Homeless advocate arrested

Protester outside City Council Chambers taken into custody

Chico Police arresting homeless activist Robert Van Fleet who was protesting outside City Council Chambers March 2, 2021. (Video screen capture by Ken Smith)

A protester was arrested outside the Chico City Council Chambers last night (March 2), just minutes before the council’s meeting was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Robert Van Fleet, 74, was taken into custody at around 5:54 p.m. while participating in a “die-in” style protest. The action was organized by homeless advocates critical of ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments by Chico police and city staff under the direction of the conservative-majority council. It was also intended to recognize at least 18 members of the homeless community who have died in the last year.

The reason for Van Fleet’s arrest remains unclear. According to the Chico Police Department’s website, he was charged with obstructing/resisting a peace officer or emergency personnel—a misdemeanor. However, asked at the scene, CPD Lt. Mike Williams—who identified himself as the lead officer present that evening to several protesters—told the CN&R that Van Fleet was arrested for “a city ordinance violation, then he failed to identify himself.”

  • Police officers approach homeless advocate Robert Van Fleet during protest, March 2, 2021. (Photo by Ken Smith)

When Williams was unable to recall the specific code violation, another officer cited section 9.44.018 of the city’s Municipal Code, “obstructing the entrance of a building.” That violation is part of the offenses against public property ordinance, which the city adopted in 2015 and critics say is designed to criminalize homelessness.

The protest began at 5 p.m. and attracted more than 50 participants by 5:30 p.m. Several protesters laid on the ground with blankets and pillows on the east side of Council Chambers, where council members often enter. Van Fleet and fellow activist Chris Nelson positioned themselves at the bottom of the steps between the chambers and the city’s Municipal Center. A cadre of nine officers—including Chief Matt Madden—arrived at 5:39 p.m. Nelson was also threatened with a citation, but officers relented when she said she’d move at 6 p.m. when the meeting began.

Police trying to move Van Fleet said he was blocking entrance to the steps, but several protesters walked through without issue to demonstrate that wasn’t the case. Council Member Sean Morgan, escorted by Madden, also passed by Van Fleet unobstructed.

Van Fleet posted to Facebook later in the evening that he was cited at the Chico Police station and released shortly after his arrest.

During the meeting, several members of the community took advantage of the first opportunity since the beginning of the pandemic to speak in real time (via Zoom) to the council to express their concerns about the sweeps of homeless encampments. The city’s fifth large-scale enforcement action against homeless campers was carried out earlier yesterday, as campers in Bidwell Park between Highway 99 and Madrone Avenue were rousted.

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