United we sit

Impromptu intersection sit-in leads to dozens of arrests as reaction to war hits Chico

WAR AND PEACE Chico Police Lt. Mike Weber, at right, tells protesters that sitting in the middle of an intersection won’t further their cause for peace in Iraq.

WAR AND PEACE Chico Police Lt. Mike Weber, at right, tells protesters that sitting in the middle of an intersection won’t further their cause for peace in Iraq.

Photo By Tom Angel

What’s the charge? Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said this week he has not decided whether to file charges against those arrested during the sit in. That decision, he said, will be made after he reads the police reports.

War-protests erupted across the world the day after bombs began falling on Baghdad, and Chico was no exception.

On Thursday, March 20, a peace gathering in the Downtown Plaza Park splintered into a sit-in at the intersection of Main and Third streets, blocking traffic for more than two hours as police tried to reason with the two-dozen or so who took part in the simultaneous sit-down.

To end the display of civil disobedience, Chico police officers and Butte County sheriff’s deputies arrested 23 people they later labeled as “protesters” in a press release. But included in those arrests was a city worker observing the proceedings and local attorney Kevin Sears, who had walked from his Wall Street office to see what the commotion was all about.

Called “Day X” by protesters, events started with a 10 a.m., city-permitted rally at Downtown Plaza Park. But at around 1:30 p.m. the rally turned into an impromptu protest by at least 150 people, including those who sat in the middle of the intersection.

Members of the Peace and Justice Center and Peace Works, which had sponsored the plaza rally, urged protesters to move to the sidewalk early on. “Your voice can’t be heard from jail,” shouted Sherri Quammen, a local activist.

“I understand where you folks are coming from,” said Lt. Mike Weber, borrowing a megaphone from marchers. “The news media is already here, and your voices are being heard. We don’t want to create an arrest situation.”

Weber pointed out the extensive police resources being used and the fact that traffic was being tied up along Main Street and East Third Street.

One young man replied: “The point is, war is inconvenient.” The protesters displayed the peace sign and even tried to hug officers.

The crowd was comprised mainly of young students, mostly college-age but many having walked over from Chico High School. Signs read, “Hemp is an herb/ Bush is a dope,” “Who would Jesus bomb?” and “War sucks.” A popular chant, even as the last two young women were pried apart and arrested, was, “We’re doing this for peace.”

At one point, some people—including children about 3 or 4 years old—lay in the middle of the intersection and had their bodies traced with colored chalk to mimic dead bodies.

Peace activists, who’ve held a vigil for their cause on the corner of Third and Main streets for the past 40 years, have been joined by Iraq war supporters on the last two Saturdays.

Photo By Tom Angel

Around 3 p.m. a few dozen protesters heeded the plea of Celeste Worden, who had spoken earlier at the plaza. “The police have held off for a long time. You don’t really know what getting arrested today is going to do to the rest of your life,” she said, convincing some to follow her back to the plaza. “There is a time when we retreat.”

The protest in the sunny street hit a holding pattern as police rallied about 30 Chico police officers and Butte County sheriff’s deputies in protective helmets, gathered plastic hand restraints and dog leashes, and borrowed a bus from the Chico Unified School District to transport prisoners. Some protesters kicked around a footbag, unleashed dogs and danced in the street. Others tried to engage officers in an intellectual discussion of the merits of ending the war.

Some of the shopkeepers and those standing by said they were disgusted by the protesters, while others seemed to view the protest as spectator sport, going so far as to buy hot dogs from the Horn Dog stand that had set up on the corner.

A few elementary-school-age children acted upset by the activities and huddled close to parents. Mayor Maureen Kirk and Councilman Larry Wahl showed up to survey the scene.

Matt Smith, the owner of Sports LTD on the corner of Third and Main, said the protesters weren’t hurting his business, but he disagreed with their methods. “I just wish these people would point their energies into helping the children of Iraq,” he said. “Everyone’s anti-war. I marched [against] Vietnam. But this [war] is against Saddam, not the Iraqi people.”

By 3:43 p.m., police had declared an unlawful assembly and were no longer OK with the protesters moving to the sidewalk. “You are ordered to disperse,” Weber announced. The chant, “Our streets, our police,” gave way to, “Our sidewalks, our police.”

Most of the law enforcement officers exhibited patience, but one barked at confused passersby to “go; move it, you understand?” They were also inconsistent in their directives to journalists. One officer mistakenly warned a young protester, “You can’t be a school teacher if you have an arrest record.”

The first to be arrested was a man who would not stop playing bongo drums. That’s because he was playing too loudly for police instructions to be heard, said Bruce Hagerty, Chico’s new police chief, who worked for the Los Angeles Police Department during the Rodney King riots.

“It was our plan to facilitate the peaceful demonstration,” Hagerty said. But some protesters forced their hand, he said: “They wanted to be on television going to jail.”

One by one, police arrested those who would not leave the street and then the sidewalk. Some had to be carried, but most walked to the area where their pictures were taken and belongings confiscated. One juvenile was arrested.

Sears, the attorney, was arrested in business attire by sheriff’s deputies. “I just walked out from my office,” he tried to tell the officer.

Later, Hagerty seemed confused as to the identity of Sears. “Those that were asked to leave and did not were arrested,” he said. “The fact that he’s an attorney had nothing to do with it.”

As the last onlookers drifted away, one played a flute as he walked casually down Third Street toward Broadway. An officer loaded a protest sign and a mock bucket of blood into the trunk of a police cruiser. A Chico firefighter washed the chalked body outlines from the intersection with a fire hose. And traffic resumed as rush hour hit.