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).