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CalTrans, The Movie

Martin Katz & Dragani
Martin Katz & Tara Dragani

“Our criminal justice system is America's only working railroad.” — Judge Justin Ravitz, Detroit.

* * *

When the first tree sitters protesting the Willits Bypass were extracted from their perches earlier this spring, the CHP and CalTrans brought in a professional “videographer” to film the process.

Given the technology and expertise of modern filmmakers, the movie made by CalTrans and the CHP would never be allowed as evidence in a court of law. But it was posted on the CalTrans and CHP websites for the edification of general public where most people probably assumed they were watching the event as it actually happened.

The CalTrans-CHP epic shows one of the tree sitters, Martin Katz ,being removed from his plywood platform. It was posted on their websites by the above-named agencies and photographic stills of the event were distributed to the press, most notably the Willits News. In these pictures, Katz appears to be trying to pull the CHP officers from their cherry-picker bucket.

In fact, all Katz did was lean back from the officers when they grabbed onto him after having shot him three times in the chest with bean bags fired from a Remington 12 gauge shotgun.

In any event the officers were wearing safety harnesses and were at no time in any danger of falling. But the doctored film made by CHP/CalTrans convinced Katz that he'd be convicted, so he pled to the charges — magnanimously reduced from attempted murder to resisting arrest.

The nasty business about Katz “throwing” human excrement on the CHP officers was another facet of the story line given to the professional videographer. What really happened was the cops, in their zeal to lay hands on Katz, upset his chamber pot and spilled it on themselves.

Katz’s defense was so utterly inadequate — if not non-existent — that none of this information (his side of the story) was ever mentioned in court. During the long morning hours of last Friday, Katz, a painfully shy young man, and his emotionally overwrought girlfriend and co-defendant, Tara Dragani, tried repeatedly to consult with their public defender, Andrew Higgins. But Higgins was busy. He was talking about clothes with another dapper young lawyer, Josh Rosenfeld, a deputy prosecutor from the DA’s office.

Deputy DA Rosenfeld had been assigned to schmooze the press and convince them — I was the only member of the County's hard-hitting media present — that every possible consideration was being given to the tree sitters (the “tree shitters,” as they were mockingly called by law enforcement and all the other Courthouse professionals, all of whom were yukking it up about Katz's and Dragani's clothes and alleged body odor. Deputy DA Rosenfeld had some color photos of CHP officers in full battle rattle passing out doughnuts to the protesters and cuddling with kittens. These photos were also from the Willits News — proof, Rosenfeld assured me, that the pictures were not propaganda. The cat belonged to Ms. Dragani; it had been extracted from a tree, too.

The reader will scarcely believe it, but what these two lawyers were mostly talking about all morning was fashion. Mr. Rosenfeld was wearing a blue seersucker suit, whereas Mr. Higgins had worn a new pink one the week before, but Higgins was insisting that his suit had been red, not pink.

Rosenfeld looked at me and said, “Mix red and white, and what do you get?”

I looked on in disbelief.

“I rest my case,” Rosenfeld said dryly.

Higgins winced archly and with a wry smile said, “Ouch. Touché, Josh.”

Ms. Dragani came in and tugged at Mr. Higgins’ elbow saying, “Please come talk to us. We don’t know what’s going on.”

Higgins said, “Not now, I’m busy.”

Dragani went back out in the hall, wringing a sodden wad of tissue in her hands, tears running rivulets down her dusty face. Dragani and Katz are homeless, their clothes not very tidy by Courthouse standards.

Higgins, continuing the sartorial duel with Rosenfeld, told Rosenfeld that he [Rosenfeld] needed different shoes, his brown oxfords didn’t go well with the seersucker suit, in his [Higgins’] opinion. Rosenfeld said he coveted my old straw Panama hat, a hand-me-down from my editor.

No time for the defendants, an hour for fashion.

Andrew Higgins’s moniker around the Courthouse is “Andy The Dandy.”

When the Martin Katz case was finally called Judge Ann Moorman asked the defendant and his lawyer if they were ready to go forward with the judgment and sentencing.

“I guess so,” Katz muttered.

The judge said, “Well, have you seen the report and recommendation from probation?”

“Yeah, he [Mr. Higgins] showed it to me just now.”

Moorman said, “When did you get the report, Mr. Higgins?”

“I don’t know, judge. Last week sometime, I guess.”

“And you haven’t gone over it with your client? Why not?”

“I’ve been busy, judge.” Higgins was holding a catalogue from J. Crew on top of his case files, which he deftly removed to the bottom of the paper pile.

“Do you need more time?”

“No, I’m ready to go forward.”

Katz looked on, bewildered. Ms. Dragani, who had been crying all morning, made a desperate, strangled sound and sniffed back more tears. She had been asked to leave the courtroom during the plea bargain a few weeks earlier, and didn’t want to get tossed out again. But she was falling apart, helpless in the maw of an overwhelming machine. She looked pleadingly at me — I know her from the streets in Garberville — but I suddenly noticed my shoe was not properly tied. I felt like a coward. When I looked up again she’d buried her face in her hands and was rocking back and forth, moaning softly.

Wasn't Ms. Dragani taking it all a little bit too hard? Katz wasn't going to be executed; he was only going off to do some baby time at the County Jail. I mean really. You put your body in the path of The Machine, The Machine grinds you up. That's the nature of direct action resistance. What did Katz and Dragani expect, an honorary degree and lunch with the DA?

Katz was going to get six months at 951 Low Gap, and Dragani will be on the streets without him. It might be better for her if she could get back up to Garberville and Redway where she has friends to look out for her, but Judge Moorman had already placed her on probation for her role in the Bypass protests, and she is thereby forbidden to leave Mendocino County. She is supposed to stay in Willits but away from the Bypass.

The streets of Willits are no place for a lady. Reviled by law enforcement as the cohort of the infamous “tree shitter,” Ms. Dragani won't have an easy time of it.

As it happened, the judge only gave Katz 150 days, not the 180 days the prosecution wanted, and by the time it was over Dragani was so stunned she was on the floor on her knees, her arms hanging numb at her sides, her forehead against the rail. Her eyes were open but unfocused, and except for the tears dripping off her nose and chin, she might have been dead. Her last prayer — that Katz would only get probation — had gone unanswered, and it was now all over. The other people in the courtroom, in their nice clothes, and with their safe and comfortable houses waiting for them, were pointing at her and sniggering, whispering, “Look at that silly girl, quite a little drama queen, isn’t she?”

The price you pay for messing with The Machine, Miss Dragani.

DA David Eyster appeared. He said under his breath, “If I were judge I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of thing.”

I think he was referring to Mr. Higgins’ performance, not Ms. Dragani’s, but maybe he meant me.

Mr. Higgins said, “I can tell you from my brief experience with Mr. Katz that he’s a very changed person from what has proven to be a very sobering experience for him, and I think he has greatly progressed and learned a lot from his inability to stay away from the Bypass project. He has grown up a lot and the seriousness of the situation resonates with him, so I would ask the court on his behalf that he be allowed to remain on probation, rather than go to jail, as the report recommends.”

Higgins rapidly skimmed through the report and noted that his client had had some run-ins with the law in other protests, “but he now knows there are limits and he must follow the law.”

Deputy DA Shannon Cox is married to a law enforcement officer and therefore perhaps the wrong candidate for prosecuting this case since it involved the allegations that Katz had tried to kill one officer and had befouled others with excrement. In any context outside a Mendocino County courtroom Ms. Cox would represent a conflict of interest, along the lines of having property owners along the CalTrans right of way decide on the desirability of the Bypass. Anyhow, Ms. Cox made no effort to veil her zeal to put Katz away for the maximum time allowed by law.

“I don’t share Mr. Higgins’ view that the defendant has had a change of heart.”

Katz had a dilemma: show remorse for something he hadn’t done in order to mitigate the impact of the punishment he was about to be dealt, or tell these Courthouse kangaroos to spare him their bullshit and drive him on out to the jail. Anything he said about not trying to murder the officers, or not throwing excrement on them would then be used as evidence of his being unremorseful, and the prosecution absolutely gloried in creating this ironic predicament for young Katz. The Willits News and, of course, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat had so dependably asserted that these allegations were fact, although  skeptical articles in the AVA and in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (by reporter Tim Redmond) said things were probably not as locally reported.

Deputy DA Cox: “He (Katz) expresses no remorse for his actions and has a long history of protests, but his conduct in this instance was both dangerous and disgusting. The place where the struggle took place — 60 or 70 feet up in a tree — made his resistance a danger to not only the officers trying to get him down, but also to himself and others on the ground. To any rational human being, the act of throwing excrement on another person is just disgusting and I don’t think he appreciates that at all. His Facebook page has a posting wherein he lauds himself as some kind of hero in trying to stop the Bypass and this shows me that the others involved in the protest should, if they have not already, distance themselves from him. He also has a warrant in Humboldt County and one in Louisiana, so I think the 180 days is absolutely appropriate.”

Mr. Higgins said, “Ms. Cox has not had as much personal experience with Mr. Katz as I have.”

As Katz's prosecuting attorney, she should have had no personal experience with him at all.

Judge Moorman said, “Do you have anything you wish to say, Mr. Katz? You have a right to address the court.”

Katz seemed utterly defeated. He spoke very softly. He said he was sorry, and seemed to mean it. He looked like a man who had waded in way over his head and was now being dragged out to sea by an implacable current. With the weeping of the girlfriend and the sniggering and whispering of the other lawyers and courtroom fixtures, it was impossible to hear what he was saying.

“What would you say to the officer?” Judge Moorman asked. She seemed to be under the impression that this was a one-on-one situation, and there was some possibility that the officers in their body armor and safety harnesses were in some kind of danger.

“I was so scared I jumped back. They came at me like they wanted to tear me to pieces. I’m sorry, but I was so scared of them; they’d already shot me with the shotgun; I thought they were trying to kill me. I tried so hard to get away, I must’ve pulled the officers out of the bucket. That was very bad of me.”

Matt Gallagher told Bay Guardian reporter Tim Redmond that “the officers’ fists were flying up there.”

Ms. Monica Plaza of the probation office said that although the defendant appeared remorseful now, a message needed to be sent that this kind of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. “So we would be asking the court for the 180 days.”

“Well,” Judge Moorman said. “I read the report twice. I read it once, then thought about if for a few days and then read it a second time. Frankly, I have some real strong concerns about placing you on probation, Mr. Katz. First, you seem to move about quite a lot.”

Judge Moorman seemed to suggest that Katz was a professional protester, that he had options, that he could live nice and quiet and leave hugely destructive projects to his betters in our wonderful government. Settle down somewhere, Mr. Katz. Eat dinner at Patrona's. Study wines. Buy insurance. Vote Democrat.

“Probation is not something you have a right to,” the judge told Katz. “It’s a privilege, and when probation tries to contact you and they find out that you’ve moved, that’s a violation. And, second, while you may have a right to protest — and I’m not saying you don’t; in fact, that’s a good thing — how boring it would be if we were all alike. So protesting is okay, and I don’t have an issue with that. But your conduct in this case will not be tolerated. Your political views, and the way you have expressed them in the past, that is not acceptable. Your actions were non-compliant and combative and four or five officers could have been hurt or injured as a result. This whole situation could have ended a lot sadder than it did, so I’m going to put you on a term of probation and give you some jail time as well. And while you are on probation, I want you to get these warrants in Humboldt County and Louisiana taken care of. I’m going to sentence you to 150 days in jail and you are to stay at least 100 yards away from the Willits Bypass project. When’s a good time to turn yourself in to the jail? How about Sunday, June 9th at 2pm. Don’t be late.”

As DDA Shannon Cox was waiting for the elevator Tara Dragani walked up to her and said, “I love you. I really do.”

Ms. Cox got on the elevator without answering and waited for the door to close.

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