.People Question Public Gathering Rule Changes

Critics concerned about limiting public expression

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.”

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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.”

8 COMMENTS

  1. our city council has become a joke. it seems to be controlled by take back santa cruz whose ranks are full of conservative people who hate the homeless. i have lived here since 1970. for the past 10 years or so, the people who spend the most win the city council races. it has now become too business friendly and has lost touch with the heart and soul of santa cruz. do not vote for the candidates who run in clusters of three and who’s posters are on all the biggest commercial property owner’s properties. such as the wrigley building. these are the ones NOT to vote for. they pose as democrats but are much farther right. i wish they would all go back to where they came from and take their entitlement with them.

  2. Keith McHenry is not about feeding people. He is an anarchist and uses feeding as a magnet to draw in people to his objective…create chaos in a neighborhood. He moves in and does not follow any rules to keep his feedings safe. Will never seek a permit. Will
    never pay a fine. He comes to our neighborhood every day for
    4-5 hours and takes over the Town Clock Park. My neighbors stay
    home and inside while he feeds people. We have been yelled at
    and bullied with dysfunctional behaviors. After he leaves the homeless settle into our gardens, on patios and in doorways to sleep and leave garbage…even vandalize. He must be stopped.

  3. What makes me angry about this is that instead of having the courage to confront Keith McHenry head on about his unwillingness to follow any public health or public nuisance guidelines (and his continued refusal to follow any rules as he proudly repeatedly declares, including in this article), the city feels it has to create this series of guidelines about public gatherings which will affect everyone in the city in an effort to make him move (which he still won’t do). McHenry has been offered a spot in the Benchlands, which he declined because it isn’t “visible” enough. The city should enforce its existing rules, make McHenry do his food service in the Benchlands and let the rest of the city have events and protests as it always has done. It would be great if McHenry would have some self reflection about the cost of his arrogance and self-righteous stubbornness, but I am not holding my breath. Being visible and a pain in everyone’s side seems to be his greater priority.

  4. Additionally it seems the only two places now where spontaneous expressions can occur is the clock tower, and city hall. This is VERY limiting for free speech, as many other places exist that can handle large crowds and still not interfere with much. IF Food Not Bombs did get a permit, then that one of two places for spontaneous expression would be unavailable on a near continuous basis (not good).
    Feeding the homeless is considered a public expression, but not spontaneous one.
    It remains to be seen what happens, and I’m all for feeding homeless, but FNBs is also about creating the most visible homeless grandstanding possible which has done the city no favor enticing homeless to come here. It also isn’t exactly a non-profit any more, but part of the homeless industrial complex that drives pretty nice vans etc. No one knows where the money goes (well a certain someone does).

  5. First Amendment, US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – But no worries, it’s just a piece of paper, right?

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