim of abuse to escape his or her own victimization, is to become the abuser. Maybe it is time to end the cycle of abuse.
People are being made sick by the economic and social construct, no one is inherently “evil,” but rather “bad behavior” is but a product of the systems we use to organize society. British journalist Johann Hari says:
“Everything, You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong, it is not a choice made about the pleasurable effects of substances; it’s about the user’s inability to connect in healthy ways with other human beings. Addiction is not a substance disorder, it’s a social disorder.”
Similarly the solution to homelessness in not exclusion and criminalization, but housing, basic needs being met, and healthy social connection. So if we aspire to cause addiction, crimes, environmental, social and emotional degradation, the conditions in Southern Humboldt are ideal for encouraging these behaviors.
I am genuinely terrified for my friends on the streets. With no humane solutions proposed or intended, no government support or effective action, and ongoing human rights violations, the scene in So Hum has grown exponentially worse. Cannabis akin to the mining and logging industry of yesteryear brings tourists and workers in every year for much needed work, which exists in Humboldt unlike many other places on the planet today. These workers are greeted with lies, hate speech, violence, vigilante groups, and nowhere to find sanctuary. The housing crisis remains an ongoing emergency causing a rise in crime and addiction; all while deputies and vigilantes inflict more violence against those who are already suffering. For some “safety” is more “no parking” signs in town, because those work so well the many times they have been tried.
Even given the sometimes violent, destructive and extreme damage done to human lives, no one can wholly blame these volunteer vigilantes for their ignorance to the causes of crime, homelessness, the law, addiction etc., as they are untrained and uneducated. The issue, which should have citizens protesting in the streets, is the harsh uneducated opinions of public officials, who shape public policy. As well as the illegality of actions in So Hum sanctioned by Sheriff’s Deputies, and 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennel, who aided in the suppression of Human Rights abuse evidence lost in the “black hole” known as the status quo maintaining, Human Rights Commission. (Story link) And still, the root of the issue goes even deeper than political corruption, and collusion as Government is merely caught in a web of market induced contradictions, while their chickens return to roost. It is after all impossible to maintain a budget and insure the needs of the people are met simultaneously as the two concepts directly contradict.
Photo: (Top left) Estelle Fennel and her team planning to evict campers in Sept 2016, (Top right) One of the many ineffective signs left by government and affiliates, which someone used as a restroom in the absence of a public bathroom in the area, and (bottom) the church which was burnt down. The bars were an upgrade which was intended to inhibit the sanctuary for houseless folks, which caused a delay in firefighting efforts- more info here and in next months issue of Greenfuse.
Counsel member Linda Ciarabelli said to Eureka Chief of Police, “The city has no resources to solve homelessness and we never will.” How much does it cost the county in hospital fees, jail, police, etc. to criminalize the poor for being poor? I know what it costs victims; one local Southern Humboldt man has been cited so many times he now has warrants for camping, owing thousands of dollars he may never have, fundamentally for generations of government negligence. (Image below:one of many “no trespassing” tickets the man un-crumpled from his one functional pocket)
Government negligence and Government support of vigilante activities many feel cost another man his life February 25, 2017, after his camp was thrashed and burnt out by vigilantes (pictured below) February 22, 2017, forcing him to move under an overpass…
… under that 3 ft tall cutout under the overpass, Cal Trans left him this notice to vacate on Feb 23 2017, where he was hit by a car 2 days prior to his eviction date.
Prior to his death the man’s partner laid out her experiences with local vigilantes to the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission, which was ignored her over 5 months prior and still to this day. She states,
“Never saw these guys previously who came to my camp. .. Three men, one didn’t speak, they just began throwing my things away, the other two were verbally abusive. The most aggressive has been identified as Josh Sweet. Telling me that I was a junkie and don’t belong there and to go to eureka and if I appeared again I would go to jail. I asked him if a cop was involved. He said ” the cops sent them there.” I asked where are they? He responded “shut up and get your shit out of here right now.” They had no identification offered that showed what their threats were based on.
I said what about my fellow camper that is pregnant and myself- you are not going to give us ten minutes? I argued with them about their conduct, that the area was clean. What was the big picture here, what were they offering us as aalternative? He said we were “junkies with no job and there’s no place for us.” During the confrontation they continued to escalate the rhetoric to the point of my feeling that violence was a possibility; just the way they threw our possessions around was like a violent threat. They never asked me if I was local, or working, when in fact I was born in southern Humboldt and have worked to support myself. He replied “how could a junkie like you work and have a place.” He ignored the fact that I had no tracks on my arms. But finally me and my pregnant friend were given 10 minutes. I asked them to stop badgering us while I was picking up my property but they wouldn’t stop, telling me and my pregnant friend that being homeless was abusing the child.(she gave birth 2 days later) Then all the stuff got moved close to the road, not near the camp while meanwhile they kept throwing things away and I would have to pluck off the garbage pile. They promised-all three of them -they wouldn’t touch my stuff.i went to go get a vehicle to pick my stuff up. When I got back everything I owned was gone, and so were they.
My phone was dead so I couldn’t make a record of their abuse. The trio brought no camera to document their activities, unlike the procedure claimed as normal for the local “patrol”.” -According to one young Anonymous woman, born and raised in Southern Humboldt.
No one is asking for anything but to be left alone. That should be free.