A Plea for Justice at San Diego’s Chalk-U-py Demonstration

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Via Facebook

By Doug Porter

Saturday afternoon was one of those Chamber of Commerce San Diego days in more than one sense. The beautiful skies and ocean breezes near the coast were kinds of experiences tourism marketers wish they could bottle and sell.

A protest in front of San Diego’s Hall of Justice reminded me of the other side of this city’s history, one where vigilante brutality all-too-often operated under the protection of the local establishment. The glittering skyscrapers and happy tourism marketing schemes cannot erase the fact that these are same streets where police and mobs encouraged by the local press sought to suppress the Free Speech Movement nearly a century ago.

In a matter of days the prosecution of San Diegan Jeff Olson on 13 counts of vandalism stemming from chalking protests slogans outside Bank of America has become a worldwide cause celebre.  The 40 year old Olson was outraged by disclosures about B of A’s role in fostering the mortgage crisis leading up to the near-collapse of the economy and the suffering it caused millions of Americans.

via Facebook

via Facebook

His arrest did not come for months after he abandoned the chalking campaign. Pressure from bank security officials led the SDPD gang unit to recommend prosecution, a suggestion that City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office, whose role as a defender of San Diego’s entrenched financial interests has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks, was only too happy to accommodate.

Judge Howard Shore has issued a gag order, forbidding the defendant and his lawyer from talking about the case to the media.  Olson’s lawyer has been forbidden by the judge from even mentioning the First amendment in presenting his defense, a limitation that apparently did not extend to the prosecution, whose arguments to the jury included admonitions that this cause was about vandalism not freedom of speech.

The case evokes memories of Arlo Guthrie’s account of Alice’s Restaurant, the four decade old song of errant police forces seeking to enforce societal ‘norms’ via overzealousness. In an age where the word ‘terrorism’ is used to justify overreach by government at just about every level you can think of, the prosecution of Jeff Olson has come to symbolize much more than simple protest art.

About a hundred people came together Saturday afternoon to protest this 21st century example of prosecutorial abuse of the public trust and the abandonment of simple common sense. The police informed the protesters, who intended to express their outrage in washable children’s chalk on the sidewalk, that their words and pictures would be limited to a four foot wide zone from the steps of the courthouse to the corner of State Street and Broadway.

Jeff Olson, Gagged by the Judge

Jeff Olson, Gagged by the Judge

The protest, or Chalk-u-py as it came to be called, was organized in a 36 hour period via social media. Those responding to the call ranged from entire families (there were lots of children) to grizzled veterans of the Occupy movement.

San Diego Police blanketed the area with officers, who seemed more bemused than concerned. Prior to the protest, a larger gathering of law enforcement types several blocks away showed that they were prepared to do battle if needed. The stylish guests coming and going from W Hotel must have felt extra-secure seeing a complement of three dozen officers milling about waiting for marching orders.

Meanwhile, the jury is in this case is deliberating. Friends and associates of Jeff Olson, the man at the center of all this outrage, say he expects to be convicted of the 13 charges, which carry a potential sentence of one year in jail and a $1000 fine per charge. Isolated from any sense of the gravity of the case they are considering by the judge and the prosecution, it would come as a real surprise if the jury delivered another other that the preordained verdict.


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Any guilty verdicts will be appealed and, given Goldsmith’s team’s (and the Judge’s) poor track record in socially and or politically significant cases, chances are they will be overturned. What cannot be overturned or erased are the roles the local judiciary and prosecutors play as proxies for the entrenched reactionary interests that have long dominated San Diego.

In what turned out to be one final act of symbolism on a day rich with such images, a fire truck was called in to hose down the sidewalk once the protesters were (mostly) gone. The firemen took one look at the scrawled utterances and pulled away, unwilling to be seen washing away the pleas of the people for justice.


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Via Facebook

UPDATE: Olson was found Not Guilty on all charges. See story here.


Doug Porter

Doug Porter was active in the early days of the alternative press in San Diego, contributing to the OB Liberator, the print version of the OB Rag, the San Diego Door, and the San Diego Street Journal. He went on to have a 35 year career in the Hospitality business and decided to go back into raising hell when he retired. He's won awards for 'Daily Reporting and Writing: Opinion/Editorial' from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Doug is a cancer survivor (sans vocal chords) and lives in North Park.
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  1. avatarAnnie says

    Love the photos, love the activism, love the age ranges of all involved. Kudos to the firemen, and thank you for covering this.

  2. avatarJohn Anderson says

    Thanks for covering this Doug. I would have been there but am out of town at the moment. I haven’t had any officers visit me (yet) for my sidewalk chalk drawings but am not holding my breath. Jaywalking stings, chalk drawing prosecutions, what’s next? Maybe a warrant for those teachers who dare to include yoga in their lessons? Not outside the realm of possibility. . .

  3. avatar says

    I would suggest a flash mob descend upon each corporation in turn and draw with chalk their free speech in civil discent to criticize this system of injustice. Perhaps they can arrest 100, or 1000, but let them jail 1,000,000 to see if they have the cells, the resources, to take our liberty for such. Hold accountable the powers, the authorities, and ultimately these corporate overlords.

    • avatarrak says

      Thanks to San Diego Free Press contributor John P. Anderson there is already a petition asking Goldsmith to stop the prosecution and folks can sign it here.

  4. avatarDeanna Polk says

    Excellent article. It was a peaceful, wonderful showing of citizen concern. I just wonder how much of our resources (tax dollars) were spent on this show of force. And, why were the police taking everyone’s photos? Facial recognition files?

  5. avatarDavid says

    Wonderful piece of writing. Thank you so much, Mr. Porter ,for covering this so well.

  6. avatarimominous says

    Maybe I will report those horrible vandals who draw all over the public sidewalks during that Artwalk event…the law is the law, and nobody is exempt!

  7. avatardon victor says

    When chalk art as a form of non violent protest becomes illegal the citizens ard denied even the most benign yet artful form of protest!

  8. avatarJohn says

    In Brezhnev’s time, a dissident could be sent to gulag for 13 years for writing anything that the Party didn’t like. Goldsmith obviously gets his ideas concerning justice from the old Soviet Union; we don’t need that kind of apparatchik here.

  9. avatarZoonabask says

    Well, thankfully, the jury just today acquitted Olson. The City Attorney’s office continues to ring tone deaf by describing the case as just another ordinary graffiti case, and that no one should’ve protested such a prosecution for that reason, and because he would never have served any time, anyway, let alone a year apiece for all 13 counts.

    What the City Attorney’s office failed to perceive, however, in even bringing their misconceived “just another graffiti” case, is that Bank of America, which is criminal by every fair legal standard and expert opinion, is also no sympathetic “defendant” in the court of public opinion, and that by prosecuting the Olson charge as just another graffiti case would bring that very same court of public opinion rightly crashing down on the City Attorney’s office.

    At the very least, the City Attorney’s office made themselves look especially foolish to prosecute a little guy for chalking, when what he was chalking about is a hugely criminal bank that continues to chalk the little guy.

    That no decision maker in that office could imagine this fallout demonstrates their lack of political imagination and civic decency to lay off a minor charge not worth prosecuting for these reasons.

    And if the reason the City Attorney’s office did bring the case was at the behest of the bank, itself, well, that would not be entirely unsurprising given the banking industry’s impunity at the national level, but it would be cause for further civic reflection upon the City Attorney’s office in this case.

  10. avatarDonna Crane says

    Is there an age restriction on who can do this before you can be jailed. Can kids write on the sidewalk? Would they face jail as well?


  1. […] a San Diego jury began deliberating Olson’s fate, and Saturday perhaps 100 people gathered in front of the courthouse to support him with — what else — boxes and boxes […]