Death of an Oysterman
They assembled again that morning at the edge of the asphalt parking area as they had for the previous seven days, brandishing signs on the ends of sticks or hand-held placards: 'Save the Seals, Stop Killing Eelgrass, Protect San Amaro Bay. Their numbers had swelled over the original five assembled in the early days of the protest. The crowd now numbered at least thirty. A motley gathering: a few carefully dressed and coifed Baby Boomers along with Genxers and Millennials marshaled together through social media. Most were warmly clad with long-sleeved shirts and heavy jackets. New recruits, unfamiliar with the weather on the bay, wore only slogan emblazed T-shirts. One read "Free the Whales" another, "Occupy Wall Street." It wasn't clear if they had wandered into the wrong demonstration or were multitasking protesters. Two anorexic looking teenaged girls, stood self-consciously on the periphery holding placards urging vegans to unite. They grasped their messages, tightly holding them close to their bodies as if fearful some contemptuous carnivore might rip them away.
The scene took place on San Amaro Bay, a narrow inlet on California's Central Coast. The bay widened closer to land where an estuary was formed, fed by freshwater runoff from the hills above the shoreline. Here, where eelgrass abounded, the oystermen tended their crops. A trim white building the size of a double garage stood twenty yards beyond the crowd at the end of the parking lot. Painted letters on a sign spanning the width of its roof read "Mollusks R Us Oyster Farm" Another smaller sign read, "Fresh Oysters Daily."
Just beyond the building a cold fog crept in off the bay, thinly veiling the oyster tanks and processing sheds on the estuary's edge. On the bank of the estuary a crew of three jean clad heavy booted workers were processing the oysters which had been brought in from racks from which clusters of maturing oysters were suspended just below the surface of the water.
The crowd was becoming noisier and more animated. A young man who had worked his way to the front, establishing his position as the alpha protestor, began shouting, "Make noise! Let them know they're destroying the bay," He wore faded jeans and a jacket of gray ersatz leather. A thin wisp of beard hung unkempt several inches below his chin. He was soon joined by another of similar age, clean shaven and sporting a green sweatshirt with "Cal Poly" printed in gold letters.
The two exchanged a high-five greeting and a few sotto voce words before the first continued encouraging the protestors. "Why," he yelled, pointing at the three men handling the oysters, "are we standing here while those people are polluting our bay?"
The putative leader, whose name was Jerry Lambert and his compatriot, Cole Jackson stepped over the property line onto the parking lot. Several of the protesters in the front row began to follow, surging slowly forward. Jackson began chanting, "Save our bay. Save our bay." The crowd immediately took up the chant.
"Come on," the vociferous Lambert exhorted. "We'll stop 'em now!"
Two uniformed police officers, one a white haired Sergeant, the other a young man in his twenties, had been standing next to a squad car parked well to the side of the parking lot where they had been talking to George Garfield, the oyster farm's owner. As the crowd began to surge forward, toward where the oystermen were working, the police officers moved quickly to take a position facing them.
A few in the middle of the pack, either deciding the bay would do fine on its own after all, or recognizing their heads would lose in a battle with police batons, exchanged concerned glances and withdrew to the rear, their signs drooping below their waists.
Leaving their nightsticks swinging in holders at their sides, the police officers raised both arms with hands shoulder high, palms facing the crowd. "Stop," the senior officer, Sergeant Augustus Schott bellowed. The noise of the crowd diminished. He went on, "This is getting out of hand. Back up off the asphalt here." Most of the protesters immediately fell back.
The police officers reached for their nightsticks, removed them from their holders, and held high in front of them with both hands.
The leader shouted, "You can't use those on us. This is a peaceful demonstration. We have a right. It says so in the Constitution."
"Sorry sonny," the senior officer retorted. "We've not only a right but an obligation to keep the peace. So back up. now."
The young man gave a dismissive upward jerk of his head accompanied by a sneer and with insolent slowness drew back, followed by the others, to where the larger crowd had previously retreated.
"We're gonna have more people here tomorrow!" He spat the words at the police officers. "And more than that the next day. You'll see. We'll close this place down."
George Garfield then walked briskly over from where he had been standing and, faced the crowd. "You simply don't understand," he said speaking loudly, addressing his words to the assembled protesters raising his head and eyes so that he appeared to be looking over the head of the spokesman in an effort at marginalizing the young man's authority.
To demonstrate he could not be so easily sidelined, the young man sneered, "What's to understand, asshole."
Garfield realized unless he could engage clearer heads in the group in rational conversation, he would be fighting this battle ad nauseum. "We really need to talk this whole thing out. If you'll agree to a meeting Monday night, we can discuss the entire issue. I'll arrange to use the auditorium at the Community Center, and I'll be there at 7:30 along with an expert on the subject of aquaculture. I'm sure we can have a fruitful discussion."
"We don't need to talk about." The vociferous leader began, before his friend interrupted, "Cool it for a while, Jerry. Let's take him up on his offer to talk."
The suggestion was met with mumbled agreement from a number of the assembled protesters.
"Okay, but it won't be worth jack shit. I'm outa here."
The crowd melted away, assuring one another they would be attending the meeting on Monday.