Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

CHP Fires ‘Less Lethal’ Beanbag Projectiles as Willits Bypass Tree-Sitters Removed, Arrested

California Highway Patrol officers fired ‘less lethal’ projectiles at tree-sitters at at least one activist protesting the construction of a highway around Willits, in Mendocino County.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that dozens of CHP officers, including many SWAT team members in riot gear, broke up the nine-week protest against the Willits Bypass. According to Caltrans, the state agency responsible for highway, bridge and rail transportation, planning, construction and maintenance, the Willits Bypass is being built to “relieve congestion, reduce delays and improve safety” by re-routing through traffic on US Highway 101 around the town of 4,900 people located 135 miles (217 km) north of San Francisco.

The environmentalist protest group Save Little Lake Valley has been attempting to block construction of the $210 million bypass, which it says will have detrimental consequences for the local environment as well as the economy.

“The current plan destroys the last remaining wetlands in the valley, oak and pine forests, and habitat for many animals, including coho salmon and northern spotted owl,” Save Little Lake Valley claims.

Activists had occupied numerous tall pine trees in an attempt to thwart construction and raise awareness. CHP officers resorted to use of force to remove five tree-sitters who refused to descend from their protest perches. Officers climbed trees and used cherry-pickers to elevate themselves to a level where they were able to fire ‘less lethal’ bean-bag projectiles at at least one activist, Martin Katz, who refused to move. CHP said Katz had grabbed at an officer who wasn’t secured in a cherry-picker.

“Katz violently resisted efforts to arrest him,” CHP Officer Steve Krul told reporters. “At one point he grabbed onto an officer about 70 feet off the ground. This left the officers with no choice but to fire non-lethal bean bags to help secure him.”

The five tree-sitters, as well as three protesters on the ground, were arrested during the day-long operation that included at least 20 police vehicles and dozens of officers. Among those arrested was 24-year-old Amanda Senseman of Willits, who goes by the name ‘Warbler.’ She’d been camped out in a ponderosa pine 71 feet above the ground for two months, and had been on a hunger strike since last Thursday.

“That bypass is going to plow through our entire valley, all the way down into the wetlands,” ‘Warbler’ told KQED in February. “

Tree-sitters Travis Jochimsen, 30, of Lancaster, 52-year-old Mark Herbert of Willits and Gean Weilbach were also arrested. Arrested on the ground were Sara Grusky, William Parrish and Scott Tenney.

Initial reports claimed CHP officers fired rubber-coated steel bullets at the activists. State Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) said she was “shocked and dismayed” to learn about what she called “an excessive use of force” by the CHP, claiming she had attempted to mediate an agreement between protesters and police. Evans said the CHP had vowed to refrain from removing the tree-sitters until they had a court order to do so.

“They literally bulldozed their way through the protesters in a very aggressive manner, removing the ability to try to mediate the issue and try to smooth things over,” Evans angrily told reporters on Tuesday.

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow also appeared surprised at his officers’ actions.

“We were trying to work out the best way to resolve this issue without having to remove people,” Farrow said.

In addition to the environmental impact of the bypass, activists also claim the project will damage the local economy.

“The current bypass is six miles long, with no exits in Willits,” Save Little Lake Valley says. “Caltrans estimates 26 local businesses will fail due to the bypass. The remaining will see a 10 percent drop in revenue. This is long-term local job loss… The bypass means less revenue for Willits, less services for Willits.”

Small businesses line both sides of Highway 101, beckoning travelers to stop and browse. One of those local merchants, who goes by the name “King,” owns Light-Up Coats, a funky clothing store that sells hand-made faux-fur outerwear popular with young attendees of festivals such as Burning Man.

“[The bypass] is horribly wrong,” “King” told Moral Low Ground. “Everything about it is wrong. It’s going to kill small businesses. It does nothing for traffic. It’s only good for truckers.”

“This is big business; Caltrans really doesn’t give a shit about traffic in our small town,” “King” added, pointing to the fact that 70 percent of traffic going through Willits is local and will still be there after the bypass. Save Little Lake Valley also cites the 70 percent figure on its website, adding that the bypass is also physically unsafe, noisy and ugly.

Jamie O’Malley, co-owner of Zaza’s Bakery Bistro and Gallery, located just off Highway 101, was torn about whether the bypass will be good for Willits.

“They could have had a better plan,” O’Malley told Moral Low Ground. “[The bypass] could be a good thing; it could allow Main Street to be Main Street.” But O’Malley worries about the environmental impact of the massive construction project, citing damage to the valley’s wetlands as her main concern. “I’m a tree-lover at heart,” she said.

Caltrans says it investigated more than 30 alternative routes for the bypass before making its decision, which it claims is the least environmentally damaging option.

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