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John Ross passes on

Author and former Humboldt County resident John Ross died in Mexico this morning, according to the Journal.

Today is the official recognition of the birth and life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., so it seems appropriate on both counts to repost an article by Ross that ran in a short-lived Humboldt County publication, Hard Times.

Virgil Payne and many others: Homegrown Racism?

by John Ross

On a sparkling noonday last May, more than a hundred outraged residents of upcountry Humboldt pounded the pavement outside the county courthouse to protest the District Attorney-approved release of a white dope grower who had purportedly just shot a 16 year-old Karuk kid to death on an Orleans street-corner under highly incriminating circumstances. at the crest of the rally, Jack Norton, author of “Genocide in Northwestern California,” took the opportunity to read the public a list of the names of some 20 people of color who have died on or in the vicinity of the Hoopa Reservation during the past decade under questionable circumstances and often with little investigation by the authorities. Norton dated his list from another courthouse demonstration ten years previous, called to protest the decision of another Humboldt County District Attorney not to prosecute a Willow Creek bartender who had just blown out the brains of one of the Hoopa Tribe’s most promising young leaders.

Five months after Norton pronounced his registry of the dead from the courthouse steps, another hundred citizens gathered at the site in equal dismay and bitterness under the watchful eye of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, a frequent visitor to Humboldt County these days. This time, demonstrators had gathered to protest the killing of Virgil Payne, a 31 year-old black community activist, at the hands of Humboldt County deputies on the Hoopa Reservation last July 25th. Payne’s death was not even the next on on Norton’s list – a 19 year-old Hoopa youth had been shot to death a month previous by a white tourist at Aikens Creek Campground, a homicide which lameduck District Attorney Bernie DePaoli deemed justifiable much as he had after the murders of Don Short and Richard Quinn, both Indians and both killed in the last year with no charges filed against the perpetrators. Since Payne’s death, the suspicious fall of another Native American from Weitchepec Bridge has caused Virgil Doolittle’s name to be added to the list of the dead. Once again, no charges have been filed in the case.

The killing of Virgil Payne under the guns of Hoopa substation deputies Tim McCollister and Dan Bessette in the late afternoon heat down a deserted access road off Highway 96, is an instructive example of the way in which justice operates on the Hoopa Reservation. For months following Payne’s death — despite four separate secret investigations by the sheriff’s department, the DA’s office, the coroner, and the Grand Jury – the only details released to the public explaining the circumstances surrounding the shooting were contained in two separate press releases issued by Sheriff-elect Dave Renner in his capacity as officer in charge of the Hoopa substation. In the first, the public was informed of a bizarre skein of events leading up to a struggle with the deputies in which Payne allegedly gained control of McCollister’s gun and had to be shot twice because lives were endangered. The second press release, issued weeks later, conceded that Payne had been shot three times but did nothing further to clarify the yet-shadowy incident.

During the two month interval between Payne’s death and the release of back-to-back reports on the shooting by the DA’s office and the Grand Jury, the rumor mill, working overtime, suggested that Payne had been summarily executed because (a) he had once filed depositions detailing acts of police brutality by Hoopa substation deputies against the local citizenry and (b) he had been monitoring payoffs from upcountry marijuana growers to substation personnel. Eye-witnesses, it was reported, had seen Payne shot without provocation by McCollister and Bessette, handcuffed and kicked and then shot again, and that the two had shaken hands in triumph as the fatally wounded black man’s life leaked out onto the dusty ground…

Issuance of the summaries of identical findings by the County Grand Jury and DA DePaoli during the first days of October, did little to soothe the suspicions of Payne’s friends and family that the 31-year old Blue Lake resident had met with an untimely end. Both reports shed little new light on how Payne was shot and merely reiterate the story of events leading up to the shooting previously issued in the Sheriff-elect’s press releases. In both the Grand Jury’s and DA’s investigations, the actual circumstances of Payne’s death remain uncorroborated by any witnesses except the two deputies who did the killing and eyewitness accounts which place burden of guilt on McCollister and Bessette were rejected out of hand by the probers. Depositions taken from the rejected eyewitnesses now form the basis of a five count violation in a civil rights suit filed by the Western Regional Office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in San Francisco Federal District Court September 22nd which retiring Sheriff Gene Cox and the two deputies must answer in the next month.

The months-long closed door parallel investigations by the Grand Jury and the DA were marked by a sticky debate during which DePaoli threatened legal action against the citizens’ panel because it would not open its deliberations to the public. Despite editorials calling for open hearings by local TV commentators and the staid Times-Standard, never a newspaper to raise its voice in defense for third world peoples, the Grand Jury refused point-blank to perform its probe in public view. Once the smoke of the acrimony had begun to lift, courthouse vets saw more politics than altruism in the polemic over public hearings. The historical truth is that, in the aftermath of the killings of five unarmed men since 1971 by law enforcement here in Humboldt County, the Grand Jury has never once returned an indictment against a sheriff’s deputy for such a shooting.

“Law enforcement in Humboldt has a persistent record of violating the civil rights of minority peoples and then covering its own act,” Oliver Jones, regional council for the NAACP told Hard Times at the September 22nd courthouse demonstration. “The filing of our suit means that within 30 days the Sheriff and his deputies will have to appear down in San Francisco to explain why they had to shoot an unarmed young black man three times at close range with a .357 Magnum and then kick him so many times in the face that every bone in it was smashed,” Jones said. The lawyer was wearing a teeshirt which read “Is Justice Blind in Humboldt County?”

The death of Virgil Payne has revived allegations that the tradition of racism is still alive and kicking here on the North Coast, a viewpoint often aired down the years since the Gunther Island massacre of hundreds of Weotts by white community leaders one dark February night a century ago. Institutional racism in Humboldt persisted throughout the exclusion of the Chinese which began in the 1880′s and was not officially wiped off the county’s law books until the late 1950′s. Older folks of color remember well the notices posted in saloons prohibiting “colored and indian”from buying booze in downtown Eureka and Arcata after World War II and newcomers who were lured to the area in the late 1960′s by expanded minority enrollment at the University (Payne came here during that era) have often expressed frustration at housing and employment discrimination practiced by the locals. As recently as last March, leaflets were being handed out around the Arcata Plaza threatening black men seen in the company of caucasian women, an incident which the local police chief declined to investigate.

The phenomena of an almost all-white Sheriff’s Department (no blacks, one Spanish-speaking deputy, one Native American) policing the Hoopa Reservation where more than a score of people of color have died under the most questionable circumstances during the past decade, is perhaps the single most lethal example of the way racism has instituted itself into the daily life of the county.

The dispute over the killings of Virgil Payne has served to alert outside authorities to Humboldt’s difficulties. The US Department of Justice, which in 1979 negotiated a “memorandum of understanding” between Indian leaders and Hoopa substation officers (community leaders now consider the agreement to have been violated), has recently sent observers into the area “to assess tensions in the wake of the Payne killing.” The NAACP has assigned a full-time investigator to the county for the next six months to probe conflicts between Humboldt’s communities of color and law enforcement and the county Human Rights Commission – recently disfunded by the Board of Supervisors – plans on conducting upcoming sessions on the reservation. Such moves, too late to redeem the deaths of Virgil Payne and the score of minority people who have gone into the ground too quietly in the past ten years, are long overdue.

Soon after the Gunther Island massacre in 1860 by white Eurekans, as Jack Norton notes in his powerful study “Genocide in Northwestern California,” a Humboldt County Grand Jury, charged with investigation the murders of hundreds of Indians, reported that “after a strict examination of all witnesses, nothing was elucidated to enlighten as to the perpetrators,” 122 years worth of injustice later, enlightenment is apparently not yet in sight.

(John Ross is the author of Murdered by Capitalism and The War Against Oblivion: The Zapatista Chronicles).

    January 17, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Johns’ death is a great and sad loss. Rest in peace, John and thank you for all you’ve done.

  2. skippy
    January 17, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    John Ross was a great man.

    An obituary of John Ross’ life and times thoughtfully prepared by Counterpunch’s Frank Bardacke and quietly referenced within Heraldo’s link, underscores Mr. Ross’ keen awareness of the impermanence and suffering inherent in this world, a subject he frequently wrote of.

    I was disheartened to read his later life beyond peaceful Arcata. Mr. Bardacke describes this best: “…bags of misery and compassion under his eyes, offset by his wonderful toothless smile and the cackling laugh that punctuated his comical riffs on the miserable state of the universe. He was among the last of the beats, master of the poetic rant, committed to the exemplary public act, always on the side of the poor and defeated.

    His tormentors defined him. A sadistic prison dentist pulled six of his teeth. The San Francisco Tac Squad twice bludgeoned his head, ruining one eye and damaging the other. The guards of Mexico’s vain, poet-potentate Octavio Paz beat him to the ground in a Mexico City airport, and continued to kick him while he was down. Israeli settlers pummeled him with clubs until he bled, and wrecked his back forever.”

    There’s more. I encourage you, the dear reader, to please give it a read; Mr. Ross, Humboldt’s ‘investigative poet’ and first rate journalist, would have liked that.


    peace, Mr. Ross. skips

  3. Anonymi
    January 17, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Sarah Palin killed him with her harsh rhetoric.

  4. Larry Glass
    January 17, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    I aways enjoyed debating with John and usually was further enlightened in the process.

  5. Anne Ziegler
    January 17, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    John was an inspiration to many. may he rest in peace.

  6. Plain Jane
    January 17, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    I didn’t know John Ross, but he was obviously a man of great courage. Jack Norton was my favorite of all history teachers. The one to blame for lighting the spark of political interest and love of history.

  7. Anonymous
    January 18, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Did you like the lectures that included the men from outer space? I sure did.

  8. Plain Jane
    January 18, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Are you referring to the Mt. Shasta legends, 6:49? I did see some pamphlets which were passed around, rumored to have belonged to Mr. Norton; but don’t recall him ever discussing this in class. It’s possible you are referring to lectures after he became a professor. He was still a high school teacher when I knew him.

  9. anonymous
    January 18, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Tim McCillister has quite a rep.

  10. Anonymous
    January 18, 2011 at 7:35 am

    These were lectures at HSU in the 70’s Jane. We kids ate that stuff up.

  11. Anonymous
    January 18, 2011 at 7:45 am

    Virgil Payne. Wasn’t that a kid that was in a wheelchair that his buddies put on the Weitchpec Bridge railing and he fell into the KLlamath and died? Anyone remember the circumstances of that?

  12. DavidIsley
    January 19, 2011 at 2:23 am

    R.I.P., John.
    You were a gift and a blessing.
    Looking forward to any future misbeahior you sniff-out on your next leg ’round that wheel.

  13. DavidIsley
    January 19, 2011 at 2:23 am


  14. skippy
    January 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    John Ross drew on wells of compassion, generosity, intuition, justice and injustice, often camouflaged by the more complicated, bristly, and prickly parts of his personality. Yes, he could be difficult, intolerant, touchy, and loud. Nonetheless, he inspired profound feelings of connection and gratitude in many people and his generosity and writing touched many more. The Arcata oldtimers will remember him holding court at the old Jambalaya bar.

    Another farewell salute and descriptive goodbye to Mr. Ross is here at the SF Bay Guardian (thanks and kudos to Ryan Burns of the NCJ for sending this gem along).


  15. Anonymous
    January 20, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Rest in peace.

  16. January 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Here’s a nice obit from The Nation:
    one from Village Voice:
    and from Moby Lives:

    This Sunday on KHSU at Sista’s Place 2:30-4:pm, Sista Soul will rebroadcast parts of a 1993 show that she did with John Ross as guest host. It is John exactly as we know and love him.
    You can listen online (live) at KHSU.org

  17. Richard
    January 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    This Sunday on KHSU at Sista’s Place 2:30-4:pm, Sista Soul will rebroadcast parts of a 1993 show that she did with John Ross as guest host. It is John exactly as we know and love him.
    You can listen online (live) at KHSU.org

    Also see great obit in The Nation:

  18. anon
    January 24, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    smoked a roach with the guy outside the jambalaya about 30 years ago…

    and read his articles in the AVA in the 90’s…

  19. skippy
    January 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Finding a quiet place to study in Nelson Hall at HSU in the early 80’s, yours truly was nearly booted out by an out-of-the-area special interest group coming in to lecture– but allowed to stay “as long as I was quiet.”

    The group encompassed a small gathering of 40-50 year olds, looking very conservative in their attire and outlook. This national group, Accuracy in Media (AIM), led by chief-fat-cat Reed Irvine suspiciously dressed in a tailored three piece suit and looking rather out of place, was here not only to collect a hefty salary and per diem expenses but to present their premise: setting the record straight on important news and media issues that have received biased, slanted coverage. Mr. Irvine and AIM called onto citizens to contact newsmakers, reporters and news corporations to end perceived and deliberate liberal media bias, giving a few examples.

    A voice from the back of the room immediately questioned their intent and agenda.

    “Who are you, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed asked.

    “I’m John Ross!” the voice answered. “And, Pilgrim, what do you do?” “I’m an Investigative Poet and Journalist!” came the reply. “Oh, do you write Letters to the Editor, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed condescendingly asked.

    John Ross boldly stood up. He wasn’t about to take this sitting down. Nor be referred to as ‘pilgrim.’ His voice thundering, John laid down his qualifications. Without missing a beat, he thoroughly peppered AIMs connections to its own bias and slants in the media, questioned their funding from right wing conservative groups ranging from the Republican Party to John Birchers, having unfavorable editors fired, and AIMs deliberate role in massacre cover-ups in El Salvador and other incidents leading all the way up to the Reagan Administration. John Ross knew his details, facts, and questions… and his direction.

    Like a train wreck, AIMs meeting came to a grinding halt. Mr. Irvine was at a flabbergasting loss to shut him up. John continued until Mr. Irvine threw down his ace card in exasperation.

    “I’ll have you arrested!” Mr. Irvine roared, “for disturbing the peace! Call the police! Now!”

    Mr. Ross countered, “I’ll have you arrested– for violating civil liberties, freedom of speech, the press, and of assembly! AIM is a front group and you’re deceptively telling lies to everyone! You’re not revealing your right wing ties and agenda to our citizens here, even when asked! AIM won’t– and doesn’t– allow free speech! What kind of fairness and accuracy is this? Go ahead, have me arrested!”

    The campus police were called. They refused to arrest Mr. Ross once both sides were explained; or, vociferously argued and yelled over. AIM and Mr. Reed, his three piece suit and his supporters, promptly packed up and left town unceremoniously. They’ve never returned. After that kind of welcome, would you?

    Pleasantly amazed and shocked over this drama unfolding before my very eyes and ears, Mr. Ross stood up for a righteous and just cause; he wasn’t merely a journalist, he was a complete fire-breathing tiger– as thin and diminutive as he initially appeared.

    At that moment I knew Arcata was a very special and unique place– and this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of Mr. John Ross.

  20. the John Ross gang
    January 25, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    hey skip — thanks for the cool remembrance. may i read it to the crowd when the s.f. memorial happens? (still waiting for a firm date on this.) be sure to visit http://www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com to check out when the memorials will be held — or send an email to obispa@gmail.com. this was a hit of vintage john ross.

  21. daniel del solar
    January 31, 2011 at 9:34 am

    KPFA.org last night did 3 minutes on John Ross. You can hear it at 6:26 pm or so of last night’s news…available online. Some words written by John, and notice of the San Francisco celebration of John’s life.

  22. skippy
    January 31, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Dearest the John Ross Gang,

    Please; yes. Read it to the crowd at the memorial. John would be mightily amused and like this, I think. Yours truly is humbly honored.

    He was a vintage hit; you see, John made a big impression on me, what one person can and should do in the face of adversity and injustice. I’m not always so good with that; John really was. That’s why I remember him so well.

    I can also relate we ‘rideshared’ together from Arcata to SF shortly after; the driver was a kind older lady who resembled Mrs. Cleaver but with her hair up in a bun and sporting horn rim glasses. She didn’t seem amused when John always came back reeking and stoned during our brief gas ‘n pee stops. Oh well, that was John. I didn’t mind, after all, she was doing the driving. John was in the back of her stationwagon, too, with the luggage. None of us wanted to sit there. And facing backwards. From Arcata to San Francisco, John took in all the scenery– backwards. We saw where we were going; John, well, he saw where we’d been– from a different perspective.

    Ross Gang, Thank you, I’m touched, thank you for your reply. I would be pleased if you read it. I rewrote the piece for Tad’s Arcata Plazoid blog to keep it alive until Tad hopefully returns, someday. Your link helped, thank you. Tad and John were very alike. I used some of the poetry by John’s loved ones for the site tonight,too, it was that moving.

    You might like the rewrite better– and the site, you can copy it easier from there than here…it’s here for you .

    Please give my love to all. John was a great man. Many owe much to him.

    peace… skippy

  23. skippy
    February 19, 2011 at 9:50 am

    John Ross Memorial
    Saturday, February 26 at 3-5 p.m.
    at The United Mission Presbyterian Church
    23rd St. and Capp

    Reception to follow:
    5-8 p.m. at Cafe La Boheme
    24th and Mission
    San Francisco

  24. Sista soul
    April 16, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Two local memorials will happen soon. April 29th at Northtown Books and May day in Trinidad.
    I will rebroadcast parts of two other shows we did together on KHSU. From 1994 and 1996 on:
    Sunday April 24 from 2:30-4 on KHSU. you can hear it on line at KHSU.org
    Sista Soul

  25. don
    June 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Here is a piece that John wrote in 1996 titled ‘Treasure of the Costa Grande – US timber companies open operations in Mexico’. Link:


    I was involved in exposing this story in Boise, Idaho, breaking the news. We got John to take photos of the mill down in Mexico and then brought him up to Boise to speak before the media and public. So I got to know John just a bit. He was very likable, and his commitment and determination was clear to anyone.

    I and two academics at Boise State University subsequently got a long article published in a Denver University law journal. Boise Cascade threatened to sue the university, intimidating them to eventually retract the article. The authors sued the Univ. and settled out of court for defamation. Boise Cascade keep up the pressure on us for some time, constantly threatening to sue us, especially if we distributed the law journal article. The most controversial aspect of the article had to do with reporting from John. Here it is:


    Not surprisingly, Boise Cascade hated John.

    Don Smith
    Cave Junction, Oregon

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