City council candidate Alicia Kuhl is an outspoken organizer within the unhoused community. Anti-homeless elements in Santa Cruz have targeted Kuhl for years on social media; her candidacy led some Nextdoor.com commenters to question whether someone living in an RV even has the right to participate in the political process. * Over the past few months of her candidacy, Kuhl has received 5 parking violation tickets totalling nearly $400. These tickets were issued by “volunteer police” through a program initiated by SCPD in 2018. While these volunteer cops are unarmed and cannot make arrests, they have considerable power to make life harder for the poor and working class in Santa Cruz. Moreover, connections between these volunteer officers and the political forces opposed to Kuhl’s candidacy raises the possibility that volunteer officers have been empowered to enact political retribution
In a town where many residents suffer extreme rent burden, it’s unsurprising to find workers, students, and disabled people living in vehicles. The situation has only worsened with the pandemic and its associated unemployment. Targeting this precarious population with nuisance tickets for such violations as “tires too small” does nothing to solve the underlying crime of severe income inequality, it only makes it harder for people to maintain their vehicles and find secure housing.
“I personally know dozens of kids (aged 16-25) who racked up hundreds of dollars of fines when they lost their housing here and were forced to live on the streets. Even if they eventually find housing, they can spend years working to pay off those damned fines so they can get their license back or rebuild their credit,” explains Nina Stratton, local advocate for homeless youth.
One volunteer cop who who signed tickets targeting Kuhl is Deborah Elston, founder of Santa Cruz Neighbors, an organization that encourages residents to “call 911,” not because there’s an emergency but because the organization promotes reporting “suspicious activity” as one of the keys to ensure the safety of property owners. Ms. Elston is also a lead moderator on Nextdoor.com, a platform with a well-documented tendency to stoke race and class-based panic over neighborhood crime and houselessness.
Elston uses her Santa Cruz Neighbors identity on nextdoor.com to blast all of Santa Cruz with ideologically-tinged topics such as “How ‘Free Stuff’ Can Hurt Us,” invitations to council candidate forums, and requests for residents to email officials regarding proposed anti-homeless ordinances. Elston presides over an online environment where dehumanizing language directed toward the houseless is normalized, and where users who object to this language are often banned. Given their online political identities, it’s particularly concerning that Elston and other Nextdoor moderators have now become volunteer members of the Santa Cruz police force, gaining the ability to materially harm those they attack on social media.
Acts of indignant entitlement here transform into weapons of abuse, as the self-promoted Karens and Kens of social media join the ranks of law enforcement in a form of officially sanctioned vigilantism. Targeting council candidate Alicia Kuhl with petty tickets during election season is not only heartless, but also constitutes political retribution. Whether or not one supports Kuhl’s candidacy, we cannot stand for this weaponization of the police against members of our community.
Particularly at a time of pandemic emergency, we should instead seek ways to care for ourselves and our neighbors with compassion rather than pushing them further onto the streets and into the carceral state. We should expand safe parking spaces so these programs can move people from their waiting lists.
Instead of trying to expand the reach of policing with unpaid volunteers who abuse their powers to pursue political agendas, we should invest in alternatives that actually meet people’s needs.
Deborah Elston peeking over Chief Andy Mill's left shoulder as SCPD officers pose with "VIPs"
This piece was originally submitted to the Santa Cruz Sentinel as an op-ed.