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Musicians Hit Sour Note

Singing activists and city clash, weighing First Amendment with concerns of residents
Three amateur singers are currently fighting tickets for opening their windpipes and violating a Downtown Santa Cruz noise ordinance earlier this year. Two of them, Robert Norse and Becky Johnson of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), are not new to the spotlight, to controversy, or to conflicts with the city. Norse, in particular, often finds himself in the courtroom—whether for an incident at the Metro Station or for making a “Nazi salute” at a city council meeting.

This most recent incident, however, happened on a January afternoon, when Johnson, Norse, and other participants took to the streets with their own brand of political satire. Their song of choice was a rendition of Petula Clark’s 1966 hit “Downtown”: “When you are poor, and rents are making you homeless, you can always go …” You get the idea.

The tune earned four singers separate $445 tickets for violating municipal code 9.36.020. One of the citations has already been dropped, but the city upheld those issued to Norse, Johnson and amatuer musician Robert “Blind Bear” Facer. City Attorney John Barisone, three police officers and two witnesses were all in attendance at Johnson’s March hearing, which the judge had postponed from an original date earlier in March.

Santa Cruz City law forbids people from making noises “which are unreasonably disturbing or physically annoying to people of ordinary sensitiveness or which are so harsh or so prolonged or unnatural or unusual in their use, time or place as to cause physical discomfort to any person.” The law is typically thought of as a “noise” or “party ordinance” and is often used to break up large household gatherings.

But on Jan. 6, officers issued tickets upon the request of complaints from residents living at the St. George Hotel on Pacific Avenue who were disturbed by the music happening beneath their windows on the street below.

Attorney Ed Frey, who is representing Johnson and Norse in court, calls the incident “a very serious violation of First Amendment rights.” Norse and Johnson also worry that their incident may discourage street musicians from performing in the future, and say the price is especially steep for someone on low or fixed income. For several months, Johnson and Norse have been asking and waiting for any performers who have been cited for similar violations to step forward.

“Robert and I feel it’s a big responsibility to fight this case,” says Johnson, “because we know poor and homeless musicians have very

little money.”

But others say their role as benevolent defenders of such performers might be a little bit misguided. “They’re not street musicians,” says Chip, executive director of the Downtown Association, who goes by one name. “They’re activists.” The Downtown Association has, in the past, supported efforts to clean up downtown, but Chip says the association does not have any official stance on this issue.

He wonders, though, if Johnson and Norse are really helping the cause of street performers in Santa Cruz. He suggests that musicians downtown might not benefit from the associations with politically controversial figures.

Indeed, Johnson and Norse say their message was political. The song sought to call attention to the 47 homeless deaths in Santa Cruz County in 2009. It was the highest number recorded since the county began keeping track in 1999.

The pair have also been fierce opponents to city policies that they believe unfairly target poor and homeless persons. Some downtown ordinances, for example, forbid panhandling within 14 feet of any street sign, directory sign, building or within 50 feet of any change-making machines or ATMs. Many of the ordinances discourage street performing, but Barisone says the regulations are not only legal, but also fair. He calls those ordinances “time, place, and manner regulations, and permissible under First Amendment law.”

But the “noise ordinance” that activists are challenging might provide for a long and drawn-out battle. Norse is still fighting a case from 2002 when he was thrown out of a Santa Cruz City Council meeting for making a gesture similar to a Nazi salute to then-mayor Christopher Krohn.

Michelle Doyka, a substitute schoolteacher who lives downtown, also received a citation, but her charges were dropped. Neither the police department nor the city council requested that Barisone attend her hearing. Norse, Johnson and others say she did not arrive until after the singing had finished.

Doyka, although she did not witness the singing herself, says the amount of anger at the scene shocked her. She describes residents leaning and screaming out their room windows of the St. George Hotel, trying to get the singers to be quiet. Norse could be heard yelling back, “Why don’t you live some place else then?!”

Over the coming weeks, the homeless advocates will prepare their cases to fight the infractions they are facing. But if the scene on that January afternoon is any indication, tensions around the issues of homelessness and street performing will continue to run on high. Doyka remembers admiring the present officers who made the best out of a difficult situation fueled by upset residents and discontented singers.

“Even being a schoolteacher, I think I probably would have burst into tears with all that yelling,” Doyka says. “That was a kind of Santa Cruz I’ve never been exposed to.”

Comments (4)Add Comment
Another abuse of police power for political purposes
written by John E. Colby, October 10, 2010
This incident and the subsequent court battles demonstrate how City Council members — in particular Bookshop Santa Cruz owner and Vice-Mayor Ryan Coonerty — misuse the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) as a private militia for their own economic and political agendas. Then City Attorney John Barisone acts as their enforcer by pursuing frivolous lawsuits which violate civil rights.

At the same time, the City Council, the SCPD and City Attorney John Barisone ignore serious dangers at the Mission Gardens Apartments (probably because it is a Section 8 complex), treating noise complaints there with less importance than they did the ones against Mr. Norse, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Facer. Their actions are political posturing while the apartment complex where nineteen year old surfer Carl Reimer was gunned down is left to suffer without serious attention from the SCPD, City Attorney John Barisone and the Santa Cruz City Council.

One is left to ask: why are their priorities so misplaced? Why are their values skewed when it comes to protecting citizens (from dangerous criminals)?
Darn Skippy
written by Sean Reilly, October 10, 2010
Thanks Jim! I couldn't have said it any better myself! Hopefully this is only the beginning for people to take Santa Cruz back from the vagrants and low-life population that have tried to claim our city! Its truly time to declare war on these criminals!!!
Nothing facist or creepy about it!
written by Jim Davis, September 21, 2010
Ms. Dorka was cited because she was guilty, plain and simple! Mr Reilly NEVER received a request/subpoena to go to court, so he never went. This doesn't mean Ms Dorka was innocent by any stretch of the imagination!
Today, I watched as Norse and Farcer were convicted on the same charges Ms Johnson was. These latest convictions show a citizenry and city who are fed up with groups like HUFF & PUFF acting as if they can do whatever they like, whenever they like, and we all have to just "accept" it (under the guise of free speech and the first amendment)!! Good folks like Mr Reilly are finally taking our city back, as this is only the beginning!! Norse, BJ and company, you've been warned, we the people have had it with your crap!!!!
Arresting DOYKA was Fascist-creepy
written by Becky Johnson, April 21, 2010
FROM THE ARTICLE: "He wonders, though, if Johnson and Norse are really helping the cause of street performers in Santa Cruz. He suggests that musicians downtown might not benefit from the associations with politically controversial figures."

BECKY: We all should wonder. Ms. Doyka was cited when she just sat down NEAR us. She was forced to take time off work to schedule her arraignment, to attend her arraignment. When she showed up for her trial, she found that the courts had already found her guilty a month earlier (SNAFU) even though neither BARISONE, nor SEAN REILLY, nor the citing officer, LAUREL SCHONFIELD had appeared. DOYKA had been found "guilty" in absentia when a court screw-up held the "trial" a month earlier. DOYKA, who had attended every hearing, found she already had a warrant out for her arrest!

At this point she hired attorney, ED FREY, to represent her. She was able to get the previous conviction vacated and schedule a new trial. When she, her attorney, and 4 witnesses appeared for trial, BARISONE, REILLY, and SCHONFIELD were "no shows" again and all charges against DOYKA were dismissed. She missed 3 days of work, had to hire an attorney, and was under considerable stress.

This story is not contained in the above statement "One of the cases has already been dropped."

I was convicted for singing on Friday, April 16th in Judge Jeff Almquist's court. That decision means that it is illegal to sing 2.5 songs in the "Free Speech" zone between 2:30PM and 3PM.

I was sentenced to 35 hours of community service or $250 fine.

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