Originally published in The Arcata Eye
Robert Benson speaks slowly and softly, being careful with every word uttered and making sure it was truly conveying what he wants to say.
If it weren’t for the long beard, Benson could easily be mistaken for a businessman with his sleek suit and the intellect behind his words. But he is not, nor does he diminish what he is – a houseless person trying to live life to its fullest and without the discrimination that is an inevitable consequence of that lifestyle here in Arcata.
Although Benson sees the lack of “observance for the First Amendment” by City and law enforcement officials as a major reason he is running for office, he also shared a number of economic and social policies he would strive to accomplish if elected.
Benson is one of seven people vying for two open seats on the Arcata City Council this November, a field full of individuals representing a wide berth of Arcata society.
Born in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, Benson moved moved to Pennsylvania during the seventh grade. In 1992, after having attended high school, he joined a Grateful Dead tour, becoming what is affectionately called a “Deadhead.” He spent the next 16 years traveling, cleaning up trash to score tickets, and dishing out vegan Pad Thai to raise funds. The experience, he says, thought him about America and how to survive and be independent outside of the traditional machinations of society and within a thriving counterculture.
“It allowed me to develop a healthy sense of liberty,” Benson says. “That was the good life.”
Benson first visited Arcata in 1992, where he “discovered a balance with nature and society” he had not seen previously in his travels. While visiting again in 2008, he ended up staying here not so much for the cliché awe-inspiring gravity that has captured so many others, but rather for legal ramifications resulting from his campaigning for Ron Paul, a staunch libertarian Congressman who ran for president that year.
While campaigning for Paul outside of Mazzoti’s, the bouncer, Benson says, demanded he leave and when he didn’t, an officer with the Arcata Police Department asked him to move on and when he didn’t, he was arrested for being drunk in public. The charges were later dismissed, but the incident, and subsequent ones after, led Benson to file several suits against the city and one against Arcata Mayor Alex Stillman.
“Like I’ve seen numerous times with other citizens,” Benson says, “[the officer] said I was drunk, and that just seems to be what they do when they want to arbitrarily arrest you. They find a reason.”
This experience, magnified by other instances involving himself and others, made it clear to Benson that Arcata’s reputation of being a peace-loving paradise is long gone, and he believes it will have ramifications for the city in the future.
“I’ve never experienced this in all my travels,” Benson says of the City’s disdain for the houseless. “This place used to be very kind, but to make it the worst place I’ve been to is complete overkill.”
Benson is deeply troubled about what he sees as the arbitrary enforcement of laws by APD, the weight of which tends to fall on the shoulders of the less fortunate.
“It’s illegal to be without a house in Arcata,” Benson says. “If you sleep outside of a house, you’re going to get a ticket.”
Benson makes an effort to regularly attend council meetings, and although he has not reviewed any of the economic plans drafted by the City, his ideas on economic growth mirror findings within the City’s strategic plan.
For example, Benson pointed to the empty land between Samoa and the Arcata Marsh on I Street as a prime location to develop green industries, particularly with the local talent available. Overall, he sees more talk than action by the council in that regard.
“I think Arcata could kind of pioneer something like that,” Benson says, adding that incentives should be offered to attract businesses and satisfy a growing demand nationally for green products.
Benson also believes the City should consider lowering the sales tax in order to encourage more people to shop in town.
Benson believes it’s long overdue for the City to have a public restroom available in the Downtown area, especially for a city of its size. If the City is willing spend millions on its current transitional housing project, which he supports, it should be able to muster the funds, and will, to build a restroom.
“It’s quite an issue,” Benson says. “It makes Arcata look bad.”
But Benson says the City needs to address the needs of the houseless, particularly by establishing a “civil militia camp,” a place where anyone can live, learn life skills, engage in community service, such as blazing trails or picking up trash and develop mutual respect with one another and the community. He feels a camp of that nature would exaggerate the contrast between those here who want to work with the community and those who have no respect for it.
“People might feel more of a duty to correct their own behavior,” Benson says of offering a camp of this nature.
Benson believes the City isn’t bike-friendly enough and that the current trails are insufficient. He sees tourism as a viable industry for Arcata and thinks expanding bike and pedestrian trails will increase the number of visitors. He supports the current Arcata Ridge Trail project and wants to see such a trail expand to Eureka.
As for marijuana, Benson says the current restrictions on patients to grow their medicine isn’t realistic, but at the same time, he thinks regulating the amount of dispensaries is a good thing.
But ideally, Benson wants to see an Arcata that respects the rights of its citizens, may they be houseless or not. He wants to see a council that responds to the people, not a few special interests. He points out that how one treats the least advantaged in society is reflection of the community’s character as a whole.
“There’s a lot of hatred here,” Benson says. “[The houseless] need a safe place to be.”