Arcata Receives a Strongly Worded Letter From ACLU Demanding Change by November 7 Meeting
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a strongly worded letter addressing “excessive police presence at City Council meetings” to the Arcata City Council and Chief of Police on Wednesday, October 31.
The letter was in response to a protest in August by the Justice For Josiah group which organized a demonstration that effectively shut down a City Council meeting inside City Hall, two days in a row. On August 16th, following the City Council members walking out of the building and canceling their rescheduled meeting from the night prior, the Arcata Police attempted to bar further entry to the building, under the direction of the City Council.
There was pushing, shoving and, in the process of enforcing the request made to effectively ‘close the building,’ the front door of City Hall was forcibly shut by the interim Arcata Police Chief. This incident in August resulted in the controversial public decorum policy.
The ACLU’s letter from Alan Schlosser Senior Counsel for the ACLU of Northern California stated that disrupting one meeting, even if it is a planned disruption, doesn’t mean the city council can limit or prohibit free speech rights for the foreseeable future. Additionally, and most importantly, unless the city has specific evidence that actual unlawful activity will occur, the decision on the part of city officials to “treat meetings as a dangerous and threatening place” with the resulting presence of armed police is, according to the ACLU, an excessive burden on residents’ First Amendment rights.
The letter said that in order to “allow the public to meaningfully participate in future meetings, the Arcata City Council must reduce the excessive and intimidating police presence and remove the notice posted on the door of the City Council building, which threatens activists with a laundry list of criminal penalties.”
The letter stated that this must be done before the next meeting on November 7.
Regarding the “chilling effect on public discourse,” the letter went on to state:
Nine armed officers standing outside and inside a legislative session and next to a list of posted criminal penalties is hardly the environment for conducting the people’s business. This is particularly problematic considering the current climate in Arcata. The death of a young Black man and the failure to prosecute continues to heighten tensions in the community. Many Arcata residents have expressed their dissatisfaction with how the investigation into Josiah Lawson’s murder is being handled and these same community members are now met by armed officers when they attempt to speak out in the official public forum.
Interim Arcata Police Chief Richard Ehle stated that the police response was put together at the request of the City Manager and the Council. “[T]hey expressed an absolute need, necessity, to get business done…If you’re going to be having every meeting shut down by design, I think they made the right decision.”
Chief Ehle said that the something had to be done in order to complete city business. He stated,
People need to be heard but when you disrupt meeting after meeting, you know, by the second meeting and the third, they have to get business done. They had a couple of grant-funded measures, one for over $2 million that had to be ratified and accepted or we were in risk in peril of losing it.
Ehle defended the City’s actions by saying,
Now that is absolutely ridiculous for 25 people to come in and disrupt a meeting that’s going to impact the city to the tune of over $2 million. I mean it just doesn’t make sense. So the Council decided to have us there just to maintain peace and make sure there was proper decorum and other than that it’s not to intimidate or anything else, but if you’re intimidated because your intent upon taking over a meeting and just disrupt business as usual then, yes, you should be intimidated because we were prepared to make mass arrests. But, that’s not our preference and that’s not the councils preference.”
It should be noted that as of the morning of November 1st, there was no posted notice, policy, or warning related to decorum by the public at City Hall, inside or outside the building.
Additionally, as of the filing of this report, the Arcata City Council has not made a statement as to these most recent criticisms made by the ACLU. City Manager Karen Deimer is out of town & unavailable for comment.
A representative of the Northern California ACLU, Theodora Simon, explained that the letter was a necessary response to the City’s recent change in decorum expectations, given that the group of community members clearly targeted by the increased scrutiny are specifically participating in public dialogue to discuss concerns about justice and racism. Simon emphasized the right that all community members have, and should be able to exercise, in regard to participating openly and without any undue burden, in a public forum free from intimidation by police or by City policy that is specifically geared toward discouraging public dissent.
The next Arcata City Council meeting will take place on the 7th of November. By that time, Chief Ehle will have met with Charmaine Lawson, Mother of slain HSU student Josiah Lawson, as he expects to have forwarded the Lawson case to the Humboldt County District Attorney’s office for review.
With this recent progress in Lawson case, and charges potentially being filed by District Attorney Maggie Fleming soon as well as this recent letter from the ACLU, the next Arcata City Council meeting could very well be an interesting tightrope walk between exercising the right to protest and the practical needs of a city to get work done.
- Protestors Take Over Arcata City Council Meeting Demanding Justice for Josiah
- A Deeper Look at Last Thursday’s Disruption of the Arcata City Council by Protesters Demanding That Tom Parker Be Asked Back to Help in the Josiah Lawson Case