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
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.”