Direct Action Against Caltrans Begins
by Daniel Mintz, February 16, 2011
Members of a newly-organized group have vowed to stop the Richardson Grove realignment project and they’ve carried out their first act of civil disobedience.
Six protesters who linked themselves together in metal lockbox sleeves were among 12 arrested by California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers at the Eureka Caltrans office on Feb. 7. It’s the first in what’s promised to be a series of police-baiting protests by Richardson Grove Action Now, a new group that’s resisting Caltrans’ realignment and widening of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park.
Action Now lived up to its name last week, as its members flooded the front lobby of the Caltrans office on Union Street in Eureka, chanting, strumming, drumming and locking themselves in a ring around a metal stairway railing.
Police moved in at closing time and used batons to push out everyone who wasn’t locked together. Then the lobby’s front windows were covered with plastic sheets and an officer began cutting the locked-down protesters out of their sleeves.
Their arrests capped a series of events than began with more conventional rallying hours earlier. People holding signs and playing drums and musical instruments gathered on the office’s front lawn and as attendance peaked to about 200 people, amplified speeches were delivered.
Verbena, one of the lead members of Action Now, which also organized the rally, described the group as “a new collection of people that believe in direct action to stop the highway expansion through Richardson Grove and any other disgusting plan that the feds or Caltrans or whoever comes up with.”
Drums throbbed and people cheered in response. “Direct Action,” someone shouted.
Another speaker asked the crowd members to gather on the outside steps for photos and soon they were there, raising their fists and holding their signs. Before long some of them were facing the front lobby, pressing their signs and their fists against the glass.
Then they entered in a gush and six of them were soon locked together around the lobby’s stairway. A security guard sat at a desk and watched dispassionately as he started making phone calls.
“One demand, cancel the plan,” the protesters chanted over and over, to drumbeats.
A second set of buzzer-activated glass doors separates the Caltrans offices from the lobby and CHP officers milled about behind it, observing the situation. At one point, Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen stepped inside the lobby and tried to say something but he was chanted down.
As a trumpet player blew some jazz riffs, the locked down protesters were asked why they chose civil disobedience as a method. “We want to be serious and highlight the urgency of direct action to stop this,” said Verbena. “Because we — we being Richardson Grove Action Now — really believe that the people can stop this with public pressure and direct action.”
There haven’t been any big rallies against the project, she added, and “we wanted to escalate the kinds of actions people are taking so here we are, on the doorstep of Caltrans and we’re saying, ‘We’ll get off your doorstep if you get off ours.”
“I think the people are the only thing that can stop this project,” said Jeff Muskrat, whose arm was joined to Verbena’s with a metal sleeve.
Verbena also talked about Action Now’s belief that the project, which accommodates the passage of larger, standard-sized trucks through the Grove, will usher “massive development” and “further militarization” of the North Coast.
There’s widespread belief that the project’s necessary and only has minor impacts but Action Now members think that will change. “I believe it will be stopped — we’re stopping it,” said Verbena, sparking a round of yells and cheers from the other protesters.
The sounds of protest could barely be heard inside the Caltrans administrative office, where Charlie Fielder, the agency’s regional director, talked to reporters. He said he thought the rally was “going fine” until direct action was encouraged by “someone that had a megaphone” and who “changed the dynamics of the gathering.”
Fielder said police intervention is “probably what they’re looking for” and is inevitable. He added that earlier in the day, he was able to chat with people at the rally but later, he was shouted down because “the organizers, at least, did not want to have it be that kind of an event.”
It ended with the assertive police response shortly after 5 p.m.
After being pushed outside, some of the protesters banged on the glass doors and windows that the police had covered. Eventually more officers came out and debated a veteran environmental activist who had been arrested and given a court citation shortly before.
One of the older officers told him that these kinds of protests aim to create an environment where lawsuits can happen. “It’s all about the money,” he said.
“That’s right, it’s all about the money,” the activist responded, referring to what he’d been protesting against.
Inside, officers surrounded the locked down protesters and one began cutting the metal sleeves with a power saw device. Flashes of light from sparks could be seen from outside and some people lingered to peer between the spaces of the window covers.
One of the CHP officers who came outside said police aren’t fazed by lockdowns because they have plenty of experience with them. They’ll get more as the project moves into construction phases this summer. And so will Caltrans, which hasn’t had to deal with such things until now.
“I hope we don’t, I hope we can resolve whatever differences there still may be,” Fielder said. “But I think to some people, this is what they do and this is what they’re gonna do.”