WILLITS -- Dozens of CHP officers broke up a nine-week protest Tuesday over construction of a controversial Highway 101 bypass outside Willits, forcibly removing demonstrators who climbed high into trees and refused to leave in a bid to halt the project.
Officers fired bean-bag projectiles to subdue at least one of the activists as enraged supporters looked on, drawing howls of protest at the construction site and consternation in the state Capitol over how and why the action was launched.
Five tree-sitters and three demonstrators on the ground were arrested during the operation, which began shortly after dawn and lasted most of the day.
The confrontation was an echo of the massive timber-cutting protests of 1990, known as the Redwood Summer, that swept across the North Coast and drew thousands of activists.
The Willits protest, in comparison, is much more tightly focused. Environmentalists contend the 6-mile Highway 101 bypass around Willits will destroy sensitive grassland, wetlands and second-growth tree stands. Some merchants and residents of Willits also oppose the bypass, but in large part out of fear of economic losses to the community.
The incident, initially reported as involving rubber bullets, drew condemnation from state Sen. Noreen Evans, who had scheduled a meeting Tuesday afternoon with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty because of growing concerns from constituents about the impact of the bypass.
Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she was "shocked" and "upset" to learn about the situation shortly before her meeting and vowed to find out how the decision was made to advance on the protesters despite her efforts to mediate. The CHP had pledged to defer action on demonstrators unless a court order was in hand, she said.
"They literally bulldozed their way through the protesters in a very aggressive manner, removing the ability to try to mediate the issue and try to smooth things over," a furious Evans said late Tuesday.