Bitch, Tie Your Shoes–

If rough language offends you, you may wish to avoid this piece.

“Fuckin’ Bitch, take off your sunglasses.” The verbal attack startled Sherry (who prefers to use only her first name.) She had to go to the Humboldt CO. Courthouse in Eureka about a property tax issue but, before she could get to the door, she was screamed at by a member of the Occupy Eureka group.  “I didn’t go there looking for confrontation,” she says, but confrontation found her.

As Sherry, a lovely 55 year old slightly built woman had approached the Courthouse earlier yesterday, she had to walk through a group of the Occupiers.  She says she wasn’t really paying attention to them when she was blocked from entering the building by a man who began yelling at her. He screamed, “”Fuckin’ Bitch, take off your sunglasses” and “Fuckin’ Bitch, tie your shoes.”  (Oddly, she was actually wearing slipons.) Then he stepped forward and blocked her path with both his arms outstretched.

Frightened and shaking but refusing to be cowed, this slender woman yelled back at him, “Get the Fuck out of my way.”  Somehow she managed to get around him and inside to the relative safety of security officers and other people. But the sense of safety was temporary. According to Sherry, “The gal in the Administrative office teared up as we talked about it…she was scared…this [same]nut case had been in their office yesterday.” The whole courthouse, she says, is in disarray. “There are signs out front of the Courthouse saying ‘Fuck the Sherriff’ and chalk drawings saying that and more.”

Sherry made her way to the Board of Supervisors’ office.  At their request, she ended up talking to a deputy sheriff, Don Young, and to County Supervisor Jimmy Smith.   Sherry said, “Sheriff Young told me had…my husband called, that he would have advised [him] not to let me come alone to the Courthouse.” 

This shocked her and made her mad. She says, “I asked Jimmy Smith, ‘is this County in total anarchy…and he said, ‘Yes.'”

Sherry and her husband, my cousin, own a local business. They are both natives, business people, and folk who look out for the people around them. They aren’t supporters of the Occupy movement but, Sherry explains, “I don’t care about anybody expressing their opinions but I have a right not to be harassed.”

Sheriff Mike Downey, when speaking of the encounter Sherry had yesterday, said, “This is not Occupy.  This is a combination of the homeless, mentally ill and extreme activists…I’m a big proponent of free speech and freedom to assemble…Many people sympathize with the Occupy movement but the signs up now don’t speak of corporate greed….The signage is very vulgar.” 

Felix Omai, a Southern Humboldt woman arrested last fall after putting a sign on the 101 overpass in Garberville says, “…homelessness and the pitiful state of affairs r.e. mental illness are the most obvious places where the rubber meets the road in Humboldt County. It may make [Occupy] look ragged (and if you actually visit the ‘occupy’ you will find an equal number of ‘straight’ – clean, housed and employed – persons there at almost all times) but what can they do, but embrace these, the ‘least’ of us?”

Is that the choice we have as a society?  Must we accept the aberrant and sometimes threatening behavior of a few? Are verbal attacks on innocent bystanders the price of free speech? Mental illness and the odd and sometimes threatening behavior that can accompany it can be frightening.  If the Occupy movement has done nothing else, it has brought folk like this man out of the shadows and into our faces. This is not always a bad thing.  Most of us want to avoid the unpleasant reality of mental illness we don’t know how to address. Maybe we need to face those people that society fails to help.  Nonetheless, I think we all agree we have a right not to be afraid to walk into our own Courthouse.

In a novel, this man would stand for a larger idea–for the mentally ill, the displaced.  And, Sherry would stand for a society that needs to deal with its loose ends.  But this isn’t a novel and Sherry is a kind woman who could have been hurt through no fault of her own. “How are people supposed to come back next month to pay their property taxes,” asks Sherry bewildered by a world in which people who work hard and play by the rules are expected to endure verbal assaults from men that appear crazy enough to escalate words into blows.

Meanwhile, county staff is researching an ordinance to try and define the proper use of public property for protests. What the ordinance protects will define who we as a society become.  Will we find a way to balance freedom with safety? And how will the ordinance deal with aberrant behavior that seems to fall outside of the bounds of free speech?  Most of us identify with Sherry but, the lost souls that walk our streets need some sort of help,  if only because failing to help them leaves us at risk of being injured by them.

Back at the Courthouse as we mull our options, hardworking people have to run a sometimes frightening gauntlet to conduct their necessary business. As Jimmy Smith escorted Sherry out to her car, the man yelled at her again, “Bitch, tie your shoes.” Unlike Sherry, our county needs to tie up some loose ends.  We’ve got some hard decisions to make.




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