EAST COUNTY RESIDENTS SPEAK OUT ON OCCUPY ARRESTS, CLAIM CHILLING EFFECT ON FREE SPEECH
By Miriam Raftery
January 11, 2012 (San Diego)—An East County comedian finds the latest rounds of arrests at the Occupy San Diego protest site to be no laughing matter. “I’m afraid to go down there. We have become a police state,” said comic Diane Jean.
She is not alone. Concerns range from what some believe is over-zealous infringement of free speech rights under San Diego law to allegations of police mistreatment of protesters.
Today, a father testified to City Council that his 12-year-old daughter was threatened with arrest if she set down a sign. Sterling Mitchell said that after participating in a march with his young daughter, “an officer got in her face and warned her that if she set the sign down she’d be arrested.” He asked Council, “Why would a 12-year-old girl be intimidated while exercising her rights?”
Mike Garcia of La Mesa, a former mortgage industry insider who joined the Occupy movement, was profiled last week in ECM. This week, he stated in a press conference this week that many who participated in early marches protesting corporate power and bank bail-outs told him they have not returned due to fear of being arrested.
A local photographer documenting the Occupy story indicated to ECM that she no longer brings expensive camera gear due to fear of inadvertently being caught up in the unrest and having her equipment damaged.
Police, following orders to enforce a previously rarely used law, have arrested or detained people for things that would be legal most anywhere else, particularly on other public property: sitting in a chair, setting up a Christmas tree, using a table to register voters, and even carrying a too-large flagpole.
Lt. Andra Brown at the San Diego Police Department noted that Garcia had been “warned several times to remove the chair” but refused. Garcia confirmed that’s true, and says he decided to take a stand for what he views as his First Amendement free speech rights. As for why he was not arrested on previous occasions, Lt. Brown suggested, “perhaps he moved the chair when asked to do so…or the officers dealing with him on January 6 may have been more diligent than those on previous occasions.”
While Garcia did know the ground rules when he violated the letter of the law, that hasn’t been the case for everyone.
This week’s arrest of Stephanie Jennings, a 51-year-old mother and peace activist, has sparked outrage among some witnesses and supporters, though police deny any wrongdoing.
A founder of the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (YANO)in San Diego, Jennings activist was at the Civic Center singing with the Women of Occupy San Diego group when she was arrested. Ironically, said Hugh Moore of El Cajon, “Stephanie helped to set up this group because the members wanted to help with Occupy but specifically did NOT want to risk arrest.”
Jennings is charged with assaulting a police officer. Moore, who believes the charge is unjustified.
“The police decided to set up a police line that protesters were not supposed to cross and ran the line through the middle of the singers and Stephanie bumped into the officer setting up the tape, apologized…and then was literally tossed to the ground and arrested,” he wrote. “She is completely committed to nonviolence…” He believes police were “acting to quell dissent rather than acting to protect the public.”
A kidney patient with a heart condition, Jennings held a press conference and claims to also have been injured in custody. She also claims she was denied anti-rejection medications and heart medications during her detention at Las Colinas Women’s Center. View a press conference at which Jennings announced she has sought legal advice and is filing a complaint seeking an appeal to a review board: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1d91AbdPXI4&feature=youtu.be&hd=1
Melissa Aquino, spokesperson with the San Diego Sheriff’s office, which runs the Las Colinas facility in Santee, denied mistreatment at the jail. Aquino said that “the inmate was appropriately evaluated by a nursing staff during the booking process. She was scheduled to see a doctor, but was released from custody prior to the appointment. This is all the information we can release in accordance with H IPAA laws.”
As for the actual arrest, Lt. Brown said Jennings was “at the handicap ramp, blocking access to those attending the permitted event.” She said officers made “reasonable requests” for Jennings to clear the ramp area “She then poked an officer in the chest, committing a battery upon a police officer.” The area Commanding Officer and Lieutenant were present, she added.
On Christmas Day, Martin Eder, who heads up Activist San Diego in City Heights, brought a Christmas tree to the plaza. He was detained briefly and police hauled the tree away, leading to chides of a Grinch-like holiday spirit. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b61FgjiSXRE .
Previously Raymond Lutz of El Cajon was arrested for setting a table up in the plaza to register voters, as ECM reported. Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre has called that arrest a violation of the Civil Rights Act and the 1st
Amendment. http://eastcountymagazine.org/taxonomy/term/11707 . Police have indicated they were merely enforcing the law. Lutz has filed a civil rights action against the owner of the building where he was arrested; former City Attorney Mike Aguirre has concurred that Lutz’s rights were violated.
Not everyone sympathizes with the protesters. Some believe the demonstrators are to blame for many of the arrests.
“It appears to me as if the occupiers are trying EVERYTHING to get sympathy. I think they bought that tree in order to provoke the police and have it confiscated in hopes that people will care,” one individual posted on YouTube regarding the Christmas Day arrest.
Other local citizens have expressed conflicted views.”I have such mixed feelings about the police. I assume they're there to protect us. But at any moment, like angry wasps, they could also attack us... and then lie about it. I sure wouldn't want their job, and I admire them for doing it. But how can we keep them honest?” David Miller wrote in the comments section of a CityBeat piece in which author D.A. Kolodenko claims to have witnessed police brutality during a 1991 anti-war protest and a cover-up by officers who testified in court. (http://www.sdcitybeat.com/sandiego/article-9881-police-brutality-at-.html
San Diego Police, tasked with enforcing the law, have at times resorted to riot gear and mace to control boisterous crowds amid raucus chanting and drumbeats. Officers’ actions have drawn criticisms as arrests rise, including charges of police brutality. The Occupy San Diego movement has called for the resignation of SDPD Chief William Lansdowne.
The rumor mill, meanwhile, has escalated tensions. On January 3, ECM news partner 10 News reported that a sonic weapon known as the LRAD (long-range acoustic device) “is being used by law enforcement during “Occupy” protests” in some cities. ttp://www.10news.com/news/30128623/detail.html
Although the piece did not list San Diego among cities where such a weapon has actually been used, it sparked fear among some local Occupy members.
The LRAD manufacturer is based in San Diego and the Sheriff’s office owns one. Formerly used only in military applications and by ships at sea to repel pirates with a concentrated beam of sound, the weapon is now utilized by some law enforcement agencies.
Lt. Brown offered solid reassurance for those concerned about a sonic weapon being used here, however. “The San Diego PD has never used the LRAD in a crowd control situation, ever,” she informed ECM.
Police have faced questions over officers’ conduct using more conventional law enforcement tools, however. On October 14, 2012, police used mace after boisterous protesters formed a human chain. View video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kol4xe2Hrj4
One photo that appears to show a police officer spraying mace at the mouth of a man restrained in handcuffs has been widely circulated among
Occupy circles purporting to document police brutality, with a caption added onto the image. Lt. Brown said the image has been “Photo-shopped or otherwise altered…”This is not an authentic Occupy SD photograph.”
Others have complained that zip ties used by police to secure their hands were fastened too tightly, causing pain. El Cajon resident Ray Lutz has said he was kept in a bus for many hours with no bathroom after being arrested for having a table to register voters. Similar complaints have been voiced by others detained.
Some have alleged more serious harm.
Kayla Ward claims she suffered nerve damage as a result of manhandling by police while trying to flee when ordered to vacate the plaza. She was not arrested. Ward has filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego. According to an account published in the San Diego Reader, Ward said she was sleeping at the Occupy encampment October 28 when police in riot gear ordered evacuation of the plaza.
“The one with the loudspeaker told us that we had 7 minutes to evacuate the plaza, but they started to move in much sooner than that and [started] grabbing and beating people, and jumping and walking on tents with people still in them,” Ward said. “"I woke the other girl up and we decided to get out of there. “ While walking up steps to exit, she said an officer struck her with a baton three times on her back and buttocks. After losing feeling and suffering swelling, she said she visited the VA and another medical clinic. “It was diagnosed as nerve damage, tissue damage, a dislocated vertebrae disc, and 2 serious hematomas. I cannot walk normally for a distance without a cane or wheelchair.”
Police dispute at least one detail of her incident. SDPD “is not aware of any reports that batons were used upon demonstrators,” said Lt. Brown, adding that the Department could not discuss any case in which legal action has been filed.
As for questions of force at Occupy events overall, Lt. Brown asserted that members of the San Diego Police Department “only use that force which is necessary to affect an arrest. All complaints and allegations of police misconduct are investigated. All arrests have followed warnings to cease an activity, move an object etc (whatever is appropriate for the violation) before arrests have been made…unless an emergency situation existed (we have broken up fights between demonstrators, arrested demonstrators for battering each other , etc.” she wrote in an e-mail response to ECM.
Actions to increase free speech
Occupy supporters are now speaking out in hopes of changing laws that place limits on free speech in San Diego.
On December 5, free speech advocates gathered to commemorate a little-known chapter in San Diego’s history: the establishment 100 years ago of a ban on free speech in several blocks downtown imposed at the height of unrest during demonstrations by Industrial Workers of the World. Those restrictions are still in place today, as ECM recently reported: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8320
Martha Sullivan, a former Poway resident, was among those who stood on a Free Speech soapbox January 5 to call for restoration of free speech in San Diego. “I was wearing my “Women Occupy” sash, channeling my suffragist foremothers,” she wrote in an account of the event, at which officers allowed the free speech soapbox to remain during a press conference at the Civic Center Plaza, but required others to remove belongings. The issue of selective enforcement has been raised, among other issues.
Sullivan faults San Diego’s elected leadership for doing nothing to address free speech concerns amid the Occupy movement and worse, waging what she termed “the continuing campaign by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders to repress and suppress through intimidation, the exercise of our 1st Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly in our San Diego Civic Center Plaza.”
On January 11, Occupy supporters asked the San Diego City Council Rules Committee meeting to consider a ballot proposal submitted by Occupy San Diego to amend San Diego Municipal Code 54.0110 to include an explicit exemption for free speech rights.
William Johnson testified that he was fearful of arrest for setting a bag down and further added that on December 10, a person who came to donate a case of water at the Occupy site was told by an officer that he could not put down the case to distribute water. “Water is a human right,” said Johnson, who caused refusing to allow water distribution “inhumane.”
Chris West questioned the city’s priorities in spending $2.5 million through November on policing Occupy activities, while spending only a half million dollars on a homeless shelter. He urged councilmembers to view Occupy videos on YouTube to learn more about what’s been occurring at the Plaza.
On January 13, some local Occupy members will be taking their message to Washington D.C. A group of Occupy San Diego members will depart Friday via Greyhound bus. In Washington, they will join a “million tent protest” in the nation’s capitol January 17 and hope to meet with elected officials there. (For details, see http://www.facebook.com/events/193123490781712/