Mendocino Talking: Will Parrish

[Author’s Note: Will Parrish is an Investigative Reporter and Community Activist who writes for the AVA and other publications. He is well known for his role in organizing the CalTrans Willits Bypass construction protests and his subsequent arrest and jailing for occupying a “wick drain stitcher” for 12 days to block draining and filling of wetlands (savelittlelakevalley.org). He has recently created an Indiegogo fund-raising project to take the next steps in reporting on California’s destructive water projects (indiegogo.com/projects/resistance-to-watershed-destruction-in-california). –DS]

I grew up in Santa Cruz. My dad was in mid-level management at a disk manufacturer in Scotts Valley. We lived in a suburban neighborhood that was fortunately across the road from Henry Cowell Redwood State Park near Felton, which I really treasure. Most everything I understand about our relationship with ecosystems I learned from the redwood forest. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for a big part of my child, an incredibly sharp, intelligent person who went back to school when she was in her 40s and got an advanced math degree. Now she’s a community college instructor. So I had a caring and intellectually-oriented mom who had a big influence on me.

Because my main criteria was going to the most beautiful school I saw, I attended UC Santa Cruz from 2000 to 2004 because it was in a Redwood Forest, comfortable surroundings for me. My main focus in journalism and activism was developed there especially after 9/11 happened… which was pretty influential in shaping my politics. Here we have this catastrophic event with all kinds of ways to interpret it, and I became involved in the anti-war and environmental movements with an anti-imperialist critique of United States foreign policy. I wrote for the student newspaper with my own independent research projects like the University of California’s ties to the war machine, especially the nuclear weapons complex. We opposed this insane imperial foreign policy which was on the ascendent at that point, and it made sense to look at what our own institutions were doing to contribute to that. Through that I got into a muckraking-style of journalism. From what I was told, I was the last student admitted to the really good journalism program run by Conn Hallinan before it was cut. The program's slogan was “Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted” — pretty good for a journalism program at a mainstream university. That was a major influence on the path I’m on now.

After graduation, I was hired by a non-profit in Santa Barbara called the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. They were looking for someone with writing skills to contribute to their policy campaigns in Washington D.C. including their U.C. Nuclear Free project. I was there for two and a half years.

People need to radically alter their relationship with ecosystems in order to bring about justice and any chance for a livable future on the planet for most life. I’m drawn to working with Indigenous solidarity organizing because I see their kinds of narratives and relationships with land, and the kind of economies with scale and practice that are sustainable and just.

I eventually made my way to Laytonville, and then to Ukiah in 2010 and began living with some friends in a local intentional community.

I became involved in the Willits Bypass protests through friends like Amanda Senseman and Sara Grusky who were putting their energies there. I did some research and realized the timeline was to start construction in about a month, January 28, 2013. I wrote an article about how much wetlands and watershed would be destroyed, how unnecessary that it was… I started co-leading tours of the destructive bootprint of the project. Then, Amanda went up in a tree to sit and block construction. That was it for me. I became deeply involved in organizing against the bypass. Almost every day I was up in Willits with the goal of defending the earth against this horrible, unnecessary, wasteful, environmentally destructive boondoggle.

On the first day of construction, CalTrans began cutting some trees down which led to a bunch of us challenging them in person on what they were doing, finding some bird nests in the construction zone, which forced them to stop and delayed them about a month. We began receiving attention and we heard from people across the country, even other countries, who were inspired by what we were doing. I was writing articles about it every week and suddenly we were in the thick of a bold campaign against CalTrans.

CalTrans called in the California Highway Patrol who arrived with huge numbers of officers in a militarized occupation of Willits and the construction zone… officers fully clad in riot gear bringing in choppers, roving around on quads. We had about 30 people, mostly seniors, involved in protesting and five tree sitters, and they send in over 70 officers in a ridiculous show of force. That injustice just typifies so many things about the dominant system and what it values, and that just enflamed me to continue doing everything I could to protest it. I had been arrested six times before in political actions, dating back to when I was 20, but this was more intense. The onus was on me as a main organizer because these were my friends and this is where I lived. I felt the responsibility to give as much as I could.

CalTrans brought in the Wick Drain Stitchers. Wick drains are designed to wick groundwater out of moist areas and accelerate soil compaction to stabilize a construction area. The process uses Wick Drain Stitchers which are vibrating, pile-driving cranes with high towers. Essentially, they create an underground dam, affecting ground-water through-flow. This was the main choke-point of the project at that point; they needed to get this work done to move forward. It crossed my mind that we had these tree sitters, why not occupy one of these high-tower cranes? So I decided to do just that [see "Living in a Wick Drain Stitcher" by Will Parrish]. I had the intention of living up there for some period, and writing about it later.

I lived up there for 12 days, without food for five of those days, and got drenched for two of those days by an unseasonal storm. The cops arrested six people who tried to bring me food, and even refused to let doctors come check on me. After I'd gone without food for five days the County Sheriff, Tom Allman, approached my stitcher and calls up to me: “Hey, Will. Sheriff Tom Allman down here. I’ve been in touch with your mom and she’s very worried about you. I think you’ve made your point and it’s time to come down. I’ll take you out for a hot meal. I'll cite and release you. Let’s get this over with. I’ll be back with a speakerphone to talk to your mom.” I hadn’t eaten in five days and was drenched, and I’m in this kind of delirious state, having felt like I was on the verge of hypothermia at any minute, praying to the gods for the sun to come out, and he says he’s going to put my mom on speakerphone. Right at that moment the sun comes out for the first time in three days. It was a sign! I tell my mom I’m going to be okay… don’t worry.

The second of the two stitchers was parked 60 feet away, and two hours later this guy with 100 pounds of gear climbs it and announces he is bringing me food and water. The CHP response is to bring the machine operator out who threatens his life by shaking the crane up and down. The guy cries out that he doesn’t want to die. Totally disgusting. But he doesn’t give in. Eventually, the machine operator withdrew. The climber tosses me a line, we rig up a pulley system, and I drag across packs full of Cliff Bars, one-gallon water bottles, two cell phones, a battery-powered phone charger, and a battery-powered radio. He left before sunlight the next morning and was never identified or apprehended, which caused the CHP huge embarrassment since they were literally surrounding the cranes 24-7.

That next day the CHP sends out their lieutenant who says, “Hey, Will, we’ve had a change in policy. You’re going to be allowed to have food deliveries at an appointed time every night.” They had looked bad trying to starve me out, so now they had to change their tactics.

On the 12th day, the SWAT team arrived with a couple of cherry pickers and a helicopter… a total of 48 CHP officers were participating in this extraction. There were reporters and television cameras, and what appeared to be most of CalTrans' work crew had assembled to watch the show. The first SWAT team members came up on a cherry picker with guns aimed at me. I’m sitting there with my arms in this metal lock box. I say, “Do you really think the guns are necessary?” One of the guys aiming the guns says, “We don’t really want to do this, but we have to.” They have saw blades to cut me out which took about 2 hours. I spent a couple of days in jail, and then began the legal process which is still being played out.

I expected to be treated like a tree sitter, maybe charged with a few infractions or a few misdemeanors, but CalTrans and the District Attorney, David Eyster, decided to go after me for restitution, which was the first time that had come into play. So I asked for a jury trial which triggered DA Eyster to pile on a huge number of charges. Technically I was facing a jail sentence of eight years. Then came this elaborate game where I’ve been to court about 20 times with nothing substantive happening much of the time, negotiations involving the lawyers, the judge, and CalTrans. They finally settled a week before the trial was to start and I got two misdemeanors and 100 hours of community service. The restitution part has not been settled yet. I've had great pro bono representation from Omar Figueroa of Sebastopol.

By now at the Willits Bypass site, most of the damage has been done, but the Willits Environmental Center and others are still in court on the worst part of the project, which is filling wetlands, in this case by using soil from the old Apache mill site north of town. CalTrans has not been able to move on that yet, though they've tried for more than a year.

My journalism is an extension of my desire to take on powerful interests, to work for justice, to work for environmental sanity in the world. I don’t typically get involved in the stuff I’m writing about in quite this way, but in this case it was a deeply personal thing for me. My journalism is something that complements this kind of action because people know me through my journalism, and the purpose of my journalism is to communicate things in a way that rouses people, that compels a response from them. I didn’t think anything communicated the dire nature of this situation other than doing something physically. Communicating with my body is an extension that helps to make the impact of what I’m putting down on the page stronger and helps people see it in a different way. I understand why journalists don’t do this kind of thing typically, but I’m already not playing by the same rules. I'm writing for publications that openly promote class warfare, not for a slick, professional newspaper, which gives me the freedom to pursue things passionately.

My work has appeared in the internationally-celebrated online journal and print magazine Counterpunch, and has also appeared in Z Magazine, the Earth First Journal!, and Reclamations, and on web sites such as Alternet and ZNet. I plan to continue doing this kind of work, and to do it for a broader audience, well into the future. That's where my Indiegogo project focusing on water, drought, and resistance to environmental injustices comes in.

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