By Greg Cahill
IN A CLOSELY watched pepper-spray case in which Humboldt County law enforcement officers sprayed and swabbed the potent chemical directly into the eyes of peaceful protesters, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 4 issued a decision that restores a lawsuit against police.
The lawsuit claims that in three separate incidents in 1997 Eureka police officers and Humboldt County sheriff's deputies used excessive force to remove nine Headwaters Forest protesters from the Eureka office of Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor, from a logging site, and from Pacific Lumber's headquarters in the mill town of Scotia.
The forest activists were protesting an agreement between Pacific Lumber Co. and the federal government that allowed the timber company to increase logging of old-growth redwoods in exchange for the government's $500 million purchase of 7,500 acres of ancient forest.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that their civil rights were violated, that they posed no threat or danger, and that they weren't at risk of flight.
It is believed to be the first time pepper spray was used on peaceful protesters in the United States. The case is expected to set a new precedent for the use of chemical weapons on nonviolent protesters and for deciding immunity for law enforcement officers.
Riggs, an incumbent and rising star in the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress, decided against running for re-election after the incident. He was heavily criticized for characterizing the protesters as "reckless, wanton lawbreakers" who got what they deserved.
The case was appealed by the plaintiffs after jurors deadlocked 4-4 during the first trial. Federal District Judge Vaughan Walker--who had granted immunity to the police--dismissed the lawsuit.
The appellate judges ruled that Walker made a mistake when he granted immunity from damages to Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis and his deputies. "A reasonable fact-finder could have concluded that using pepper spray bore no reasonable relation to the need for force," wrote appeals court Judge Harry Pregerson in the decision, adding that the decision to use the pepper spray "had nothing to do with the government's purported interest in quickly removing the trespassing plaintiffs," as had been argued.
In their decision, the 9th Circuit judges ruled that the plaintiffs have a right to a jury trial to determine if excessive force was used by authorities.
Eureka attorney Nancy Delany, who represented Humboldt County during the trial, reportedly plans to petition the court for a rehearing before the full panel of 9th Circuit judges.
Cinco de Mayo--No Más!
THINGS JUST KEEP getting curiouser and curiouser in this politically correct world. Usual Suspects received a phone call last week from the parent of a student at Lawrence Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa who complained that an announcement over the public address system last week had stated that any student displaying a Mexican flag or "authentic" Mexican clothing in celebration of Cinco de Mayo would be suspended.
"Our schools are teaching racism and I think it is inappropriate," the distraught parent said.
Hmmm. A phone call to Principal Victoria Hewitt went unanswered, but a subsequent call netted a curious response from Assistant Principal Debra Cruz, who explained that the meaning of the announcement had been "misconstrued." According to Cruz, children were allowed to celebrate at "breakout festivities" in classrooms and were permitted to bring items for that purpose. But a strict dress code policy that is "sensitive to gang colors" forbids the display of any flag: Confederate (understandable), Mexican (highly questionable), or American (whuh!).
"We need kids that are in khaki and white, or other colors besides blue or red or yellow or coffee brown [which are used to represent some street gangs], as directed by the Santa Rosa Police Department," Cruz said.
And you were probably taught that the American flag is a symbol of unity. Did you ever think you'd see the day when Old Glory would be viewed as a threat to the Union?
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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.