Where is the outrage over activist prosecution?

Dennis A. Etler: Opinion

SC Sentinel:   08/19/2012

Over the years Santa Cruz has seen various protest movements ebb and flow through its streets and back alleys. Many local residents are open-minded and supportive of these protests, though the majority seldom participates. When the Occupy Wall Street movement began to spread throughout the country, it resonated with many who were motivated to act by the vast social and economic inequalities and injustices that have come to characterize our country. At its height, Occupy Santa Cruz attracted hundreds of demonstrators from all works of life, all age groups and a diversity of communities.

The encampment at the Benchlands in San Lorenzo Park adjacent to the county building was a dramatic symbol of popular resistance to the fleecing of America by the 1 percent. It was also a dramatic example of community self-help for homeless people who had and still have no shelter.

After some time, in Santa Cruz as throughout the country, local authorities grew apprehensive and angry at Occupy Santa Cruz. The city and county used permit demands, court injunctions, selective arrests, anti-lodging laws and established a new nighttime curfew zone around the courthouse to thwart the protest. Finally, squads of police moved to disperse several hundred homeless people and destroy their property. Elsewhere Occupiers were hit with pepper spray and mass arrests. Here the court system is being used as a club wielded against longtime activists.

Last year at the height of the Occupy protests nationwide, an autonomous group in Santa Cruz occupied a vacant bank building at 75 River St. leased by Wells Fargo. Many local residents, including mainstream and independent media, community leaders and concerned citizens, as well as young, free-spirited revelers, entered the building to support and observe. After 72 hours and a police request that the building be vacated, the protesters left with minimal property damage, no personal injuries, no citations and no arrests.

I was therefore flabbergasted when months later District Attorney Bob Lee initiated criminal proceedings against 11 community activists. He charged then with felony conspiracy to vandalize and trespass. The only evidence as revealed by six preliminary hearings was that they were in the building with dozens if not hundreds of others. A Sentinel reporter, a city councilwoman, and several other more conservative reporters, known to the police with 300 others also in the building were ignored.

Selectively targeting protesters months later for nonviolent protest is a terrifying new tactic. Lee claims he just wants the 11 to pay $25,000 in compensation to Wells Fargo for undocumented graffiti. Yet the cost of courts, bailiffs, deputy DAs, public defenders, etc. runs to many times this amount. This month Lee is asking for more prosecution money.

The Santa Cruz 11 do not deserve to be prosecuted. Local authorities are attempting to bully and intimidate those who have the temerity to challenge a system which dehumanizes and oppresses the dispossessed and most disadvantaged amongst us. Meanwhile the real felons — the banks — continue their abusive foreclosure practices with obscene government handouts. Those who expose them are on a six-month courtroom treadmill and face a possible seven years in prison, while real crimes go unprosecuted.

I ask District Attorney Lee, have you no shame? And I ask the people of Santa Cruz, where is the outrage?

Dennis A. Etler, an instructor in the Cabrillo College anthropology department, lives in Boulder Creek.