“I always wear a rainbow-colored scarf,” said 65-year-old grandmother Sweet Grass Longhouse over the phone. “That’s how you’ll know it’s me.”
It was Sweet Grass’s first time attending a General Assembly of Occupy Oakland, and as she approached the group that gathered before the Sunday afternoon GA at 19th and Telegraph, she wrapped both of her hands around a large paper pad. At the top of the pad, she had taped a photograph of her arrested son. Her left hand also held two small seedpods.
She greeted the group with a broad smile, asking if it was an appropriate time to explain her son’s situation. With more than 400 people having been arrested eight days earlier, there were many such stories vying for attention – citizens rounded up and sent to the jail at Santa Rita, protesters with zip-tied hands and unclear charges being leveled against them.
Her story begins in a similar way to many stories from January 28. She and her son, Govinda, arrived at 14th and Broadway a little before noon, read a few informational handouts, and listened to the speakers at the plaza. One of the protesters offered Sweet Grass and Govinda a pair of bandannas, for use in the likely event that the police would deploy tear gas. Sweet Grass had her long rainbow scarf to cover her nose and mouth, but Govinda had no such cover. He said “thanks,” accepted a black bandanna, and joined the group as the march began heading east across downtown Oakland.
“The march felt tense,” said Sweet Grass. “There was a different vibe in the crowd, a concerned vibe.”
Sweet Grass stayed with the group until 12th and Oak, and then decided to head home. Govinda gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and told her that he planned to answer a request that the sound truck had just announced, to protect the bus at the march’s end. Sweet Grass then walked to the Lake Merritt BART station and headed back to her home on the Berkeley / North Oakland border.
45 minutes later, the police arrested Govinda.
Here’s what happened in the meantime: he walked to the retaining wall at Laney College, directly across from where the fence had just come down. Looking at the front of Laney, this would be the “right” end of the fence, close to the intersection of 10th and Oak. He met two girls there, and joked with them, “The police threw tear gas. I just have these.” And in his hand he had a cluster of seedpods – the dark brown, lightweight, spherical type of seed-holders that fall from sweetgum trees.
As the police hurled tear-gas canisters into the crowd, Govinda threw these one-inch-round seed pods at the line of shielded riot cops.
“It would have been like throwing popcorn,” said Sweet Grass. “They hardly weigh anything, and can’t travel very far.”
For this gesture, Govinda is facing eight felony charges. None of the seedpods had made contact with an officer, but eight officers “felt assaulted.” Each of the eight wrote up a separate felony indictment for the same act, along with a misdemeanor charge for wearing a black bandanna around his head.
Officers refused to identify themselves on paper, choosing instead to sign each individual citation as “John Doe.” An officer has written across each indictment form the word “SERIOUS.”
“Where’s the evidence? Where’s the accuser? There’s something so rotten in Denmark in this,” Sweet Grass said.
The bail resulting from these eight felony charges has been set at $50,000 each. All told, that leaves the bail for Govinda – whose full name is Ahimsa Govinda Wind-Thunder – at a staggering $400,000. Eight separate charges for the same accusation.
“Govinda never scooped up anything from the ground,” said Sweet Grass. “My other son went back to that exact spot, and there are no rocks or stones on the ground there anyway, just these little seedpods from the tree. There were thousands of these seedpods. The one thing that wasn’t there were rocks or stones.”
Govinda is a tall guy, standing six feet six inches. He is also, by his mother’s account, never one to be intimidated by lines of heavily armed riot cops.
“I do know that Govinda would run up to the police – because I was with him on tons of these marches in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland,” said Sweet Grass. “He’d run up with his little cell phone and be taking pictures with his cell phone and tell them, ‘I’m getting you all on camera.’ So he was a taunter. He never carried a weapon. In all these marches we’ve been on, I never saw his stoop down to look for something. He is a young man with that testosterone bravado. He thinks of himself as somebody who is standing up to oppressive forces.”
(pictured: Sweet Grass Longhouse)
According to Sweet Grass, the police had begun targeting Govinda prior to this march. For several years, he had moved his car to a lot on Fridays to avoid street cleanings; just in the past month, he received several parking tickets for this act, after years without a single ticket.
Last week, he came out of his house, and there were two police cars parked directly in front of his residence.
“He got into his car, drove to the corner, and those lights on both cop cars lit up. He pulled to the curb, and the first thing they did was give him a ticket for not using his blinker,” explained Sweet Grass. “Because there was a car parked on that side of the street, and he didn’t want to block traffic, that put his fender over the crosswalk, so he got a second hit for not stopping at the stop sign. This is what we mean about being targeted. They were waiting for him, and got him within a block of his house. It seems bizarre.”
More disturbingly, police knew Govinda’s name and precise street address, and confronted him with this information when he showed up an Occupy Cal rally.
“A call had come out that the police were going to surround a Berkeley student event, so he went out there to give support. He went out there after work, at around 10 or 11, and an Oakland policeman came up to him and said, ‘Govinda, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at 710 25th Street in Oakland.’ They had already identified Govinda,” said Sweet Grass. “He’d never been arrested. He doesn’t have any police record. It’s not like he’s been a cause celebre in Oakland prior to joining the Occupy movement. But he felt very targeted there.”
Sweet Grass describes her son as being very strong and very supportive. The family suffered a tragedy five years ago, and Govinda had helped the rest of the family deal with the grief and the loss.
In April of 2007, Govinda’s nephew, Canon Christian Jones II, was an 18-year-old freshman at Tuskegee Institute, the historic black university in eastern Alabama. Canon, a graduate of Berkeley High School, was one week away from moving back to California. He was transferring back to be closer to his family and friends.
One Sunday night, he walked off campus to a convenience store. On the way, two other 18-year-olds, Quentin Davis and Romanita Cloud, held him up at gunpoint. When Romanita accidentally called Quentin by name, the young man panicked, and fearing Canon would identify him, he shot Canon in the head.
Canon’s murder tore through the communities of Berkeley and Richmond. He was a respected and much loved leader in Berkeley High’s Communication, Arts and Science program. One report from the time describes staff and teachers at Berkeley’s King Middle School bursting into tears when they heard of Canon’s death. Nowhere did this news hit harder, though, than with the family.
(pictured: Canon Jones II, 1988-2007)
Govinda, who was 27 at the time of his nephew’s murder, stepped up and provided emotional support to his brother and to the rest of the family. Now, his brother’s family and his mother are doing everything they can to ensure Govinda can return to freedom.
“He’s been in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day,” said Sweet Grass. “He’s at the Oakland jail, in maximum security. I got to him see once, last Thursday. They had him shackled to bring him in. God willing, I’ll see him this Thursday.”
Govinda had his pre-trial hearing this morning, and all involved hope that these eight felony charges will all be dropped. Sweet Grass also hopes that the two young women Govinda showed the seedpods to might also step forward and testify on his behalf.
“He seemed amazingly strong,” Sweet Grass reported. “He said, ‘Give love and thanks to everyone who is sending me support. Tell them my chin is up. I’m a political prisoner, and they have not taken me down.’ He is very focused. He needs to be able to get through 23 hours of sitting in a room. He told me he has done 1,000 jumping jacks, so he’s already begun to understand that you have to create a world for yourself inside that six-by-nine cell.”
If you have any information that could help Govinda’s case, please contact Sweet Grass Longhouse at [email protected] or the attorney, Howard Williams, at [email protected] . If you would like to add your name to the online support for him, here is a Change.org petition to convince the Oakland District Attorney’s office to drop the charges against Govinda.