Freedom from assembly

The city closes public parks while police “posse up” for trouble

Alicia Oldfield doesn’t look dangerous, but organic vegetables make excellent projectiles.

Alicia Oldfield doesn’t look dangerous, but organic vegetables make excellent projectiles.

Photo By Larry Dalton

All Alicia Oldfield wanted to do was turn people on to some good food. She figured the upcoming Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology would provide a perfect opportunity to spread the word about organic food, the virtues of community-supported agriculture and concerns about genetically modified foods.

The three-day conference—which will be attended by agriculture officials from more than 100 nations—is billed as an opportunity to promote new farming technologies and food security in the developing world. But many activists view the conference as an attempt to force corporate farming and genetically modified food down the throats of the world’s poorest nations. And many, like Oldfield, are busy trying to get the word out about alternatives while the international spotlight is on Sacramento.

So, Oldfield began planning an event for Southside Park, to follow the regular Sunday farmers’ market nearby, so she could offer information and free food. Given the diversity of the neighborhood, she hoped to reach Asian and Latino families that don’t necessarily frequent the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, where Oldfield works.

The event was to be family-friendly, with acoustic music, face painting and “veggie Olympics” for kids. Although not directly tied to protests, it would offer a chance for people to speak their peace.

Oldfield said a friend checked out Southside Park and was told there was plenty of space available for a small event on Sunday, June 22. But when Oldfield went to get her permit, she was told the entire park was reserved. Somehow, downtown’s largest city park had become completely unavailable between Friday and Monday.

“That’s weird,” she recalled thinking. She finally got a parks employee to explain the situation to her: All parks in downtown and Midtown were off-limits to gatherings because the city was—as Oldfield put it—“freaking out” about the upcoming protests.

Oldfield finally got a spot in Land Park, completely removed from downtown and far from the site of the ministerial meeting, which begins June 23 at the city’s convention center. “It was very frustrating,” she said. “I didn’t understand why all these hurdles were being thrown up.”

Other activists were angered at what they consider an attempt to create de facto speech-free zones downtown just as thousands of protesters arrive in town to oppose the conference.

Sacramento Police Department spokesman Sgt. Justin Risley said the park closures were not intended to deny anyone a place to assemble or protest but that the parks were needed by police to “posse up” and deploy to different parts of downtown if they’re needed.

Risley said that only three parks are being reserved by the police as of now. Initially, the city reserved “many more,” he said, but then settled on Cesar Chavez, Roosevelt and Southside parks.

Southside Park is the largest city park in downtown. Roosevelt and Cesar Chavez are two of the closest parks to the convention center. Though other city parks now appear to be open to groups by permit, they are all smaller and farther flung. Whatever the police intended when they reserved the parks, the effect is to make large swaths of public space off-limits to protests and gatherings.

The park ban has gotten the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The group’s attorney Julia Mass said the ACLU has not decided whether to challenge the ban but is troubled by the implications for free speech.

“Public parks are traditional spaces for the exercise of the constitutional rights of assembly and free speech,” said Mass. “We are concerned about people having an opportunity to exercise their rights and concerned that their speech not be chilled by the city.”

Local organizers are also nervous about police preparations to use force against protesters. The weeks leading up to the conference have been full of dire warnings for activists who get out of hand.

A memo from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lt. Col. Mark Connelly warns corps employees that as many as 10,000 protesters may arrive in the capital city.

“There will be a large police presence during the demonstrations, and they are prepared to respond quickly,” Connelly wrote. “That response could include tear gas and riot agents. Because these agents are heavier than air, they will not get into our building’s air-conditioning system.”

Army Corps spokesman Jim Taylor said the memo was based on information given by the Sacramento Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies. He said his agency didn’t anticipate trouble but wanted to assure its employees that they would be kept safe.

Though reassuring, perhaps, for Army Corps employees, the talk of tear gas is unnerving to local organizers who were planning peaceful events to promote organic food.

Local media were treated to a show of force at Cal Expo earlier this month when the police department invited several media outlets to view police officers firing pepper-spray bullets at human-shaped targets. Heidi McLean, an organizer with the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, said the media show appeared to be intended to intimidate local citizens to discourage them from attending the events. “Who is the audience? It’s on local television. The audience is not out-of-town troublemakers. It’s local people who are thinking about going down there. The message is, ‘You better stay home.’”

Risley defended the training exercises and said law-enforcement officials fear some protesters will come to town bent on violence and property destruction. He raised the specter of individuals using wrist rockets and steel bolts to attack police. “It would be inappropriate for us not to prepare for the worst-case scenario. It would not be responsible to have less-than-lethal forms of force in place to deal with that kind of activity.”

Mark Schlosberg, a police-practices policy director for the ACLU, worries about preparations to use potentially dangerous devices.

“We don’t think pepper spray is an appropriate crowd-control method,” said Schlosberg, adding that the ACLU is worried about a repeat of the Oakland incident on April 7, when police fired wooden dowel rods at anti-war protesters.

Local activists downplay the conference’s connection to the World Trade Organization and say the kind of street battles that occurred in Seattle in 1999 are highly unlikely.

But even event organizers like Oldfield are beginning to have doubts. She told SN&R that she decided to send her own son to stay with relatives during the three days because she feared for his safety.

“I just don’t feel like getting shot at with rubber bullets with a 2-year-old on my back.”