“The old robber barons of the Middle Ages who plundered sword in hand and lance in rest were more honest than this new aristocracy of swindling millionaires.
Atlantic Monthly August 1870
Will Parrish is a young journalist In Mendocino County. He’s a rare type in his field these days. He is fearless, he takes on the hard targets, the biggest ones he can find, and he writes with passion and commitment. If we still have muck-rakers, literary crusaders in the best sense, he’s one.
Now he’s in the dock again. Where else? This time it’s at the mercy of CalTrans (the California Department of Transportation) and its corporate colluders in Big Asphalt, the billion dollar construction barons whose bulldozers relentlessly march across this once lovely landscape. They tenaciously pave the way for the “developers” who inevitably follow, where ever it is, whatever the cost.
More, CalTrans has the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in tow, as well as the state’s administration, various congressmen, state senators and a hodge-podge of local time-servers.
They charge that Will – who two summers ago occupied a giant wick drain-stitcher, a grotesque piece of machinery indispensable in carving freeways through reluctant terrains – single-handedly delayed their $210 million dollar, six mile long Willits freeway extension project, to the tune of – depending on which day you ask – $490.000, that was last summer’s figure. Most recently, this figure was revised downwards, $150.000. They demand “restitution.” Hence Will’s most recent hearing, Superior Court in the County seat, Ukiah, October 10.
These California conspirators, this wrecking crew of Robber Barons, of venal politicians, are the true inheritors of the spirit of the Stanford’s, Crocker’s and Huntington’s, the despoiling railroad magnates of first Gilded Age, nineteenth century. This cabal, now draped in the robes of our “great” State of California, is adding yet another chapter in the long sad story of this once “promised land.”
What’s happening? And why? Will is worried about climate change. He’s worried about water and its future and ours. It’s a global issue certainly, he knows this. It’s also an issue in his own backyard, the Little Lake Valley in northern Mendocino County. Will writes about vineyards, he writes about marijuana, he writes about timber; he’s now engaged in producing a series of studies on California water politics that will certainly establish him as an authority in this field. Counterpunch readers will want to look at “The Politics of the World’s Most Hydrologically Altered Landmass” (June 09, 2014).
Willits, the “Gateway to the Redwoods,” Is home to perhaps 5,000 people. It’s a pleasant place, nestled in the Little Lake Valley, 150 miles north of San Francisco in northern Mendocino County. In most accounts, it’s seen better days; the timber industry remains a shadow of its former self, the same with related industries. Many, of course, cherish this respite.
There, for twenty years now, good citizens of Willits have fought to protect this Valley, above all its wetlands – to save the Valley from CalTrans and its longstanding plan to build a “bye-pass” around little Willits, a freeway extension of Highway 101 on the scale of a Southern California I-5 interchange. And also, assuredly, from the rapacious entourage of enterprises the will assemble along its path. There is, it appears, no corner of the state, however obscure, however peaceful, safe beyond the reach of a Lowe’s and a Target to call its own.
CalTrans, needless to say, responded to these citizens with intransigence, rejecting every conceivable compromise, eschewing cost cutting proposals, marginalizing reports of environmental impacts, indifferent to sacred sites – there have been Pomo people in the valley for many millennia.
In the spring of 2013, the conflict came to a head. Tree-sitters joined the fray, demonstrations multiplied. Then on June 20, in what the activists of SOLLV (Save Our Little Lake Valley) call “an act of desperation… our last chance,” they told me, Will Parrish (who had been chronicling the Bypass opposition) made his stand: “I threw myself in because the more I came to understand this the more upset I became. The Willits project epitomizes so much of everything that is wrong; it epitomizes the power dynamics that underlie all the problems I see in society.” (Will is first to say that he is just one among the many in this movement)
“I climbed up one of the two wick drain stitchers. They are basically big towers that drive the wick drain tubes into the ground. They are derrick-style towers, about 100 feet tall.
“I climbed up about half way and put my body inside the framework of the machine. I was there for a little over eleven days.”
Will went five days without food, surviving nearly three days of unseasonal rain, which brought bitter cold, prior to 100 degree afternoons. “Physically it was the hardest thing I have ever done…”
He was watched by the CHP 24/7, who aimed flood lights at his small platform through every night and, in some cases, blared music from their patrol car speakers at 1 and 2 in the morning. They turned back supporters who tried to bring him food, water, medical attention.
Then the CHP specialists (SWAT Team) arrived from Sacramento (our own “special forces”); armed to the teeth, they picked him off the machine and arrested him.
Next, of course, the wheels of justice. The District Attorney, David Eyster, first charged Will with multiple misdemeanors, threatening him with as much as 8 years in prison. Then, delay after delay, this is the way the system works, justice delayed, justice denied. Suffocate the protesters in legality. Discourage them. Frighten them. But an impressive grassroots support campaign rallied in Will’s defense. The case was settled, in most respects, seven months later with the DA softening his stance and Will accepting “community service” and two misdemeanors, which become infractions after a two-year “delayed entry of judgment.”
Now comes CalTrans, demanding “restitution,” that is the “costs of delays,” allegedly the result of the drain stitch occupation. CalTrans first claimed $490,000.
Judge John Behnke, Mendocino County Superior Court, presided. Eric Wong represented the state, (that’s “us”, “the people”); Paul Sequeira, recently arrived from fisticuffs in Petaluma, Assistant DA representing the County and Omar Figueroa, represented Will. Some 40 supporters, nearly all from Willits, filled the cheap seats. Behnke was placed on the bench by Arnold Schwarzenegger; before coming to Ukiah he served the Pacific Lumber Company (of Headwaters and Maxxam note) in Scotia.
Behnke explained that in law Will had no right to cross examine; but apparently out of the goodness of his heart, he allowed this. Susan Tappan, one of two construction managers for CalTrans in Willits, testified for the state. Figueroa walked her through her calculations; they nearly all seemed to be, at best estimates, shifting even as we listened. The grand total quickly appeared to be $154,000, not the original $490,000. Then, it was reduced to a mere $108,000 – much more affordable.
It turned out, not surprisingly, that CalTrans was including costs for a day, June19, before Will even climbed the wick stitcher. The Judge, conveying good humor throughout, responded that he had no intention of including June 19 in any calculation. Behnke later claimed he “knew” Will didn’t have $100,000. He sees someone’s been “padding the bills.” He “gets it,” he said more than once. Still, Will would have to pay something.
The Asst. DA followed suit. He, however, was even nicer than Behnke, who had recognized Will’s “lofty ideals”. Sequeira explained that he was sympathetic to the protesters, Parrish’s action was an “extraordinary” act; it was part of a great tradition, “our country was founded in protest…” (“and racism and genocide,” soto voce from the rabble.) He worried that this seemed a case of big, bad CalTrans and the big, bad construction corporations against the little man. Oh, California. Wong said nothing.
(An aside here, how right he is! DeSilva Gates Construction, frequently referred to by Ms. Tappan, boasts 1000 employees and revenues of $350 million. Ghilotti Brothers, ubiquitous along the 101 corridor, was recently fined $950,000 in a settlement for truck drivers who sued the San Rafael construction company for refusing to pay them for two to three hours they spent each day loading and unloading their trucks and driving to and from construction sites. California’s biggest include Granite, Swinerton Inc., Webcor Builders Inc., DPR Inc., all with revenues in the billions.)
So, Sequeira felt Will’s pain. But, he concluded, there are “always costs.” It’s not the big guys who suffer. It’s us, he reveals, the taxpayers! WE suffer. That was the low point. What more is there to say?
Behnke gave Figueroa three weeks to consider late submissions from the state, and so Will waits again. And so does the campaign. All of this, must one say, is clearly designed to take the wind out of their sails. But no one’s quitting. Not SOLLV. Not Will.
It should be added here that this dispute should not be reduced to some backyard brawl in the boondocks. True, the acreage of wetlands is not as great as the great San Francisco Bay developments of the first half of the 20th century or the conversions of marshes to monocrop plantations in the Central Valley of 1850-1950 The length of the highway extension is not so long. The stakes are still high, certainly that’s the way the authorities see it. When, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers somewhat unexpectedly suspended CalTrans permits last summer, questioning environmental issues, and caused considerable delay (will the Army Corps of Engineers have to pay CalTrans restitution?) none other than Congressman Jared Huffman (D- San Raphael, the representative of the establishment up here) rushed to the rescue. Huffman boasts of his involvement, “personally” meeting with agencies, multiple phone calls made, “the impasse needed to be resolved quickly.” His interest was “in getting it /the bye-pass/ over the finish line.” Why? For the taxpayers sake, of course. But, then, just when were we asked to come up with the $210 million for the bye-pass in the first place? Will wrote about Huffman’s betrayal here, immediately after it took place.
Highway 101, “the Redwood Highway,” the road from San Francisco to the Oregon border, was built in the first place to facilitate the timber industry, an industry that had shifted inland after the exhaustion of the old growth Redwood coastal forests. It served its purpose. The old growth is gone, taken by yet another generation of robber barons. Still, the industry scrambles for every last such tree, poisoning the earth, wasting the watersheds; they too want 101 widened – at Willits, at Richardson Grove, along the Smith River Canyon. Today, however, the stakes seem higher than ever. There remains a vast greenbelt between the towns and tree farms of southern Oregon and the sprawl that is raging northward from the Bay Area. The ever-widened highways of the south, the hideous developments that straddle them, threaten far more, then, than just the interiors of Marin and Sonoma counties. California is already over-crowded, much of it paved over; it – we – need green space, wetlands, open country. So does the earth. Will’s right.
No restitution. Support Will. He’s paid already. See: www.savelittlelakevalley.org
Letters can be sent to, Paul Sequeira, Assistant District Attorney, 100 State St
Cal Winslow’s newest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review Press 2014). He is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, (PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), editor of Waterfront Workers, New Perspectives on Race and Class (Illinois, 1998), His latest book is a collection of the writings of Edward Thompson, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review Press, 2014).and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010). He is co-editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area gathering, Retort. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org