The Right to Disrespect Abusers in Power: A Reminder

I wrote this letter this morning after Vice-Mayor Cynthia Chase attempted to stop me from speaking with my back to the Council during Oral Communications yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t clear to me that she was taking action to arrest me, but seemed like she was threatening to do so. It has to emphasized again that a violation of Council rules, unless it disrupts the meeting, is not a disruption, however much a presiding officer wants to paint it as one. The interruption and threat to the speaker is the disruption. Showing disrespect is not a crime and often a duty.

At issue was the SCPD slaying of Sean Arlt Sunday before last ( ) and their refusal to hand over audio and video as well as the Council’s refusal to take any action.  Mayor Cynthia Mathews reduced time for each speaker to one minute instead of extending Oral Communications time.   I requested Councilmember Micah Posner by phone before hand to move to extend the time, but he remained silent when Mathews asked if any Councilmembers had objection to her “one minutes and then shut up” ruling.

Cynthia Chase, Vice-Mayor
309 Center St.
Santa Cruz, CA


Council’s failure to either agenda-ize or allow at least a three minutes per speaker Oral Communications time last night (and a 5 minute period for groups as has been traditional) provoked a lot of justified anger in the community.

Council has failed to recognize, much less reign in a long out-of-control police department with a lethal use of force policy, a perpetual lack of transparency, and a history of class profiling. This means many have lost their faith that the Council will provide even the semblance of a discussion, much less action, on these issues facing communities confronting abusive behavior by police departments across the country.

I think other speakers (and common sense) has made it clear. Leaving everything to the same department (and its D.A. friends) who OKs 4 armed and armored police shooting a guy “brandishing” a rake 4 times in 20 seconds appears like a corrupt rubberstamping of an out-of-control police department.

Refusing to demand the department show its video/audio to the community seems further evidence of this. And the final straw, of course, is failing to protect the community by requiring Vogel either discipline his officers or be fired.

I’m writing you regarding your attempt to persuade me to face the Council when speaking. I actually wasn’t aware it was you speaking (though I should have been), incidentally. My comments were not intended to be personally insulting, but to attempt to finish my (1 minute only!) public testimony without interruption.

Without intention to insult you, I’d add that this wouldn’t have made any difference. As I’ve told the Council in the past, this is my right and the right of any member of the public which the Council is required to respect (though it seldom does). As the 9th Circuit Court has ruled in an early City Council attempt to arrest me and later avoid responsibility for a civil rights violation–violating a Mayor or a Council’s “rule of procedure” is not a disruption. On the other hand, repeatedly interrupting a speaker at the microphone during Oral Communications so as to materially interfere with their right to speak is.

It was those who repeatedly interrupted my attempt to speak that were creating the disruption. A disruption is something that materially impedes the progress of the meeting. I would go so far to say as shout from the audience while viewed as “disrespectful” are a part of the democratic process–which is often not polite and friendly.

I thought this whole matter was made clear to the Council in the lawsuit that cost the City $200,000 in the mock-Nazi salute case of 2002–which you may be familiar with. Mayors Lane and Mathews have thought better of trying to stifle an obviously First Amendment-protected activity at the microphone during a public comment period.

This is likely to happen again, depending on the behavior of the Council. It’s up to the speaker at the mike, not to the Council or the Council’s presiding officer, how a person makes their commentary. If they choose too be disrespectful, that’s something the no member of the Council has any business moving to repress with force or threats of force.

I’ve had little contact with you other than the brief friendly chat we had when I interviewed you last month outside City Council for Free Radio Santa Cruz. I don’t have much faith in your interest in restoring basic rights to the broader community or the homeless community–based on your track record. But I found you amiable and approachable.

Hence I’m writing to you to explain that my back-to-the-Council presentation was not intended as a personal insult to you. My raised voice was intended to make what I was saying audible because, indeed, as you pointed out, I was turned away from the microphone.

I was addressing my views to the community because the Council clearly intended to do nothing about the Arlt slaying other than leave it in the hands of the agencies who committed what appears to be a rather lethal crime. I encourage you not to take gestures of disrespect to the Council personally, but to regard them as a necessary (if unpleasant for you) part of the cost of being a public official facing an justifiably outraged citizenry.

I would be happy to discuss this matter more fully with you if you wish. I think it’s important for you to understand some of the history here as you are likely to be the next Mayor.

I can appreciate your wanting me to behave in a certain fashion and your asking me to do so. Repeatedly interrupting me so as to interfere with my speaking time, however, is another matter. Obviously, even more seriously, I cannot and will not accept the use of armed force to attempt to suppress free speech at the public microphone during public comment period. Please assure me that you will not do this again and will intervene on behalf of speakers there if other members of the Council attempt to do so.

Feel free to call me if you wish to discuss these matters more fully.