Protesters gather in front of Wells Fargo Bank on Feb. 15 to support the 11 individuals who have charges against them for actions taken during an occupation of a vacant bank in November. Photo by Toby Silverman.

As the Occupy Santa Cruz encampment in San Lorenzo Park entered its final stages in late November of last year, an estimated 20 to 30 demonstrators who claimed to be “anonymously, autonomously acting in solidarity with Occupy Santa Cruz” broke into and occupied a vacant bank building at 75 River St. for three days, beginning on Nov. 30. That was nearly three months ago.

Today, 11 alleged members of this group, known as the “Santa Cruz Eleven,” are facing a total of 22 charges after local authorities completed an investigative identification process. All were charged with felonies except for Gabriella Ripley-Phipps, who was charged with a third-degree misdemeanor for delaying an officer.

“Three people were arrested in their homes and taken to the county jail,” said Tom Jones,* who is currently facing charges. “Others like myself were able to get ourselves to the county jail and turn ourselves in.”

The November occupation racked up an estimated $35,000 in damages, according to police records.

Among the charges filed against the 11 are claims of conspiracy to commit a crime, felony vandalism, trespassing, and refusing to leave private property at the request of police and the building’s lease owners, according to court records.

The list of defendants includes long-time Santa Cruz activist Robert Norris Kahn, also known as Robert Norse.

District Attorney Bob Lee announced the indictments on Feb. 8. One member of the group was “arrested, handcuffed and taken from her home with pancakes burning on the stove,” according to an Occupy Santa Cruz report.

Only four arrests have occurred as of Feb. 22, as the remaining defendants continue to seek legal advising in addition to attending their scheduled arraignments. The sheriff’s office’s jail records show not all of the 11 warrants had been served as of Feb. 22. Those listed in the complaint are all expected to appear in court for their scheduled arraignment dates.

In late December 2011, Santa Cruz police announced they had identified 13 demonstrators who had occupied and vandalized the vacant Wells Fargo-owned building, and subsequently submitted the names to the district attorney’s office. At this time, police claimed much of the information regarding the 13 proposed suspects came from community members who viewed photos from the incident.

Eleven of the 13 suspects charged with felonies were allegedly identified in this manner. Information on the other two suspects was not released.

“I think [the claim that community members helped identify those involved] is very misleading,” Jones said. “All the testimony I’ve seen in the documents was of police identifying people.”

The Santa Cruz police department’s Deputy Chief of Police Steve Clark said all accused were accurately identified as participants in the incident.

“There are no mistaken identities in this particular case,” Clark said. “We have photo or video evidence of each of the individuals who have been charged.”

A counter-protest in support of the defendants was held on Feb. 15 in front of the Wells Fargo Bank, across the street from the still-vacant building where the initial occupation took place. The counter-protest began at 3 p.m., and after 40 minutes of demonstrations forced closure of the bank for the remainder of the day. One person was arrested.

“I don’t think people should be arrested for expressing their views,” said Santa Cruzan Courtney Oberholser, who observed the protest while making a trip to the ATM.

However, not all community members were in support of the occupation back in November.

“The feedback we got from community members is they felt a much higher sense of violation, especially business owners, property owners, homeowners,” Clark said. “They felt that ‘if people could do that in this building, they could come do that in my house or in my business. What are you, the police going to do about it?’”

Among the attendees of the Feb. 15 protest were some of the 11 people charged in the indictments, who came to vouch their support for the cause.

“It was a non-violent civil disobedience action,” said Becky Johnson, one of the 11 charged. “The people who did enter the building knew they were breaking the law but did it to draw attention to the greater good.”

Johnson, a local activist and 1988 UC Santa Cruz graduate, taught in Santa Cruz for nine years. While Johnson is currently working as an in-home support service worker, she hopes to return to teaching in the future. The charges filed against her could mean more than fines and jail time.

“I am in a very bad position,” Johnson said. “Even though I am completely innocent, a single police officer identified me inside the building. It really comes down to this officer’s word against mine, and in my experience juries tend to side with the police officer. If I am convicted of these charges I will lose my teaching credentials.”

Of the 11 defendants named by the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s office, Judge Ariadne Symons has arraigned seven, including Johnson and Norse. All but Norse pleaded not guilty. Norse was scheduled to continue in court on Feb. 29 after asking Judge Symons for time to hire an attorney.

Those who plead not guilty are required to obey all laws, cooperate with police, and stay away from the 75 River St. location. A preliminary hearing for several of the accused defendants is scheduled for
March 5.