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Indybay Feature

Unbalanced Response to Peaceful Protesters

by RedSF
As the costs of the police presence at demonstrations rise, Supervisors need to hear more from those falsely arrested.
The anti-war protests over the last week have resulted in thousands of arrests, many (if not most) of which are entirely baseless. In response to the protests and arrests, the offices of several San Francisco Supervisors have been deluged with calls, emails, and faxes from people strongly *supporting* the actions of the SFPD. The voices of peace activists and those falsely arrested have hardly been heard. Given the imbalance, some Supervisors believe they are doing the “will of the people” by allowing the police to continue their policy of mass arrests of peaceful marchers. One staffer even mentioned that some callers were angry that the police were not yet using firehoses and rubber bullets against the demonstrators.

Another staffer noted that some people were acting illegally at the protests on Thursday and Friday, and that it was unfortunate that innocent people who were shopping or even protesting peacefully were caught up in the sweep. However, this puts the responsibility on the protesters for being at the wrong time and place, not on the police for falsely arresting people.

Supervisor Tony Hall’s office is currently working on two pieces of legislation likely to be introduce at this Tuesday’s (March 25th) Board of Supervisors meeting. The first will instruct the City Attorney to prosecute protesters at last Thursday’s actions to the fullest extent of the law. Reportedly, this legislation will only cover people arrested for “obviously illegal acts like blocking the streets.” (But aren’t all arrests based on accusations of illegal acts?)

The second piece of legislation will instruct the police department to begin itemizing their costs for arrests and “police protection.” It will also instruct the City Attorney to bring lawsuits against the people/groups responsible for organizing the protests in an attempt to recover the City’s costs. The thought here is that any other massive use of the City’s streets, such as a parade, would have to apply for a permit and pay for police protection services. But there’s a major difference here: a parade needs the police to help provide public safety, whereas the protesters need safety from the officers themselves.

In an obvious undermining of First Amendment rights, the City would use the language used on organizations’ websites as “evidence” to determine which organizations to sue. Bringing lawsuits against nonprofit advocacy groups for costs associated with exercising their rights sets a dangerous precedent. The government will be able to stall and bankrupt organizations (and movements) it finds threatening through lengthy and expensive litigation.

On a broader scale, “free speech” would effectively become “paid speech,” thus impacting which individuals and organizations could afford to demonstrate publicly for their beliefs. With other forms of media and direct advertising (TV, radio, and newspapers) already well beyond the financial means of small advocacy groups, demonstrations are one of the few venues left for people to be heard. The public should always and forever be free to take to the streets directly. Public money was used to construct the streets, sidewalks, parks, and plazas – how can those areas be denied to the public?

Overall, the Supervisors seem to be hearing mixed accounts about what has been happening: violence against protesters and trampling of civil liberties on the one hand, and the illegal behavior of a few protesters against property, police, or bystanders on the other. Sadly, these both can and do coexist. If individuals are caught breaking laws, they should expect to be arrested or cited. However, the rules of evidence still apply: innocent until proven guilty. Rounding up protesters like herds of cattle and arresting everyone in a given area is a clear violation of the rights of free speech and free assembly.

One point on which everyone seems to agree is that the current plan is costing the City far too much. Estimates on the money being spent by the SFPD range from $500,000 to $1 million PER DAY. This doesn’t include costs from potential class-action lawsuits, legal fees, court time, or redirected staff time. Opinion differs on what to do about the escalating price tag: suing organizations that advocate “disrupting business as usual,” or letting peaceful protesters voice their opposition to war while only arresting those who act violently?

Our government officials need to rethink the heavy and excessive police presence at protests. Given San Francisco’s current budget crisis and the financial drain the war in Iraq places on the federal budget, we can’t afford to waste our resources on those demonstrating peacefully against it.
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techno-lib guy
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 11:39PM
techno-lib guy
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 11:32PM
Friend of Free Speech
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 11:01PM
John Q Public
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 10:50PM
Tommy
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 10:40PM
stewy steemin
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 10:21PM
stewy steemin
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 10:17PM
seasoned activist
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 10:09PM
CA Bob
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 9:52PM
San Franciscan
Mon, Mar 24, 2003 9:02PM
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