The city of Santa Cruz’s rules for public gatherings are getting an update, and some local activists and organizers are worried about what these changes will mean for protests.
Last Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council approved a new set of rules intended to clarify the guidelines for when public gatherings will need a permit. The council approved a simplified definition for a “public gathering,” which the city interprets as any political, civic, religious or other public activity. According to the new changes, public gatherings only need to meet one of the following criteria to trigger a permit requirement: lasting for more than an hour, being conducted on a regular basis for more than two weeks, or having more than 75 attendees.
The updates come after a year of multiple protests and public demonstrations, some of which prompted criticism from Santa Cruz residents and city officials. Last fall, for instance, thousands of cyclists swarmed city streets and wreaked havoc on local traffic. Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Santa Cruz saw local demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement that were largely peaceful.
City officials say the changes to the ordinance have been a long time coming. The language of the city’s previous public gathering rules has been murky; the definition of a public gathering and expression under the First Amendment, versus a gathering for something like a special event, was confusing for the Parks and Recreation department, which issues these permits.
“It’s really about clarity,” Cassie Bronson, the Deputy City Attorney, said at the council meeting. “I believe that this ordinance is a loosening of restrictions to be quite honest, as compared to the previous ordinance.”
Bronson pointed to the new exceptions for spontaneous events, such as protests that take place in response to breaking news, and under the new ordinance will not require permits. The city also decreased the time that organizers need to apply for a permit ahead of an event, from five to three days.
But there were also changes in criteria that some say make the new rules more restrictive. There is no fee to apply for the permit, but organizers will need to pay for any associated costs for provisions that the city deems necessary for the event. That includes whether or not a public gathering will need to provide sanitation facilities, like restrooms, or require police officers to manage traffic or crowds. If a public gathering takes place without a permit, organizers could now be hit with a public nuisance violation that could be taken to court—before, infractions were limited to fines.
There were also a few city council members who raised concerns about what these new regulations will mean for Food Not Bombs, and many who called into the city council meeting said these updates were a direct attack on the nonprofit that distributes food for people experiencing homelessness at the Clock Tower every afternoon. Because the organization hands out food every day and is on city property, it meets the criteria of being an ongoing event, and according to city standards, the nonprofit would now need to obtain a permit to continue operating.
Keith McHenry, who co-founded Food Not Bombs, is not worried about the new permitting guidelines, and is not planning on applying for a permit. He plans on handing out food as usual and he says he is done trying to coordinate with city officials.
“I’ve tried talking with city officials,” McHenry says. “At this point, I’m going to continue doing what’s important, and that’s helping the homeless. I’m not worried about fines. If anyone should be worried it’s the city.”
Other activists, like local organizer Thairie Ritchie, are worried about the implications of the new requirements for permits. Ritchie notes that these updates come as the pandemic restrictions continue to loosen, and demonstrations are more likely to pick up again. Specifically, Ritchie is worried these increased regulations might deter protests from happening in the first place, and broaden the city’s authority over which demonstrations get to happen.
“It really puts a cap on a lot of efforts that’s been kind of raised within the last year and a half when it comes to genuine organizing and grassroots organization,” says Ritchie. “City officials more often than not have no clue about what’s going on, and to kind of have that final say-so about whether a protest should happen or not … it’s a huge deterrent and limits public expression and our First Amendment right.”
Parks and Recreation Director Tony Elliot says he’s not sure what would cause the city to deny a permit for a public gathering. He has also never seen that happen before, and says that’s not the intention of the update to the ordinance.
“The rationale for permits, whether it’s a special event permit or a public gathering and expression permit, is to ensure that the activity is safe and will be well-managed,” says Elliot. “But it also relates to fairness to the community and access to parks and public spaces. And so where an event or public gathering and expression activity is not permitted or is ongoing, it is taking away public access.”