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