The founder of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, Robert Norse, is nothing if not a personality — from his voluminous gray beard to his gregarious and passionate nature, to the extremely detailed and elaborate speech that every question or remark is likely to elicit.
Having interviewed him several times now, it’s clear that Norse lives to opine, and that has gotten him into a fair amount of trouble — he’s been arrested or asked to leave city council meetings a number of times. In 2002, he gave a mock Nazi salute when he thought a council member cut off another public commentator unfairly, and after being arrested without charges, Norse sued the council. He just won a unanimous decision in his favor from the Ninth Court of Appeals, so I met him at Yan Flower to discuss the case, as well as what he sees as much larger problems with the Santa Cruz City Council.
City on a Hill Press: What do you think your recent victory will mean for Santa Cruz?
RN: It means the city council will probably be a little more nervous about repressing people. They need to exert their own power, they think, in order to prevent other people from exercising their First Amendment rights when they’re in opposition to the council. They have a very high-handed sense of what constitutes their power. They believe they can call a “thumbs down” gesture a disruption from the audience. The real issue is they don’t like being called fascists, when they’re acting in a fascist manner.
CHP: Part of the council’s defense in this case is that removing you was “human nature.” What do you think of that?
RN: Strange defense. People in political power have a responsibility that people in their own homes don’t have. If you’re in an elected office at a public meeting, you have an obligation to hear the public, even if you don’t like what they’re saying. It may be human nature for you to say, “Hey, I want to kick this guy out cause I’ve got an armed police officer here who will back me up even if it’s a violation of the constitution.” That’s human nature, perhaps, but it’s not the best part of human nature, and [not] the way a democracy should be run.
CHP: You’ve publicly expressed that the mock-salute fiasco was no isolated incident, but part of a larger problem with the city council abusing power. What do you mean by this, and has it gotten better or worse since 2002?
RN: We have a lawless city in some respects. The mayor restricts public space and restricts public comments at city council meetings.
It’s gotten worse. Coonerty has introduced rules that are even worse than [former mayor] Rotkin’s. Coonerty’s rules require that for the public, you’re only allowed to speak for two minutes for all 18 items, put together [during a city council meeting]. It’s unlike any law in any city in California, as far as I know. You can speak five seconds for each item, if you’re lucky. You’re not allowed to talk for more than that, unless you have the consent, the sacred consent, of one of the city council members who know better than the public what items you’re allowed to talk about. That’s a clear violation of both the Brown Act and the First Amendment. This is based on the illusion that they only have limited time, when in fact they could expand the time, obviously, to accommodate people who want to talk, as, for example, the board of supervisors does, and as the Berkeley City Council does.
CHP: Several city council members, both new and old, have expressed a desire to cut homeless services spending. What do you think of their reasoning that it would free up funds for other important things, like education?
RN: And like hiring more police officers to arrest homeless people downtown, which they did in a secret, closed session last year. Well, I have to be fair, Hilary Bryant I only talked to once on the sidewalk, and David Terrazas I know only in passing, so I have to talk to them first. Coonerty, of course, is another matter entirely. He refuses to respond to things as a public official, which is a real fault.
CHP: Would you like to see more Santa Cruz residents become actively involved in local issues?
RN: Citizens need to establish alternate organs of government. Citizens need to establish essentially a parallel government where they set up their own priorities, allow their own input. Conservatives have already done this with groups like the Santa Cruz Neighbors and Take Back Santa Cruz. It’s time for the rest of us to do it so that there’s a counterbalance.