by Keith McHenry, primary author of the new Anarchist Cookbook, author of Hungry for Peace, and co-founder of the international Food Not Bombs movement
The government and business leaders of Santa Cruz, California have stepped up their decades-long effort to drive the city’s poor and homeless out of town. The most dramatic assault this year was the June 2015 closing of the Homeless Service Center, which took away showers, meals and a safe place to sleep for hundreds of people who depended on the facility.
At the same time, the city continued its aggressive enforcement of the city’s sleeping ban ordinances. The city council also voted to implement a more aggressive version of the park closing law adding harsher stay-away provisions. The city also installed “mosquito boxes” in areas frequented by the homeless. The boxes cost about $1,500 each, and.according to J.M. Brown of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, they “let out a high frequency sound that is so annoying it causes headaches.”
In response to the closure of the service center, homeless people and their supporters began organizing, starting with a campaign of “Emergency Breakfasts” at the high visibility intersection next to the closed Service Center, followed by weekly sleep-outs at City Hall.
While it was attempting to make life so miserable for homeless people that they’d leave town, the city council also increased restrictions on street artists, many of whom not only make their living preforming or vending on Santa Cruz’s main commercial street, Pacific Avenue, but also relied on the closed service center. These people were trying to make ends meet, to make a meager honest living. The city council decided to make that much harder for them to do. In the fall of 2013, it drastically restricted free assembly by placing 61 performance and free speech “boxes” along Pacific Avenue. Not long after, the city spray painted “blue boxes” on the sidewalk. Security guards and the police enforced the law making people move after one hour, ticketing those outside the blue boxes or whose layouts or performance spaces were too large to fit in the designated spaces.
Pacific Avenue artists have become globally loved performers and visual artists. Among them are Artis the Spoonman, who has played with Frank Zappa and Soundgarden; the Flying Karamazov, Tom Noddy,’s Magic Bubbles, and The Great Morgani. I also painted along the avenue in the 1970s and often paint on Pacific today.
On Tuesday, February 18, 2015 The Great Morgani announced he would no longer perform in downtown Santa Cruz “due to the recent strict enforcement of current ordinances” passed by the Santa Cruz City Council. Six months later the “blue boxes” started to disappear.
Artists would discover that their favorite location had been erased. In August, artists began to resist the elimination of their “free expression” zones by creating their own. According to journalist Bradley Allen, “The action of painting blue boxes comes on the heels of two well-known artists, Joff Jones and Alex Skeleton, being arrested by Santa Cruz Police on August 20 for displaying art in front of [the] Forever 21 [shop] which, as of recently, is not allowed since the boxes there were removed. A few days later on Sunday, the artists defiantly returned to the sidewalk in front of Forever 21 dressed in Colonial attire with displays of their artwork and a painting of the First Amendment. They were not arrested a second time.”
Jeff Jones said:
My art expresses my social, religious, and existential views. My first amendment guarantees me the right to express that in a public space. My friend Alex and I were arrested yesterday for exercising these rights. . . . Stand up for your rights!!!
They arrested me, too. Santa Cruz Police arrested my partner and me during a sleep out at city hall on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, charging us with felony vandalism and conspiracy to commit a crime. Officers said we had spray-painted new blue boxes in 33 locations throughout the downtown area.
The felony (!) charges are still pending. We go to court in Santa Cruz at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, September 30, 2015.
Santa Cruz police spokeswoman Joyce Blaschke said:
The blue corner marks that Abbi Samuels and Jonathan Keith McHenry made were similar to official city markings for street vendor areas. Authorities noticed the 33 markings and caught the pair by reviewing surveillance footage. In addition to vandalizing the city sidewalks, the act undermines the city’s program to establish safe, orderly and fair use of the downtown sidewalk space.
The morning after the new blue boxes appeared, city officials were outside Forever 21 in a state of confusion, as they tried to figure out why the performance spaces they had removed a week or two before had suddenly reappeared.
And what harm came from this? Low-income people have places to earn a few dollars. A guitarist sang outside New Leaf, and was excited that a new blue box had been placed at exactly the right location for him to reach an appreciative audience.
Street performance thrived on Pacific Avenue for years with the community working out conflicts as neighbors. Tom Noddy and his Bubble Magic show started on Pacific Avenue. Noddy took his performance art to Late Show with David Letterman and fills auditoriums in cities all around the world. He helped create the Street Performing Voluntary Guidelines negotiating with members of the Downtown Neighbors’ Association and a group of 35 street performers. Noddy says the guide lines “allowed us all to use common sense and try to keep petty disagreements from getting us all into court, or city council chambers.” The informal relationship lasted for years, but corporate pressure changed all that through the passage of laws restricting street performance.
When the possibility of an anti-street performance ordinance first surfaced decades ago, Nobby shared the news with musical saw player Tom Scribner. The city had already placed a monument to Scribner on Pacific Avenue, showing him playing the saw. Noddy says Scribner spoke at one city council meeting saying if the law passed he would set up next to the monument of himself and be the first to be arrested. Noddy thinks that if Scribner had been arrested, it would have made national news. So, for the time being, the city tabled the ordinance.
While the struggle against free expression on Pacific Avenue has a long history, the most recent drama started on September 10, 2013 when the Santa Cruz City Council passed an amendment to the city code that restricts the space allotted for “noncommercial use of city streets and sidewalks” (i.e. street performance) to 12 square feet per individual or group.
After the council vote, Dixie Mills, founder of the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival, noted:
This new ordinance will silently kill the street performer/vendor scene that is so much a part of the flavor of downtown Santa Cruz. If the ordinance just banned this kind of activity all together, there would probably be a big uproar. This way these activities are still allowed, but they are so constrained with rules that slowly but surely we will have a quieter, and less interesting downtown. It seems to me the spirit of Santa Cruz would want to attract these artists instead of making it difficult or impossible for them to share their talents.
Conflicts between street artists and business leaders forced the issue to be revisited by the city council in the fall of 2014. The new changes, which were unanimously approved on October 28, 2014 and passed at the November 18, 2014 council meeting, stated that the city would set up 61 color-coded spaces along Pacific Avenue where vendors and performers could stay for up to one hour.
The city never did place 61 color coded spaces along Pacific Avenue, but it did paint a couple of dozen blue boxes on the street side of the sidewalks. During the year after the policy was adopted, a number of these spaces were quietly erased without public input, sparking new protests by local artists. It should not have been a surprise to anyone that artists would resist as police and hosts used the disappearance of popular blue box locations as a way to drive them off Pacific Avenue.
Private control of public space is one of many threats to democracy, free expression and the health of our communities. Confiscation of public space for private use is common across the United States. This confiscation has limited efforts to communicate about such important issues as climate destruction, war, racism, poverty and civil liberties. It has limited the public’s access to unique expressions of art, music and theater. It has robbed people of the right to make a living selling their artistic talents. It is a threat to the soul of our community.
I have spent my adult life defending the right to communicate with the community in public. Macy’s and Filene’s were among the stores that first confiscated public space in the United States with the formation of Downtown Crossing in 1979 in Boston. Before that, the main obstacle to sharing alternative ideas and culture with the public had been the construction of shopping malls. Malls lured people away from the public spaces created by downtown shopping districts to privately owned spaces that banned or limited the distribution of information, the selling of art or street performances. Malls became a gatekeeper to ideas and free expression. Corporate friendly messages and art were permitted. Any challenge to corporate ideology was eliminated.
Downtown Crossing brought this concept of mall censorship to public spaces. An invisible blue line was drawn around the center of Boston in the area with the most pedestrian traffic, an area where those with little money or resources could have an audience of thousands.
I discovered this invisible line one morning when I started to set up a literature table outside the Park Street Subway Station in the Boston Commons. Police arrived and told me I had to move and directed me to an office on Washington Street where I could pay hundreds of dollars a week to rent a place on the sidewalk. I refused. I had been setting up my literature at that location for years. After all, there was even a monument to the idea that the Commons was to remain free for all forever. After more threats of arrest, I finally set up just over the invisible “blue line.”
On August 15, 1988, official efforts to remove uncomfortable speech came with the arrest of nine Food Not Bombs volunteers who were sharing free vegan meals and peace literature at the entrance to Golden Gate Park.
During the arrests of 1988, San Francisco Police Spokesperson Jerry Senkir explained to the media that, “There has to be some kind of (police) action. At this point it seems to be a political statement on their part not a food give away issue.”
The effort to drive Food Not Bombs’ message out of sight continued in 1989 after 27 days of occupying Civic Center Plaza. Police Captain Dennis Martel told the media that, “They (Food Not Bombs) don’t want to feed the hungry, they just want to make an anarchist type statement and we aren’t going to allow it.”
The San Francisco police made over 1,000 arrests in eight years of seeking to silence the message that we could end hunger and homelessness if the country changed its priorities.
One of the first “designated protest zones” or Free Speech [restriction] Zones was declared by Mayor Andrew Young in Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Free Speech Cages or First Amendment Areas started to become the norm at public events or outside government offices.
Authorities justified their restriction of free speech and free assembly through the Broken Window Theory of criminology first introduced in a March 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly by social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The “theory” (more accurately a poorly tested hypothesis) is that trash and litter promote the accumulation of more trash and litter and the social breakdown that goes with such dilapidation. In the case of free speech and free assemply restrictions, authorities are equating political demonstrations, political speech, street vending, and street performances with trash, litter, and dilapidation, while providing no evidence that such things are synonymous.
This social “theory” helped lead to numerous “quality of lfe” laws and policies across the nation, including anti-street vending, busking and panhandling campaigns, sleeping bans, sit-lie laws, and public expression limitations exemplified by “blue boxes” in Orlando, Florida and Santa Cruz, California.
Things sure have changed in Santa Cruz. The city placed Marghe McMahon’s 1978 sculpture of anarchist street performer Tom Scribner outside Bookshop Santa Cruz to honor the street culture of Pacific Avenue–a monument to the very culture the city seeks to eliminate today.
The spirit of tom and other artists has made Santa Cruz an inspirational place attracting visionaries and tourists from all over the world. Tom Scribner was one of those who encouraged a culture that championed free expression. The retired logger could be heard playing his saw on Pacific Avenue during the 1970’s until his death in 1982. His radical ideas resonated with the street community that made Pacific Avenue home. After all, he had spent a lifetime defending free speech. Tom wrote of an earlier free speech struggle in Washington state:
Weeks earlier, the local police had begun arresting IWW’s for speaking on the street. There had been a general strike of the Shingle Weavers A.F.L. and the I.W.W. at the time and free speech had been banned. Well, the minute the organization heard about that, Wobblies began pouring into Everett to continue the campaign. Wobblies came from near and far just to “speak on the street.” Of course, they had to be arrested for such a heinous crime so the jails were full.
We need the spirit of Tom Scribner and the 1960s Free Speech movement to rise again. The confiscation of public space and limits to free expression have had far wider impact than most people realize. Imaginative expressions of art, music, and theater have been crushed. Low income visionaries have been gagged, and many conversations have been limited or eliminated by anti-free speech/anti-free assembly policies. These include conversations about climate destruction, the funding and waging of wars, the transfer of our economic health to the wealthy, corporate domination of society and other threats to our freedom have been silenced. Reclaiming pubic space is crucial. A free society depends on it!
Supporters are organizing A Festival of the Streets the day that we’re scheduled to be arraigned. It will be held on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at 8:00 a.m. outside the Superior Court of California-Santa Cruz, 701 Ocean St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. We hope to see you there.
We’re not criminals. The real criminals are those seeking to drive the artists off of Pacific Avenue. If we don’t start to reclaim public space, we’ll likely find that free expression and freedom itself will continue to erode away until they no longer exist. No wonder city officials took the replacement of 33 blue box “free speech zones” so seriously. It is a direct threat to their power. Power that they are misusing in the interest of corporate domination of our community.