OC occupations deal with anti-homeless laws

When Mark West heard about a protest happening near the Orange County Civic Center, it struck his curiosity. He was informed of the Occupy Orange County demonstration when police officers knocked on the window of the truck he lives out of in the Santa Ana Civic Center parking lot. West has been homeless for almost two years.

Officers questioned him the night before the protest about sleeping in his car, where he had been sleeping for the past seven months, he said. He defended himself when speaking to the officers, saying he was not breaking any laws. There are no posted signs telling him he can’t park there.

Officers told him he would no longer be able to sleep in his car because of the pending protests and let him go with a warning, he said.

“Most of the police officers around here know me so they don’t usually bother me,” he said. “I was surprised to see them even come around my way.”

On the afternoon of Oct. 22, West watched as hundreds of protesters came from all over Orange County to march through the streets of downtown Santa Ana in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Four non-violent protesters were arrested later that night for illegal camping after setting up tents on the lawn in front of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building.

Cal State Fullerton student Sam Aresheh, 23, was arrested along with Shay Palmer, Iraq war veteran Anthony Velloza and encampment medic Timothy Craven. All four were released on their own recognizance the following morning.

During the arrests, there were about 20 police officers and six police cars, including a Crime Scene Investigation van, on the scene. Five police officers rode on horses and encircled the tents as officers on the ground proceeded with the arrests. Many demonstrators openly criticized the police presence as the arrests proceeded.

Just a day before the arrests, the Voice of OC reported that the City of Santa Ana is “teetering on the edge of insolvency.”

“Santa Ana’s general fund balance at the end of September was $313,343.50, according to the records,” reported the Voice of OC. “This represents about one-tenth of 1 percent of its nearly $200-million general fund budget.”

A bystander who wanted to be identified as Brian said he is familiar with the way money gets spent in the city as he works with local politicians. He shook his head as he watched the protesters getting arrested.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” he said. “All of this for four people in tents? It’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

Aresheh defended their right to be on the lawn with tents with the legal term “law of necessity,” stating they needed the tents in order to sustain their demonstration.

“We want to have a peaceful, long-term assembly,” he said. “I feel in order to do so, we must be able to protect ourselves from the elements.”

The arrestees were compliant with police orders as they were arrested. The officers were non-confrontational. Aresheh said he was given two verbal warnings and a citation. Then he was arrested since he did not leave his tent. Aresheh said officers treated them well during the arrests and at jail.

West said he was willing to get arrested along with the occupiers. He laid out his sleeping bag on the lawn shortly after occupiers set up the two tents on the lawn around 9:00 p.m. After police arrived on the scene minutes later, West was pulled aside by a police officer that was acquainted with him. The officer advised him to not proceed with risking arrest because he would have a harder time getting out of jail due to no proof of residence.

West said he stands in solidarity with the occupation and hopes to be part of it any way he can.

“I’m tired of sleeping by myself, eating meals by myself and just being by myself in general,” he said. “These people are fighting for people like me. Why wouldn’t I be the first to step up to the plate?”

In 2009, West was laid off at his job as a union plasterer. He recently started to work for a telemarketing job at minimum wage while living out of his truck. His wife, Carol, stays at a nearby women’s shelter. Him and his wife have been featured in Yvette Cabrera’s column in the Orange County Register chronicling their struggles as the newly homeless as the result of the recent economic downturn.

When the first official general assembly commenced, West spoke out to the protesters while there was a debate going on regarding whether or not protesters would engage in a full occupation and camp out on the lawn adjacent to the federal building. Ultimately the general assembly decided the rest of the demonstrators would support those who wished to spend the night and risk arrest.

West expressed yearning to be a part of the occupation during the general assembly and encouraged others to camp out overnight.

“If you want to make a difference, start here,” he told the demonstrators.

West said he has been stopped and searched multiple times since he became homeless. He has been cited for trespassing and illegal camping a handful of times in various Orange County cities.

A candlelight vigil is held by a group of demonstrators outside of the Santa Ana Jail the night of the arrests

Many of Orange County’s homeless population flock to the downtown Civic Center area in Santa Ana because of the food and services provided by the non-profit organization Mary’s Kitchen. The transients are plentiful during the day, making it the most public display of the homeless population in Orange County. The county has a handful of shelters run by non-profits providing services for the homeless, however there are no public shelters run by the county.

A month into the “occupy movement,” encampments have been raided on a nightly basis in various cities across the U.S., including Boston, Denver, D.C., San Francisco and most recently, police used tear gas and rubber bullet guns to clear up demonstrators in Oakland.

Police have justified the raids through municipal illegal camping laws, as well as public safety health concerns. Barbara Enhreinrech, author of “Nickel and Dimed,” recently wrote that the police raids of occupations across the country were exposing the unjust illegal camping laws that, she says, targets and criminalizes the homeless.

“What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary, biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets — not just peeing, but sitting, lying down, and sleeping,” wrote Enhreinrech.

In Santa Ana, the illegal camping law was enacted in 1992, as well as nearby cities of Fullerton and Orange. Critics called the laws an unconstitutional attempt to oust transients from those cities, according to the Los Angeles Times. Organizations aiding the homeless have attempted to fight these laws since then.

According to a Santa Ana Police Department news release, prior to the demonstration, the camping ordinance was to be enforced during the demonstration. It was not clear at this time about the specifics of what “camping” entailed.

“We pushed the envelope and created a dialogue with authorities,” Aresheh said. “The line was drawn and now there is an amount of mutual respect. Otherwise, there would be fear on both sides about what the other side would do next.”

Police requested the demonstrators to refrain from setting up tents or using sleeping bags when the four arrestees were being released from jail, he said.

About 15 demonstrators spent the first night of the occupation on the lawn with blankets, including West, making it the first actual complete occupation in Orange County.

Meanwhile, Irvine’s occupation has won support from city officials after a week and half of demonstrations. On Oct. 25, the tent set-up by demonstrators on the Irvine Civic Center lawn was approved by a unanimous City Council vote for 30 15 days. The Council will consider renewing the approval after that time.

While Council members agreed the tents were a form of free speech, it was unclear if the city would allow the demonstration to continue indefinitely.

Also posted on LA Activist. All photos by Shalise Leedle.

Amber Stephens