‘Cal­i­for­nia is a na­tion, not a state’

Fringe group aims to use Trump’s win as mo­men­tum for se­ced­ing from the United States

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KATIE ZEZIMA katie.zezima@wash­post.com Julie Tate and Adam Tay­lor con­trib­uted to this re­port.

san fran­cisco — About 15 peo­ple hud­dled in a luxury apart­ment build­ing, munch­ing on dan­ishes as they plot­ted out their plan to have Cal­i­for­nia se­cede from the United States.

“I pledge al­le­giance, to the flag, of an in­de­pen­dent Cal­i­for­nia,” Ge­off Lewis said as he stood in a glass-walled con­fer­ence room adorned with Cal­i­for­nia’s griz­zly­bear flag and a sign read­ing “Cal­i­for­nia is a na­tion, not a state.”

Sweaty on­look­ers from the gym across the hall peered in cu­ri­ously.

Bol­stered by the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, the group, Yes Cal­i­for­nia, is col­lect­ing the 585,407 sig­na­tures nec­es­sary to place a se­ces­sion­ist ques­tion on the 2018 bal­lot. Its goal is to have Cal­i­for­nia be­come its own coun­try, sep­a­rate and apart from the United States.

The group is ad­ver­tis­ing at protests and host­ing mee­tups through­out Cal­i­for­nia. Its lead­ers say the or­ga­ni­za­tion has bal­looned to 53 chap­ters, each of which has meet­ings like the one here to plot out strat­egy and re­cruit vol­un­teers.

“Ba­si­cally, what we’re wit­ness­ing is the birth of a na­tion,” said Tim Vollmer, 57, an aca­demic con­sul­tant from San Fran­cisco. “We can lead what’s left of the free world.”

Their re­cruit­ing pitch goes some­thing like this:

Cal­i­for­nia — the most pop­u­lous state, with nearly 40 mil­lion res­i­dents — sub­si­dizes other states at a loss, is bur­dened by a na­tional trade sys­tem, doesn’t get a fair say in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, is di­verse and dis­agrees with much of the rest of the coun­try on im­mi­gra­tion, is far ahead of other states on en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy and, for the most part, is di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to Trump’s po­si­tions.

There­fore, the ar­gu­ment goes, con­di­tions are per­fect for the Golden State to se­cede.

Yes Cal­i­for­nia pri­mar­ily ad­ver­tises through its Face­book page, which has about 39,000 likes and about the same num­ber of fol­low­ers; a graphic reads “di­vorce due to ir­rec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences,” with a split, jagged heart de­pict­ing Cal­i­for­nia on one side and the rest of the coun­try on the other.

“Cal­i­for­nia is dif­fer­ent from Amer­ica,” said Mar­cus Ruiz Evans, one of the move­ment’s co-founders, as he sat on the pa­tio of a Star­bucks in Fresno. “Cal­i­for­nia is hated. It’s not liked. It’s seen as weird.”

Evans pub­lished a 540-page tome in 2012 on why Cal­i­for­nia should se­cede and is us­ing his in­de­fati­ga­ble abil­ity to talk about it to spread that mes­sage as far as pos­si­ble, mostly through Face­book and me­dia ap­pear­ances.

He has cru­saded for Cal­i­for­nia in­de­pen­dence for years — he also protested the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — and said he thinks of him­self “as Galileo, Coper­ni­cus,” a man whose the­o­ries were so revo­lu­tion­ary that they were dis­missed un­til proved true.

Evans is the main point of con­tact for the chapter lead­ers, and he handed out pur­ple Yes Cal­i­for­nia T-shirts to at­ten­dees of the meet­ing here. He would oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­ject with a long, im­pas­sioned speech about the im­por­tance of Cal­i­for­nia in­de­pen­dence or to let the group know it was part­ner­ing with an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly printer in Cul­ver City.

Clare Hedin, a mu­si­cian and sound healer, ticked through a set of slides to help peo­ple set up their own chap­ters. Yes Cal­i­for­nia T-shirts should be plen­ti­ful and handed out to all at­ten­dees (wear­ing them in meet­ings is en­cour­aged). A sense of com­mu­nity should be fos­tered, and peo­ple should be asked why they came to the meet­ing and how they can con­trib­ute so they feel per­son­ally in­vested. Each chapter leader should take a dif­fer­ent tack; San Fran­cis­cans tend to be more touchy-feely than San Die­gans, for ex­am­ple.

They de­bated how Cal­i­for­nia should han­dle the mil­i­tary. Maybe their new na­tion should be neu­tral, such as Switzer­land, they mulled. Where should it get its wa­ter? Most of it, they rea­soned, comes from the Sierra Ne­vada and the Colorado River, which are in the state. Cal­i­for­nia, Evans said, is the world’s sixth-largest econ­omy and al­ready has money, so that will be fine. The se­ces­sion­ists likened their cause to the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana and same-sex mar­riage: things that seemed im­plau­si­ble a decade ago but are now the law here.

Yes Cal­i­for­nia doesn’t have any pol­icy po­si­tions. Its mem­bers don’t know how the new na­tion’s gov­ern­ment would be set up. The group’s goal is to first have the state se­cede and then fig­ure out how it should run.

“Peo­ple are ask­ing about the new na­tion’s vac­cine pol­icy, and I’m ask­ing, ‘Are you high?’ ” said Karen Sherman, who holds group meet­ings at the gay dive bar she owns in San Diego. “We want to ex­plore in­de­pen­dence, not cre­ate a new coun­try around vac­cines.”

The group’s big­gest ef­fort is fo­cused on col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for the ini­tia­tive. It will ask vot­ers if they want to re­peal a sec­tion of the state con­sti­tu­tion declar­ing that Cal­i­for­nia is an “in­sep­a­ra­ble part of the United States of Amer­ica” and hold a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence on March 5, 2019. The group started col­lect­ing sig­na­tures in late Jan­uary and has six months to com­plete the task.

For sup­port­ers, Trump’s elec­tion, the de­sire of some Cal­i­for­ni­ans to lead the re­sis­tance to his pres­i­dency and the group’s grow­ing vol­un­teer base has given the group a sem­blance of cred­i­bil­ity it has long de­sired.

The group points to Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aires — in­clud­ing Peter Thiel, who backs Trump and re­cently said he sup­ports se­ces­sion, and Shervin Pi­she­var, who tweeted af­ter the elec­tion that he would fund a cam­paign for Cal­i­for­nia to be­come its own na­tion.

The state leg­is­la­ture hired for­mer Obama at­tor­ney gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. to bat­tle the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vowed that Cal­i­for­nia will con­tinue to push mea­sures to com­bat cli­mate change and en­sure Cal­i­for­ni­ans have health in­sur­ance cover­age re­gard­less of na­tional pol­icy de­ci­sions. San Fran­cisco sued the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion over sanc­tu­ary cities. But these and other elected of­fi­cials have not en­dorsed se­ces­sion. Some, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti, said they op­pose it.

“Bal­lot mea­sures are very tough to pass when they’re un­der­stand­able and you have a rel­a­tive idea what the con­se­quences are,” said Bill Car­rick, Garcetti’s po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant. “Some­thing like this is a rab­bit pulled out of a hat; there’s not a chance in the world it will pass.”

Sue Hirsch, 46, said she is “ashamed to be an Amer­i­can” in the wake of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“I wanted to be here [at the meet­ing] to be no longer Amer­i­can, but Cal­i­for­nian,” said Hirsch, who voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton and said she has at least seven pro­fes­sions, in­clud­ing psy­chic, Uber driver and hypno-trans­for­ma­tive masseuse. “I hate what the rest of Amer­ica has be­come.”

Evans and his co-founder, Louis Marinelli, are un­likely sav­iors of the left.

Both men have been reg­is­tered Repub­li­cans. Evans is a for­mer con­ser­va­tive ra­dio host and Marinelli once staunchly op­posed same-sex mar­riage. (He had a change of heart in 2011, em­bark­ing on a na­tion­wide tour to per­suade con­ser­va­tives to sup­port same-sex unions.)

Marinelli — a Buf­falo na­tive who said he so prefers Cal­i­for­nia that he doesn’t like vis­it­ing his mother in New York — now lives in Yeka­ter­in­burg, Rus­sia. He said he voted for Trump be­cause he thought it would be good for the Cal­i­for­nia se­ces­sion­ist cause.

He said in an in­ter­view that he wants to re­turn to San Diego but is work­ing there while his Rus­sian­born wife sorts out visa is­sues in the United States. His wife’s hur­dles with the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem and frus­tra­tion with grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton led him to em­brace se­ces­sion. He says he also was in­spired by the Scot­tish se­ces­sion­ist move­ment.

But Yes Cal­i­for­nia has had to fend off a tor­rent of ques­tions about Rus­sian in­flu­ence. In Septem­ber, Marinelli rep­re­sented the group at a Moscow con­fer­ence hosted by the Anti-Glob­al­iza­tion Move­ment of Rus­sia; 30 per­cent of con­fer­ence fund­ing came from the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, but none went to Yes Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cord­ing to its or­ga­nizer. Yes Cal­i­for­nia opened a “cul­tural cen­ter” at the move­ment’s Moscow head­quar­ters in De­cem­ber. Marinelli has com­pared Cal­i­for­nia in­de­pen­dence to the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, and Yes Cal­i­for­nia has re­ceived a flurry of news cover­age from the gov­ern­ment-funded RT.

Marinelli said Yes Cal­i­for­nia is not af­fil­i­ated in any way with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

“We don’t have any com­mu­ni­ca­tion with or con­tact with or re­ceive any sup­port of any kind from the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment or any Rus­sian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials,” he said, not­ing that peo­ple have a right to be con­cerned about al­le­ga­tions of Rus­sian ties. But he also said that false con­spir­acy the­o­ries swirl around the group, in­clud­ing that it al­legedly wants Cal­i­for­nia to join Mex­ico.

On the other hand, he said, “if peo­ple think that our move­ment is sup­ported by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, then maybe they’ll think that this is more re­al­is­ti­cally go­ing to hap­pen.”

Evans is no fan of Trump, be­liev­ing he is racist, an­ti­im­mi­grant and sex­ist. He said Yes Cal­i­for­nia is com­mit­ted to di­ver­sity, in­clu­sion and a peace­ful, le­gal se­ces­sion. He spends most of his days on the phone, call­ing, email­ing and tex­ting peo­ple about the group, whose ad­dress is a Postal An­nex store in a Fresno strip mall.

Yes Cal­i­for­nia has reg­is­tered with the Cal­i­for­nia Sec­re­tary of State’s of­fice but has not yet re­ported con­tri­bu­tions. Marinelli wants to hire a pro­fes­sional fundraiser and paid staff.

At the San Fran­cisco meetup, some were more op­ti­mistic than oth­ers about the idea of the ref­er­en­dum ac­tu­ally pass­ing. Most ac­knowl­edged the chances were slim. But they’re will­ing to try, as many times as it takes.

“Our whole point is not to get this ini­tia­tive passed,” Evans said. “It’s to get it in the minds of 40 mil­lion peo­ple.”


Michael Boight­wood speaks at a meet­ing of Yes Cal­i­for­nia and the Cal­i­for­nia Se­ces­sion­ist move­ment in San Diego last month. Yes Cal­i­for­nia is col­lect­ing the 585,407 sig­na­tures nec­es­sary to place a ques­tion on the state’s 2018 bal­lot.

Karen Sherman of Yes Cal­i­for­nia leads a se­ces­sion­ist meet­ing at the Hole in the Wall bar in San Diego. “Cal­i­for­nia is dif­fer­ent from Amer­ica,” says Mar­cus Ruiz Evans, a co-founder of Yes Cal­i­for­nia.



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