By Brent E. Beltrán
On Saturday, July 6, a little over a dozen people showed up in my neighborhood to exercise our 1st Amendment rights with chalk. At noon we gathered at Bank of America’s Barrio Logan branch on the corner of National Ave. and Sampson St.
The reason for our action was to protest not only Bank of America’s policies but to show our solidarity with Jeff Olson who had recently been put on trial by the out of control San Diego City Attorney, Jan Goldsmith. Mr. Olson faced up to 13 years in prison and a substantial fine for writing anti-bank slogans in chalk outside of BofA branches in North Park and Hillcrest on the publicly owned sidewalk.
The push to prosecute Mr. Olson was at the behest of Darrell Freeman, Vice President of BofA’s global corporate security. He made numerous efforts to get the San Diego Police Department’s Gang Unit to forward the case to the City Attorney’s office to prosecute.
And boy did they. The equally out of control deputy city attorney Paige Hazard went after Mr. Olson as though her life depended on a conviction. Her zeal to see Mr. Olson behind bars bordered on the ridiculous if not a downright obsession. Luckily the jury saw through her madness, as well as Lincoln Club stooge Goldsmith, and acquitted Mr. Olson of all charges.
Much props needs to be given to Dorian Hargrove of The Reader for not only breaking the story but for numerous follow ups including the recently published cover story that details the background of the case. Without his excellent coverage this story might never have seen the light of day.
Mr. Olson’s plight not only made the local news it made the national news as well. Unfortunately, that national news coverage made San Diego the laughingstock of the nation for a couple weeks.
With Jeff Olson a free man (no thanks to BofA’s wannabe cop Darrell Freeman) a call went out through Facebook for national free speech actions against any and all Bank of America’s. I saw this and knew I had to participate since there is a BofA branch within three blocks of my apartment here in Barrio Logan. I didn’t see anybody else pick this branch so I took matters into my own hands and decided to organize a chalk-in right here in my own neighborhood.
After getting my wife Olympia’s approval (her response was “YES! Even it it’s just us, tú y yo contra el pinche mundo!”) I update my Facebook status with the following:
“A call has gone out to protest with chalk at all Bank of America branches because they pushed to prosecute Jeff Olsen for writing anti-bank slogans on the sidewalk in front of a North Park branch. Olsen was acquitted on all 13 counts of vandalism. I will be organizing a chalk-in at the Barrio Logan branch this Saturday from noon until 2pm. Come out and support free speech by showing your disdain for the big banks that caused the financial crisis. Bring some chalk.”
I also Tweeted through my @DesdeLaLogan account:
I’m definitely an advocacy journalist. I don’t believe in so-called objective journalism. There’s no such thing. I’ve been an activist in various forms for the past 20 years and it doesn’t stop just because I was asked to be a contributor to San Diego Free Press.
That day, July 1, I had planned to write my Desde la Logan’s Las Monthly Ondas event listing column and have the featured event be the upcoming Comic-Con, which I’ll be covering for SDFP. But with the news of Mr. Olson’s acquittal and the call for BofA demonstrations I shifted gears and wrote about the Free Speech Chalk-In that I was organizing.
With only five days to organize this action I had no idea if anybody was going to show. But like my wife said, “You and I against the fucking world!” We were going to do it no matter what.
For the next five days I bombarded my friends on Facebook and my followers on Twitter with updates and posts about the Free Speech Chalk-In. I constantly shared my Desde la Logan column hoping that others would show.
On Friday, July 5, before taking our two year old son Dino to the beach for the first time with our compadres, we stopped off at Toys R Us and purchased two boxes of 48 count colored, washable sidewalk chalk. For only $10 we had enough chalk to make this free speech action a reality.
On the morning of the chalk-in I decided to drive by the BofA to check out the scene. As I drove by I noticed an armed guard standing vigilantly outside. He looked harder than any Barrio Logan vato. Up until that moment I had never seen a guard outside that bank. They knew we were coming. Undeterred I went about my business.
After arriving back to my apartment I asked my wife if she’d be willing to walk to the bank so I could go drive over early. Since I was organizing this thing I didn’t want to be late. She said that wasn’t a problem so I left. I made a stop at Northgate for a case of water for any demonstrators who might get thirsty on this muggy, summer afternoon.
I got to BofA at about 11:45am and saw a couple people hanging out on the side of the building. They were dressed nicer than the average activist so I didn’t think they were going to be a part of the demo. I was wrong. Turns out they worked for recently elected Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and they were there to get their free speech on! They mentioned to me that Ms. Gonzalez was on her way and that she would be participating as well!
This brought me a sigh of relief since it provided any demonstrators a little bit of cover. Though the City Attorney wasn’t going to prosecute anyone for sidewalk chalking anymore it didn’t prevent the police from issuing a citation. My Assemblywoman was willing to get ticketed along with the rest of us.
Just before noon I busted out the new boxes of chalk with all of the colors of the rainbow and I went to work exercising my right to free speech in public. The first thing I wrote was:
BANKS BAILED OUT. HOMEOWNERS KICKED OUT.
Within minutes over a dozen people showed up, grabbed some chalk and then went to work free speeching all over the sidewalk. Including Assemblywoman Gonzalez. When it was over there were statements all over the sidewalk on both National Ave. and Sampson St. Some attacking City Attorney Goldsmith for his malicious prosecution of Jeff Olson. Others attacking Bank of America for being the corporate criminals they are.
Afterwards I interviewed a few of the chalkers on site and later that day I Tweeted my Assemblywoman asking her for a quote about the day’s action. Here’s what they had to say:
“I’m here today because of the gentleman who was put on trial then acquitted for chalking in front of Bank of America. It is a bank that did get a large bailout when our country was going through a really hard time.”
— Christina Griffin
“I’m here today because I think it’s outrageous that somebody wasn’t allowed to have peaceful protest in the form of chalk writing.”
“I think it’s ridiculous that our society is spending energy and time on prosecuting people on First Amendment rights when we have so many things to fix.”
— Michelle Krug
“Today in my neighborhood, we set out to remind the City Attorney that we value our First Amendment right to free speech and protest. We may not have lobbyists, or expensive attorneys or a ton of money, but we will always have our voice. We plan to continue to use it however we can.”
— Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez
It feels good knowing that politicians like Lorena Gonzalez have the backs of ordinary people like Jeff Olson and those that gathered at the Barrio Logan branch of Bank of America. It also feels good to know that there are people willing, on short notice, to put themselves on the line to exercise and defend their First Amendment rights. I am honored to have had the opportunity to express my right to free speech with those that came out. Especially in Barrio Logan, the neighborhood that I call home, a community that has a history of standing up and fighting for its rights.