Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hero or Criminal?


In this SCPD police photo taken on November 30th, Desiree Foster, age 19, is seen
standing in front of the building around 4:30PM. Rocks placed inside wooden pallets
can be seen weighing down the ends of the banner drop, which were needed due to high winds.

 In a world gone Topsy-turvy, a 19 year old activist who served as a media representative is charged with serious felonies and misdemeanors while a greedy corporate bank which has carelessly left a valuable physical asset boarded up and unused for several years, most likely as a tax write-off, is the "victim" and is prosecuting protesters and whistle blowers while seeking $30,000 in "damages."

by Becky Johnson
June 12, 2012


Santa Cruz, Ca. -- The youngest of the Santa Cruz Eleven, Desiree Foster was arrested as she and her boyfriend were leaving her home on her way to the Santa Cruz County courthouse in an attempt to  quash her arrest warrant by agreeing to appear in court on a date certain. Instead, she spent the next nine hours sitting on plastic seating watching a deputy-controlled television set, having been arrested for two counts of felony conspiracy to trespass and vandalize, and two misdemeanor counts of trespass and vandalism with bail set at $5,000. Her mother, suffering from cancer attempted to raise the $500 to bail out her daughter, when, inexplicably, Desiree was released on her own recognizance.

But the pressure of the felony charges, the financial instability of her family, and the fear and dread that she faced in dealing with her mother's cancer, proved to be too much. Desiree took an overdose of pills and wound up in Dominican Hospital, treated for a suicide attempt.

Desiree, a passionate and idealistic young woman, had found her voice attending Occupy Santa Cruz general assemblies, and volunteered for many tasks. At home, she and her mother struggled to pay bills.  Desiree is her mother's primary caregiver, as she undergoes chemotherapy.   Desiree, like many in her generation, knew that something is inherently wrong with our system if she and her mother had to struggle to keep a roof over their heads while her mom was being treated for cancer.  She lived in a world where with or without a college education, young people could not find good jobs.

Without stable and affordable housing, reasonable wages for jobs, and quality health care for all who need it, too many of the 99% who have followed all the rules, worked hard, paid their taxes, are falling through the cracks. Too many still lack health care, are paid inadequate wages, and must pay housing costs that are through the roof.  Wells Fargo is a key player in the housing foreclosure crisis.

On November 30th, 2011, a group of activists and community members entered a long-vacant bank building leased to Wells Fargo, and attempted to turn it into a community center.   During the occupation of that building by 100 to 300 different people, Desiree volunteered for the task of media representative for the ad hoc occupiers.

"I spoke to the Sentinel, KION, Phil Gomez of KSBW, the Mid-County Post and the Santa Cruz Patch," Desiree told me by phone.  "I spoke to everyone. I told them that we wanted it to be something better than what it is now, just a vacant spot." She was interviewed on Community Television as well.

While Police Chief Kevin Vogel and DA Bob Lee have characterized Desiree and the Santa Cruz Eleven as "vandals" and "trespassers" who are disrespectful of private property, the truth is something quite different. For the persons who whole-heartedly embraced the temporary and largely symbolic takeover of 75 River Street, which Wells Fargo had all but abandoned, they meant to use it as a focal point to educate the general public about what that building COULD have been used for instead.

 
 SCPD photo of signs left behind at 75 River Street
naming what that building could have been used for.

Most of the occupiers believe that our democratic system has been hijacked by the wealthy. The wealthiest 1% (Wells Fargo) is profiting at the expense of the rest of the 99%.  For business as usual to continue, it means that you and me, the citizenry in Santa Cruz must live and work around Wells Fargo's 'dead spot' --an empty building sitting for four years now, without a single tenant, providing no jobs, no services, and very little tax revenue to the community, but undoubtedly providing a HUGE tax write-off for the ultra-wealthy bankers of Wells Fargo. While public funds are used to evict Wells Fargo's "trespassers,"  more public funds are used by a DA to conduct a witch hunt against a largely arbitrary list of "felons."

Truly those courageous and bold activists who gained entry to the dusty and unused interior without damaging the building in any way, did so for a purpose bigger than their own lives. They took considerable personal risk for doing so, and were unlikely to benefit financially from the takeover. Finally, they performed the occupation by using a consensus process, where they formally agreed to refrain from vandalism.

Indeed, police have thus far failed to provide any photographic evidence of this 'vandalism' in the hundreds of photos turned over to the defense as part of discovery. Other than some graffiti and an anarchist sticker on the ROOF air conditioning ducts, no other damage has been documented. Yet prosecutors Lee and Assistant DA Rebekah Young used a figure of " approximately $30,000" in damage in their indictments in statements written "under penalty of perjury."  Yet, even in court, Det. Gunter testified that the last time he checked "That number had been lowered to about $22,000."



SCPD photo of an anarchist sticker on the roof
access hatch at 75 River Street.

The trespassing claim may be questionable as well. For a person to be found guilty of trespassing, they must first be warned, and, upon that warning, fail to leave the premises. None of the eleven defendants fit that description. Police Officer William Winston testified that the first and only verbal warning was given by Sgt. Harms "between 7:30PM and 8PM" and "after dark." No signage is known to have been posted until the next day at the earliest.

None of the indictment documents include any evidence that Desiree was warned, and after that warning, failed to leave. Now this may be a technicality, the ability and authority for police to remove unauthorized people from private property involves a series of steps to be taken in a certain order. On the night of November 30th, Desiree met with various members of the press and facilitated answering their questions and providing them with interviews, statements, and at points, access.

During the 72-hour occupation, no protester or police officer was injured. Communication was facilitated between three of the protesters and police, public officials, and media. After 72 hours, the group decided to leave peacefully and even spent a few hours cleaning up before going. Their message had been communicated through the media to the public. In the end, the action spoke for itself.  Wells Fargo had been exposed as the thoughtless, land-hoarder that it is.  The public had been made aware of the building's occupation and the reasons for it.  And no one was hurt.  No confrontation with police occurred. No tasers. No percussion grenades. No tear gas. No batons swinging. Very little vandalism.  And there were no arrests.

So who is the criminal and who is the law-abiding good citizen? The greedy corporation that will use any property under its control to bilk more money for itself; dollars that should rightly have been paid to the government in taxes? Or a 19-year old girl who participated in a largely symbolic occupation to protest against that greed, that misuse of a valuable asset, and to fight against the fundamental inequities in economic justice system rigged by bought Congressmen and Judges to benefit the richest 1%?

Of course, if Desiree and the Santa Cruz Eleven ARE convicted and sent to prison, this is good news for Wells Fargo as well. For Wells Fargo is the biggest investor in the for-profit prison industry.

A BENEFIT DINNER  on SUNDAY JULY 1st to raise money for Desiree Foster's family will be held at India Joze Restaurant in Santa Cruz between 3PM and 6PM.  The first $500 raised will be designated to help the Foster family.  For more information:  santacruzeleven.org



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