Eight protesters with the Occupy Santa Barbara movement were arrested late Tuesday night at De la Guerra Plaza for violating a city ordinance that puts a 10 p.m. closing time on the plaza. Mariah Klusmire, 21 years old; Randy Ramirez, 24 years old; Annmarie Telfer, 24 years old; Alex Chabbott, 31 years old; Keith Keiper, 23 years old; Edward Glenwright, 21 years old; Robert Villegas, 27 years old; and Angelina Ward, 18 years old, were all booked into Santa Barbara County Jail with bails set at $2,500 each.
The police had asked protesters at about 5 p.m. to leave the grassy area in front of City Hall before 10 because of the municipal ordinance. When the deadline arrived and no arrests were made, one protester called the police department to ask if they were still going to be prosecuted for violating the city code or if their right to assembly was being acknowledged. Shortly after that, about 20 uniformed police officers arrived to vacate people from the plaza. When several people refused to leave because they said they were practicing their First Amendment right, the police handed out citations again asking the group to leave, and then proceeded to arrest eight protesters. Robert Villegas, one of those arrested, had handcuffed himself to the American flag pole, forcing the fire department to come release him with the Jaws of Life after several failed attempts to cut through the handcuffs. “I felt like [being told to leave the protest] was a violation of my First Amendment right,” said Villegas in a recent interview.
Several of the Occupy Santa Barbara protesters have admitted that their movement was rather unorganized when it began, but explained it has always been a movement of the people. “This protest is about economic and social injustices,” said one activist who wished to remain anonymous. “We need a distinction between people and corporations,” said another. The general consensus is that corporations have too much power and influence over U.S. politics. The Citizens United ruling that granted all corporations the right to free speech (and unlimited campaign donations as an extension of that free speech) is seen by many as a detriment to democracy. “We’re defending the Constitution,” said another activist. “The Constitution was written for people, not for corporations.”
“People are feeling indignant and angry with the status quo,” said Alex Luhrman, who is helping the protesters get information, videos, and pictures loaded to occupysb.org. The real problem, he said, is that “large corporations and large banks have consolidated a great percentage of the wealth in this country and people are sick and tired of it. They don’t feel like they have any democratic voice anymore.” When asked about the arrests last night, Luhrman said: “What it boils down to is whether people do have the right to peacefully assemble or not.” Luhrman said that the police should be “very sympathetic — they should be happy that people are willing to stand up and actually make a presence to fight for justice and equality these days, because the very same public officials who are arresting these individuals are part of the 99 percent. They’re the reason why people are out there protesting.” After all, he went on, Occupy Together protests are happening in over 160 cities all around the country.
Alex Chabbott, one of the protesters arrested Tuesday night, said, “We want them to acknowledge our constitutional right to peacefully protest as long as we are organized and keep the area clean.” He also mentioned that the protesters had stayed the previous night without any problems. Chabbott said the arrest experience was actually “very positive and empowering” and did not deter him from continuing to demonstrate. He explained that direct action and peaceful protest is really the only way that big changes are made in this country. He mentioned some of the social advances of the last century, like women’s liberation and suffrage, child labor laws, and civil rights.
For the most part, the community has been supportive of the Occupy Santa Barbara demonstrations. People driving by often honk in approval of the movement, and many people bring food and supplies to aid the plaza’s occupants. Food Not Bombs along with Trader Joe’s, Jitters, and area farmers have been donating food to the activists. Cruzito Cruz, who is running for City Council, has taken up their cause by acting as a legal guide. One protester explained they were acting entirely within their legal rights and that the arrests were unwarranted. Protesters said they wanted the community to know they’ve kept the surrounding area of the plaza clean and spotless. “Sometimes we have to keep our own members in line to make sure everyone is being respectful of our community,” said one protester.
According to Marshall Getto, an active participant in the protests, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider expressed concern about the possibility that city ordinances conflict with constitutional rights to assembly and protest. Schneider said she’s been following the protests very closely. The protesters are in the process of getting legal counsel to help them continue Occupy Santa Barbara without, they say, having their constitutional rights infringed upon by city ordinances. In any case, the Occupy Santa Barbara protesters have no intention of quitting or moving. Being arrested “was not a frightening experience” for Robert Villegas because, he said, “It was something I really believe in and I’m willing to go that far for this cause because this is about people uniting, seeing real grass roots change, and this is where it starts. As soon as I put this cuff on my ankle I said, ‘This is it — I’ve made a commitment to this movement and that’s why I’m here, because I’m committed to this cause.’”
Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect that demonstrators were arrested in San Francisco prior to Tuesday night's crackdown in Santa Barbara.