Thursday, December 22, 2011

It burns: the Humboldt pepper spray case

I apologize for the length of this post, but it's too complex a topic to put in a short blurb.

I learned about the use of pepper spray against protestors on the UC Davis on Facebook. Many people were linking to the first Youtube video of Lieutenant John Pike pacing back and forth spraying the protestors with a large can of pepper spray. It was disturbing and upsetting to say the least. Shortly after the original video came out some of my Facebook friends began posting a case I was very familiar with: Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt.

Seeing that case name again gave me a burning feeling of my own. I felt intense shame, anger, and sorrow because the case was a subject of a difficult time in Humboldt county. The overall outcome of that period has had a negative impact on my family. The case came about due to the Timber Wars that occurred in Humboldt over the fate of the old growth redwoods in Headwaters Forest specifically, and the fate of the timber industry in Humboldt generally. It's a difficult subject that needs a lot of context.

The logging and milling of redwood and Douglas-fir trees has been one of the main industries of Humboldt county since its founding. One of the most important timber companies was Pacific Lumber Company, better known locally as PL.

PL was a good corporation originally. It wasn't the largest private land owner in California (that title goes to Sierra Pacific Industries), but it did hold the largest amount of privately held old growth redwood. Old-growth has a coveted tight grain when cut, and the wood is pest and fire resistant. It is popular for fences, decks, and other outdoor objects because it stands against the elements so well. These factors make redwood very valuable, and PL had a lot of it.

The old PL was owned and operated by the Murphy family, a timber family in every sense. They planned on slowly harvesting the old growth, managing the forests so that PL could operate for as long as there was a demand for lumber. But they made a fatal mistake, in the 1980s the family decided to make PL a publicly traded company. In 1985 PL was the victim of a hostile takeover, bought out by Charles Hurwitz and his company based in Texas, Maxxam. Maxxam was not a timber company, it was a vampire that took over companies with valuable assets and bled them dry.

Almost immediately lines started to be drawn. Three belligerent groups formed: Timber people, Environmentalists, and Maxxam. Maxxam began over logging PL's lands and running the company into the ground. Timber people were mostly from families that had been living in Humboldt before World War II and were very conservative. They hated Maxxam, but the burst in logging created jobs and it was felt that what Maxxam did to the company it owned was up to Maxxam. They thought that after PL collapsed there would still be the other mills of Humboldt to provide jobs.

Environmentalists were mostly people that had either come to live in Humboldt after World War II or came specifically for the protests and had no other connection to the county. They tended to be very liberal. The Environmentalists hated Maxxam for the damage being done by the intense logging.

You would think that the mutual hatred of Maxxam would provide an alliance between timber people and environmentalists, but both sides despised each other. Political and cultural leanings got in the way. Some militant environmental protestors further inflamed the conflict by pulling stunts like pouring sugar into logging tractor gas tanks, cutting fuel lines for loggers pickups, spitting on timber workers, and hammering in metal spikes into trees so when cut the saws would break (putting loggers at risk).

Some loggers would kick and punch protestors that tried to block their way into the forest. Protestors also accused loggers of intentionally falling trees near them when the protestors went into the woods to try and stop operations [after the pepper spray case, a protestor was killed when a tree fell by a logger brought down another tree that in turn fell directly onto the protestor. It was ruled an accident, though some protestors claimed it was intentional].

This is the environment that Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt came to be in. Some environmentalists trying to stop the logging in the Headwaters Forest decided to do sit ins at the offices of PL and the then Congressman for Humboldt, Frank Riggs. Police responded to both scenes, and were confronted by chanting (sometimes screaming) protestors who had placed their arms in metal sleeves to prevent their removal. The sleeves were made so the protestor could lock their arms inside the metal tube so it could only be safely unlocked from the inside with the wearers help. Cutting into the sleeve would have risked serious harm to the protestors.

The police didn't really know what to do; the protestors refused to leave both offices. At some point the decision had been made to use pepper spray. The idea was that the protestors, once exposed, would want to release themselves in order to get relief from the burning. Additionally the decision was made not to spray the protestors. Instead Q-Tips were dipped into cans of spray that had been opened, and the Q-Tips were rubbed on each protestors eyes in a highly concentrated dose. The result was horrible (the police begin to use the spray at 6:30 in the video).

The protestors would sue the county for unnecessary use of force. And the case would become the topic de jour of Humboldt, stirring intense feelings. Many were angry at the police for the harm they caused, but there was also anger directed at the protestors by timber people. Who are these outsiders to come to our county to harm our way of life and then turn around and sue us? The case would become a focal point of the use of pepper spray by police on protestors, especially restrained protestors.

After several appeals and trials ending in hung juries, the third and final jury found the county liable for the excessive harm caused to the protestors and awarded them damages. The total of those damages? One dollar. The protestors claimed that this was fine as they were trying to make a larger point about police force. The jury could have awarded more to the protestors, but there were rumors that the jurors that came from timber families, while angry at the police for using such brute force against the protestors, were also angry at the protestors for all the trouble they'd stirred up in Humboldt. The one dollar award was for them a chance to give the protestors a middle finger. Again, this is just a rumor.

The case would be just one of the first of many events that would be a watershed of change for Humboldt. Politics was swept up in the fervor and Maxxam intensified it's efforts to strip everything of value from PL. The Headwaters Forest was given to the state in a land swap that was meant to make PL look good in the court of public opinion while at the same time minimizing the impact on Maxxam's profits. PL was left a bankrupt shell that was later bought at severely reduced function by Mendocino Redwood Company in 2008.

And PL is not the only victim from the Timber Wars. Many of the major mills either shut down or limited operations in Humboldt in part due to the increased regulation (spurred on by the Environmentalists efforts to stop Maxxam) and from the lost value of timber caused by Maxxam's massive sell off of lumber flooding the market.

This has hurt many timber families including my own. Our trucking fleet went from a high of sixty trucks
(with about fifteen of those working two shifts) at the height of the 1990s to twenty-five today with talk of cutting it down to twelve or fifteen, maybe more. This is the same story for all trucking fleets and logging operations in Humboldt. We can all mark the downfall back to the events leading up to the pepper spray case.

So you can imagine the pain I felt at seeing the title Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt start popping up all over Facebook. "Look" my friends were saying "Look, what UCPD did was wrong! Humboldt already had a similar incident! There's precedent." What they didn't know they were also saying "Look Scott, look! We found something painful from your childhood. We found the beginning of the end of your family's way of life."

Some people have been calling the UC Davis incident the "Spray heard around the world." I don't know how sure we can be of its impact quite yet, though it's created to opportunity for a slew of internet memes. But I can say that the Humboldt County incident was the "Spray heard around Humboldt county." And it sounded like a once proud industry dying.

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