September 9, 2013
by Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs
Eleven people in Santa Cruz were charged with felonies after being accused of the temporary “occupation” in November 2011 of an abandoned bank building at 75 River Street that was owned by Wells Fargo. District Attorney Rebekah Young targeted eleven local community organizers with trespass and vandalism charges. The perfect political target in a city where banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America had illegally foreclosed on families forcing them on to the streets where it is illegal to sleep outside and must risk arrest just for living in
their own community.
The case of the Santa Cruz Eleven comes during an important time when millions of people are taking action against the corrupt economic system. The real criminals are those who designed and implemented the policies that have ruined families and caused the suffering of so many. Wells Fargo executives Donald James, John Stumf and the other board members should be held at the county jail waiting trial for grand theft. In my June 2013 visit to Santa Cruz several people told me how the banks and government officials robbed them of their homes taking all they had after working hard their entire lives.
In March 2011 people organized a protest outside the Watsonville Branch of Wells Fargo in Santa Cruz County. They were outraged that the bank had taken the homes of so many people in the community. Lauro Navarro came to the protest because the banks had just evicted him and his family from a home he had built with his own hands. Mayor Daniel Dodge of Watsonville attended the protest saying that “This is a real crisis that hits home.” He also told the media that more than 8,000 homes locally had been affected since 2008 worth $4 billion and a loss of $26 million in property taxes. Nearly 200 teachers had to be let go as a result.
The stress of foreclosure can be too much for some. Newbury Park resident Norman Rousseau was preparing to move his family into an RV in May 2012 when e shot himself to death distressed from a year long struggle with Wells Fargo. The bank had claimed Rousseau had not made his May 2009 mortgage payment using this to justify the taking of his home but during the law suit the bank admitted there had been a mix up. “Our thoughts are with
the friends and family of Mr. Rousseau at this difficult time. The eviction has been postponed and we will continue to work with Mrs. Rousseau,” a Wells Fargo spokesperson told the Huffington Post in an email. “Despite current reports, we tried repeatedly to find affordable options for the family.”
Evidence that the banks systematically robbed thousands of families of their homes and saving. In a federal lawsuit in Massachusetts Bank of America employees have come forward to describe how they intentionally mislead homeowners using the Home Affordable Modification Program to take their homes. I have heard the story over and over from people eating with Food Not Bombs. They were told to qualify for a mortgage modification that they
had to stop making payment for two or three months using the default to justify foreclosure. “Bank of America’s practice is to string homeowners along with no apparent intention of providing the permanent loan modifications it promises,” said Erika Brown, one of the former employees. The damning evidence would spur a series of criminal investigations of B of A executives, if we still had a rule of law in this country for Wall Street banks.”
The Santa Cruz Eleven are understandably worried about having to spend time in prison if convicted and considering the evidence of a major nationally coordinated effort to permanently silence the movement this is a realistic concern. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund recovered nearly 200 pages of FBI and Homeland Security internal memos that
showed that the authorities believed that Occupy could become a threat to corporate power so much that there was even a plan to use suppressed sniper rifles to kill the leadership if necessary.
So what is the most effective way defend activists like the eleven facing prison in Santa Cruz? The first thought, of course, is hire lawyers and formulate a legal defense but that might NOT be enough under the currant atmosphere. I say this from experience having faced 25 to life in prison for my work with Food Not Bombs in San Francisco. I had the best attorneys but the pressure to silence me was larger than the fact that all the evidence made it clear I had never
participated in any of the crimes I had been accused of. The only thing that keep me out of prison was political organizing.
The business and political leaders pulled out all the stops in an effort to make sure that the public would not be moved to support the idea that food should have a priority over bombs. The law was manipulated, a permit process was invented to justify an end to our effort to change public opinion. The corporate media and most local political leaders
sided with the campaign to drive Food Not Bombs out of sight. When injunctions, arrests, beatings and infiltration failed to work the authorities framed the “leader” of the movement making me out to be a violent irrational terrorist attacking city officials and stealing beepers and milk crates in my crazed attempt to redirect military spending towards social services
like education and healthcare.
Our legal defense was nearly impossible since those that organized my “crimes’ controlled the evidence, media and the legal system. On the other hand we had the truth on our side which we did all we could share. That truth was that our society is broken and that is easy to see when hundreds of people line up twice a day to eat with Food Not Bombs outside City Hall in San Francisco while billions are spent on the military to fight wars for oil, profits and power.
We video tapped nearly every arrest of our volunteers for providing vegan meals and free literature to the public. We filmed hungry families horrified and distressed as they watched the police drag their meals away to the trash. One by one volunteers would be smashed into the sidewalk for sharing bagels or tossed salad. The images told the ugly truth of an America that
would rather let its people starve then threaten the profits of the military industrial complex.
So our focus moved from the courts to the streets and offices of influential human rights groups. We organized a letter writing campaign providing flyers at every meal asking for support. The flyers included a request to write President Clinton’s Justice Department Civil Rights Division, Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Commission seeking an investigation into our case. Each organizations’s address was included on the flyer. We also provided internal government and police memos, photos, affidavits and our video of our arrests to the organizations listed on our flyer and delivered additional copies to the offices of foreign governments at the United Nations. We also provided copies to the American
Civil Liberties Union and other local allies and activist groups and asked them to ask for an investigation.
While we had our campaign to gain the support of human rights organizations and activist groups we also organized on the streets. Central to the campaign was the sharing of our meals and literature twice every day to show we would not give up. Before each meal we determined who would be willing to risk arrest. We divided the food into three parts and two or three volunteers would share the first smaller portion until they were arrested.
As soon as they were hustled off to the police station a couple more volunteers would arrive and share some more food until they were arrested. After the police took them away we would bring out enough food to provide for everyone. The police rarely stopped us the third time. We also organized a campaign called “Risk Arrest One Day a Month with Food Not Bombs” and community groups, unions and religious organizations would share our food and go to jail.
The other strategy was to provide food outside the court house before each court appearance. This too could result in a number of arrests but it also had the impact of discrediting the legal system before people who themselves had been dragged into the system.
Our campaign was dedicated to nonviolent resistance even if at time people would yell at the police during the arrests. Amazingly our persistence slowly won over the rank and file police who started to object to their participation in efforts to stop us.
Our effort to reach President Clinton worked. His office claimed to have reviewed our information and video deciding that city officials were acting lawfully in there brutal campaign to shut down our protest. They would take no action to stop the violence. We shared copies of Clinton’s letter to Amnesty International and the United Nations. This was the final straw and they both announce support for Food Not Bombs.
Amnesty International announced that they would declare our volunteers “Prisoners of Conscience” and work for our unconditional release if convicted and made a public statement of condemnation of the United States on the floor of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Switzerland.
Finally one day when my “Three Strikes” trial was about to start the local media turned on the mayor and city officials. The power structure cut their loses. The arrests in San Francisco did stop and I settled my case being sentenced to credit of 500 days served and a year probation. Maybe not a total victory but a lot better than doing 25 years in prison and the campaign helped encourage the start of Food Not Bombs groups in a few hundred cities.
The global wave of protests during the summer of 2013 provide many lessons. Social change takes time. The people of Egypt mobilized to drive out the dictator Mubarak only to replace his authoritarian rule with a new dictator. Just as happened after the Berlin Wall fell global financial institutions and Western governments rushed in to fill the power vacuum. Those risking their lives to bring about change were not prepared to replace the dictatorial system with one that represents the interests of the majority.
The increase in hunger and poverty in Egypt was predictable. Morsi quickly became an ally of the United States and other powerful nations agreeing to provide access to the global financial institutions and transnational corporate interests while ignoring the needs of his people. It will take more than the ousting of a dictator to bring about the change required to provide food, healthcare and education. Those of us seeking to bring democracy and economic security to the United States must build an alternate system ready to replace the failing political and economic system.
The struggle of the Santa Cruz Eleven provides a good example of how we can address the growing austerity crisis. While waging an aggressive legal defense is important it may be a more effective defense to build a movement against the real criminals at Wells Fargo like Donald James, John Stumf and the other board members. The authorities were fearful of the occupations organizing a campaign to claim we did not have a coherent message and that we had failed.
However the details revealed in the internal FBI and Homeland Security documents recovered by The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, the criminal case against the Cleveland Five and the Dissent-or-Terror files obtained by DBA Press and the Center for Media and Democracy show that the Obama administration and corporate leaders were worried that the occupations were a real threat to the economic and political system.
Wells Fargo’s coordination with the FBI, Homeland Security and other financial institutions to silence Occupy is another aspect of the criminal conspiracy of the economic elite. Those responsible for destroying the economic security of millions remain free and continue to force families out of their homes, implement policies that criminalize those driven into poverty and clearly have no limits to their own crimes against society.