The race card

Local sculptor Jerry Harris speaks out about being arrested—he says it happened because he’s black

QUITE AN ORDEAL<br>“For me to plead guilty is so far out of my realm,” says sculptor Jerry Harris. He will fight a charge of misdemeanor possession of tear gas because he believes it never should have been brought in the first place.

“For me to plead guilty is so far out of my realm,” says sculptor Jerry Harris. He will fight a charge of misdemeanor possession of tear gas because he believes it never should have been brought in the first place.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Background info
Jerry Harris was the first black on-air writer/producer hired by an ABC affiliate in San Francisco. He says “they just wanted a black face,” and after speaking out about this, he was fired and then moved to Sweden. He sued for racial discrimination—and won.

Jerry Harris sat calmly in his living room last week recounting the events of the past couple months that will place him in a Butte County courtroom on Wednesday (Oct. 1). Despite the injustice he feels occurred, he smiled from time to time, speaking slowly and deliberately, as is his nature.

Harris, a 62-year-old widower who lives in Chico and kept a sculpting studio in Paradise until last month, is not one to pull the race card lightly, he said. He would prefer to go about his business—creating art and writing—and not raise a fuss. But some things he can’t ignore.

Like when he feels his life is threatened.

A series of events that ended in his arrest, moving out of his Paradise studio and getting a restraining order against a neighbor have left Harris frustrated. He moved out of the United States decades ago because of racism, he said, and now that he’s back, he has found himself once again a target.

Up in Paradise, Harris’ studio was filled with his wood sculptures, most of which stand at eye level, which for Harris is about 5-foot-6. On Aug. 1, he shut down his studio because he no longer felt safe there and moved his artwork to his modest Chico apartment.

Harris hadn’t lived in Butte County long before high-tailing it out of Paradise. He moved to the area a year ago after 25 years abroad. Specifically, he lived in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and son, and enjoyed a life as an international sculptor and reporter for a Swedish newspaper. Since moving to Chico, Harris has held two exhibits, at the Chico Art Center and City Hall.

His studio offered him a place to create. It was small, but his art doesn’t take up much room, so he was comfortable there. He maintained a garden and got to know his neighbors, even sharing Christmas dinner with Wayne Bass, the man who would serve as his reason for moving.

Sometime last spring, Harris said, Bass turned on him. A Paradise Police Department report, by Officer Eric Reinbold, describes one confrontation between the two:

“On 5/15/2008 at approximately 1030 hours, Bass confronted Harris outside his residence and a verbal altercation occurred over the property where Harris had planted his garden…. Bass told Harris, '… I’m going to kill you. It doesn’t matter where you move to I’ll hunt you down and kill you….’

“I asked Bass about threatening Harris. Bass said at no time did he threaten Harris’ life. Bass said during the verbal altercation he told Harris he would ‘Get his.’ Bass went on to say, ‘What goes around comes around.’ … Bass told me Harris was too small to fight and said he would not put a hand on him.”

Bass had been arrested in 2006 for battery and plea-bargained to a conviction for using offensive words that are likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction. He was required to attend an anger-management class and was released from probation in February.

On June 3, the police responded to a call from Harris regarding a mysterious substance that had been poured over his garden. “I observed several plants in the garden with a black liquid near the base of the stems and most of the plants displayed signs of death,” the report reads.

Harris believes it was the work of his neighbor, or a friend of his neighbor, but no evidence was found to point a finger at any suspect.

The Paradise police never arrested the 46-year-old Bass, whom they interviewed about the incident, because they could never prove he’d done anything wrong. And when the two got into an altercation July 24 in Chico after the Thursday Night Market, it was Harris who wound up in handcuffs.

The incident that July evening haunts Harris to this day. Being a 62-year-old black man in America without a criminal record is something he’s proud of. But he now faces a misdemeanor charge and says law enforcement did him wrong—because he’s black. He contacted the local chapter of the ACLU, and the organization has provided a lawyer, pro bono, to defend him.

Harris’ account differs slightly from those of Bass and two witnesses as recorded in the arrest report. (Bass did not return a phone message the CN&R left at his home.) It’s a thorn in his side, but Harris maintains he was wrongly arrested and has taken his story public to gain support.

In person, Harris tells the story quite vividly, and with great detail. According to him, he was walking to the bus stop from the Thursday Night Market and noticed Bass loading a van. Insults flew from Bass’ mouth, prompting Harris to cross the street with his cell phone ready to record—he hoped to get enough evidence to press charges.

In this version of the story, Bass spit in Harris’ face before grabbing the phone and smashing it on the ground and punching Harris. Once on the ground, Harris fumbled through his pockets to find the pepper spray he had bought to protect himself, and used it. Then an officer of STARS (Sheriff’s Team of Active Retired Seniors) approached the scene—she didn’t see the argument, Harris contended—and he asked her to call the police.

Here’s the official account of what happened, as dictated by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who read from the arrest report prepared by Chico Police Officer Justin Adrian: Bass said that after the argument he turned around and walked away, at which time Harris came after him and deployed his pepper spray. An independent witness—the STARS officer—corroborated Bass’ story, as did the daughter of one of Bass’ friends.

“The officer—Adrian—was very hostile,” Harris said. “He didn’t want to listen to anything I said.”

According to Harris, the STARS officer couldn’t have commented on the incident because she didn’t arrive until it was too late. “In their report, she’s saying she saw me pepper-spray him,” he said. “It’s totally impossible that she saw [the incident]. She came after. Adrian said nothing about her—he talked to two of his [Bass'] friends.”

As far as Harris is concerned, he was wrongly arrested based on the color of his skin. He has been charged with misdemeanor possession of tear gas (pepper spray is considered tear gas).

Lt. Mike O’Brien spoke on behalf of the Chico Police Department about the incident. “I do not believe for one second that race had anything to do with Officer Adrian’s opinion. I am confident he made his decision on the facts present.” Asked if any complaints of racial discrimination had been lodged against Adrian previously, he replied: “None that I’m aware of.” (Adrian was unavailable for comment.)

“There were two independent witnesses that led the officer to form his opinion for the arrest,” O’Brien said. “It sounds like he [Harris] is contesting what the witnesses are saying. The place to contest that would be in the court of law.”

Ultimately, that is where Harris’ argument will be heard. He will attend a pre-trial conference on Wednesday and see what happens. In the meantime, he filed a restraining order against Bass and vacated his Paradise studio.

“This has been so traumatic for me,” Harris said, shaking his head. “I just want an end to it.”