Protesters arrested at Oroville’s Berry Creek Rancheria
Shortly before noon on Thursday, May 16, Butte County sheriff’s deputies ended an 11-hour standoff at the Berry Creek Rancheria tribal headquarters in Oroville when they threw a nonlethal “flash-bang” grenade, causing a diversionary blast and burst of light that allowed them to enter the building through boarded-up windows and arrest the 20 protesters inside.
Butte County Undersheriff Kory Honea said a fight had been expected from the protesters, who ended up surrendering peacefully before they were handcuffed and arrested on charges of trespassing and interfering with peace officers in the performance of their duties.
The headquarters is located next to the Gold Country Casino & Hotel, which is owned and operated by the tribe. The protest was an attempt to stop the permanent disenrollment of 58 Tyme Maidu tribe members of the Berry Creek Rancheria, said tribal representative and secretary Goody Mix. About half of those arrested were up for disenrollment from the tribe. Their membership was questioned due to improper enrollment and lack of documentation proving tribal ties, Mix said.
“We don’t condone violence,” she said, “so this was very disturbing.”
Disenrollment votes had been cast by many of the tribe’s 358 members, and the ballots were inside the headquarters and set to be counted at 4 p.m. that day. The protesters nailed shut the doors and windows of the building with boards and chicken wire, and also reportedly shredded the ballots. Mix said disenrollment votes happen infrequently, and destruction of the ballots was a surprise because there was a 50-50 chance of the vote going their way.
“There was a lot of sympathy for them before this happened,” she said, “and anyone can appeal their disenrollment within 30 days. This was not about money, but about legal connections to the tribe. On a personal level, they could have been stripped of their right to identify with the Tyme Maidu tribe.”
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who negotiated with the protesters from an upper-story window in the casino, said he believes money did play a strong role in the protest.
“Family and money make a deadly combination,” Ramsey said. “Disenrollment of these people would have meant money shifting hands.”
During the standoff, two groups numbering about 40 each—one supporting and one opposing the protesters—stood outside threatening each other. Ramsey said sheriff’s deputies had to separate the two groups, which at one point engaged in a physical clash.
Those gathered also taunted the media with profanity and threats, said KRCR-TV reporter and CN&R contributor Jerry Olenyn.
“It was a huge melee in back of the buildings,” he said.
At one point, said Olenyn, a rock was thrown at him, landing near his feet, and he said he was told, “Get your camera out of here!” Olenyn said he interviewed a bystander who had blood streaming down his face after being hit with a baseball bat or pipe.
Ramsey, Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith and Honea spent hours negotiating with an attorney for the protesters. Eventually, law-enforcement backup was called from the Oroville Police Department, the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Near the end of the standoff, Ramsey said, the protesters’ attorney was either dismissed or resigned, and it became clear they had no plans to leave.
“We knew the talking was over, so it was time to go to plan B,” he said. “We had to go in and pull the plug before the outside crowds got too agitated.”
Once inside, officers found bear spray, Honea said, which is a high-volume pepper spray, and at least one baseball bat. “We don’t know if the bat was intended as a weapon,” he said. “But I doubt they were going to have a softball game in there.”
A new vote on the disenrollments will be held, with no timetable set, Mix said.
Ramsey congratulated the law enforcement on their peaceful handling of the situation and said he believes there is at least one moral to this tale: “Don’t occupy the White House if you feel the government has done you wrong. There are better ways to work through problems than to commit a crime.”