So, one of the people I got to spend time with here in Humboldt kinda blew me away. He was friend from school but we’d lost touch over the years, so when this came up in passing during a drop-by visit, I was sort of jaw-droppingly stunned, though modestly he claims the lawyers did all the hard work.
In September 1997, Eric Samuel Neuwirth was the first victim of pepper application directly and purposefully to the eyes by law enforcement during a non-violent protest. Part of Headwaters Forest Defense, a timberland protection group, Neuwirth and six other protesters chained themselves together inside the offices of Pacific Lumber in Scotia, California. They were connected with their arms encased by metal pipes, their wrists attached to rods inside the pipes in such a way they could they could release themselves. While they were trespassing, they posed no threat to law enforcement or to those in the building.
Neuwirth did not release himself from his peaceful and passive position of civil disobedience, despite what the 9th Circuit Court later ruled was excessive use of force by law enforcement personnel, and what several major newspaper editorials and Amnesty International called torture: The use of severe physical or mental pain or injury to punish or coerce.
Officers first applied pepper spray to corners of his eyes as an example, then to those of the other protesters who did not release from their devices. The chemical was then reapplied and officers sprayed the protesters’ eyes with water for an hour while they remained chained together. Eventually Neuwirth and others were carried out of the offices and the pipes holding them together taken off using a grinder, the standard practice by law enforcement. Which they could have done in the first place, actually.
The law enforcement tactic of applying pepper spray to non-violent protesters who were fastened together continued at two other old growth forest protests. Uniformed police performing this action were videotaped in the offices of then-Congressman Frank Riggs, yanking back chained protesters’ heads, lifting their eyelids and using a cotton swab to put the caustic chemical directly on the eyeball, as well as pepper spraying the victims from as close away as three inches. In the three incidents, there were eight plaintiffs total, each of whom, after a seven-year series of trials and appeals, received a symbolic $1 in damages from the jury.
For Neuwirth, the case was about our civil rights and liberties, and making sure that others who protest non-violently could do so safely, as well as drawing attention to the logging of old growth redwoods. Until this case the Eureka Police Department considered any form of civil disobedience to be “active protesting,” thus justifying the use of excessive force, that’s a mindset that needed to shift. And not spread!
Had Neuwirth and the other plaintiffs not prevailed, the door would have been wide open for law enforcement across the country to utilize pepper spray in this manner on protesters whenever they chose.
A couple days ago I wrote about how there are more logging trucks with logs on the road now. Yesterday I overheard a conversion in the local cheese aisle at the Co-Op (I may be going native!) that Green Diamond Resource Company has been doing some clear cutting in the nearby Jacoby Creek watershed area, and there was a blockade.
So I checked and yes, Redwood Defenders last week blockaded the road with 60-foot high rope structures, called sky pods, made in such a way that that if moved or damaged, the activists could fall from a considerable height. Several pickup trucks and a van full of workers had to turn back when they arrived. By Friday, the timber company had stopped supporters from bringing in food and water to the activists, one of whom was arrested.
(In a weird side note to the pepper spray case, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker of Prop 8 fame, first heard the original trial in 1998, which deadlocked 4 to 4. At the second trial, Judge Walker threw out the case against the Humboldt County Sheriffs and Eureka Police Department saying that threw the case out on the defendants’ summary judgment motion, saying no reasonable juror could find in favor of the plaintiffs.)