Welcome to the occupation: Sacramento police raid on homeless protest at City Hall escalates conflict
Mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg reunites with Capitol colleagues to introduce homeless-housing initiative
On January 1 just before midnight, the 24th day of the homeless protest out in front of City Hall, nearly two-dozen activists received an unexpected New Year’s Day visit: More than four dozen Sacramento police officers marching toward them, threatening arrests.
“We ended with a total of 52 cops, some of them in riot gear,” said L.R. Roberts, a legal observer with the local National Lawyer’s Guild chapter who witnessed the police raid. She spoke to SN&R the morning after police attempted to break up the City Hall protest and says she was baffled by what she referred to as an excessive show of force.
“If I’m laughing, it’s because it was so stupid,” she said.
Police marched in single-file lines toward the protesters, she and other witnesses explained.
“They basically boxed us in, and step-by-step tried to push us away” from the occupation, explained a homeless activist who would only give the name “Miami.”
Miami videotaped the entire police raid on New Year’s Day, which lasted into the next morning. “They told us to sit down. And once people sat down, they started getting arrested. They used excessive force. One individual was pulled out of a tent,” Miami said.
By 3:19 a.m. on January 2, four homeless activists had been arrested and jailed, on various charges including resisting arrest and illegal camping, according to a police spokeswoman. Three additional homeless protesters were cited with misdemeanor illegal camping and released. Two protesters voluntarily went to a warming shelter.
The police kept out of the 30-degree chill during the operation by using the inside of City Hall as a staging area.
“They were using the lobby … sort of like a mini-jail,” where they searched and booked those who were detained, Roberts said.
Protest organizers James “Faygo” Clark and David Andre were among those arrested.
Roberts said police approached activists and asked if they were protesting or camping. “’You’re not protesting, you don’t have enough signs,’” the legal observer said she heard one officer tell a man. She also said she also witnessed police using unnecessary force, including throwing Andre to the sidewalk.
She likened the sound of him hitting the cold concrete to a bag of rocks dropping to the ground.‘Starting to inspire people’
The police raid on New Year’s Day was the first effort by the city of Sacramento to crack down on the homeless protest at City Hall since it began on December 8. On that first Tuesday evening just before the weekly city council meeting, activists placed fold-up tables on a muddy lawn, served free food as part of the ongoing Community Dinner Project and even commissioned a truck to deliver a portable toilet in front of City Hall. (It was removed by the city the next day.)
Despite media reports otherwise, activists have not left the occupation since it began—and vow that they will remain on the strip of lawn adjacent to Ninth Street until city council repeals laws they say discriminate against homeless people, including ordinances that disallow sleeping or camping and the possession of sleeping bags, and public feedings.
“The anti-camping ordinance criminalizes individuals who have no place else to go,” protester Clark told SN&R on the first night of the occupation.
Police spokeswoman Traci Trapani told SN&R this past weekend that, after distributing fliers in an effort to educate protesters on the laws and housing options, they will continue to enforce the camping ordinance under the direction of the city manager. She deferred questions to the city manager’s office.
After multiple requests to discuss the protest and the police response, city spokeswoman Linda Tucker emailed a 400-plus word statement on Sunday, January 2, to SN&R and other media outlets. It stated that, while generally the protesters have been compliant and orderly, “some members of the group took up overnight camping and did not take up any offers for services or shelter the last few evenings.”
The statement continued: “After numerous warnings and offerings of services since December 8, police were forced to arrest four people and cite three in violation of the City’s camping ordinance” on the morning of January 2.
Police have returned to the protest site each night and early morning since—but in smaller groups. Before dawn on Monday, January 4, activists say just six officers came and arrested Mohammed Abughannan for illegal camping.
Abughannan says police injured his arm and hands during the arrest. He’d been protesting at City Hall since December, and told SN&R last month that cops had earlier tried to get his name. “They tried to intimidate people by telling them they were going to execute a raid, by going through their belongings and enforcing the law,” he said on December 30, six days before his arrest.
Shahera Hyatt, with the local California Homeless Youth Project, decided to stay overnight in front of City Hall in solidarity with the protesters, after reading about the New Year’s Day raid. “I wore all my warmest clothes and couldn’t stay warm,” she said. “Sleeping bags aren’t camping paraphernalia, they’re survival gear.”
Two more protesters were arrested on Monday evening just before midnight, bringing the total to 10 cited or arrested as of deadline. In 2014, police issued 1,030 citations for illegal camping. (SN&R has requested 2015 statistics.)
The bulk of the budget for homeless services in Sacramento comes from the county, but the city of Sacramento says it spends more than $13.6 million each year to address homelessness issues. This year alone, council approved spending $2.4 million on shelter programs, and housing and employment services for the poor.
The city wrote in a statement that its anti-camping ordinance was recently upheld by the California Third District Court of Appeal. But local attorney Mark Merin plans to challenge this ruling, under the claim that the law uniquely discriminates against homeless people.
Nationally, a recent Department of Justice opinion argued that anti-camping ordinances like the one here in Sacramento are cruel and unusual punishments.
Clark agrees that the law is inhumane. “People need to realize that we’re actually here to help. Not only do we have food and warmth, but we have compassion,” he said. “We’re starting to inspire people.”
The homeless activist says that, after the police raid on New Year’s, activists will be doubling-down on their civil disobedience—and he personally kicked off a hunger strike this past Tuesday.Steinberg’s new plan
This past Monday at 4 p.m., just a few blocks from the protesters and TV cameras at City Hall, mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg joined forces with his former state Senate colleagues inside an apartment building for low-income Sacramentans. The occasion was the announcement of the first initiative of the 2016 legislative session: a bill that would fund construction of thousands of affordable and workforce housing units throughout California.
“The problem of homelessness is actually getting worse,” Steinberg told the audience inside Mercy Housing on H and Seventh streets. And he said these issues are not exclusive to downtown Sacramento. “It’s Land Park, it’s Carmichael.”
The solution, he argued, is to focus on a housing-first approach to getting people off the streets by financing the construction of more low-income housing.
At the event, Steinberg and lawmakers from both political parties flanked state Senate Pro Tem Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles as he introduced the plan conceived by his predecessor. Called “No Place Like Home,” the initiative would use monies from Proposition 63’s tax on millionaires to help pay for new housing.
The details aren’t yet ironed out, but the idea is to take a small percentage of Prop. 63 revenue and leverage it into $2 billion worth of grants, which will be doled out to counties to pay for the housing.
Steinberg is hopeful that this new money will give cities the actual housing resources to get people off the streets and into social-service programs. “This is a spark,” he told SN&R after the meeting.
The mayoral candidate said in his speech that California needs to approach homelessness solutions in a “humane and cost-effective way,” but he did not criticize the city’s approach to enforcing the anti-camping ordinance. “We can’t have people camping in the streets,” he said.
De Leon, who held a similar press conference at L.A.’s skid row district earlier that day, responded differently to a question about the criminalization of homeless people:
“It’s nonsensical the way law enforcement has executed some of these laws.”