Know your riots
Authorities and activists weigh the fallout from Sacramento’s ministerial-conference protests
This is an unlawful assembly.
Those who remain risk serious injury. We will use chemical agents.
This might be something you would have heard this summer in downtown Fallujah, Iraq. But locals also will recognize it as a warning from occupying forces to the citizens of Sacramento, USA, during the week of June 20.
A great many assemblies were declared unlawful that week. And police weren’t shy about threatening to use the chemical agents and electrical devices—as well as the cold can of shock-and-awe-style whoop-ass—they had at their disposal.
It wasn’t an idle threat, says 57-year-old Sacramentan Beverly Dove. She is preparing to sue the city of Sacramento, the police department and a host of other government entities she claims violated her constitutional rights to free speech—and lit her up with a high-voltage Taser.
The incident occurred during a protest of the international agricultural conference hosted by the city late in June. The U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted the event to showcase new biotechnology and methods of creating food stability in the developing world. The meeting was held for the benefit of 150 ministers of agriculture and health from developing countries who will attend a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun later this month.
About 2,000 protesters showed up to promote sustainable agriculture and warn about what they see as the dangers of genetically modified crops, pesticides and corporate agribusiness.
The protesters were met, in the words of Sacramento Police Department officials, with “a fearsome police presence.” In the words of the protest organizers and civil-rights lawyers, the police reaction was “overkill,” “intimidation” and an attempt to chill citizens’ rights to peaceably assemble and speak.
Local activists from the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture (SCSA) have logged hours of videotape showing what they claim is a pattern of officers using excessive force against protesters. They also claim city leaders encouraged these actions by turning the city into a security state.
SCSA and others are criticizing the mayor and city council, along with City Manager Bob Thomas, for secretly passing a host of new restrictions on rallies just days before the protests began. These critics are demanding an independent investigation of how the city handled the protests, and a repeal of the city’s new anti-protest ordinance.
To help make their case, they have compiled a mini-documentary—bluntly titled The Trampling of Liberty: peaceful protests met with paramilitary response in Sacramento—that they will show to the mayor and city council on September 16. (The same day, Thomas is scheduled to present his own report on how the city handled the conference and the protests that surrounded it.)
One of the centerpieces of the documentary is video taken by Channel 10, and by independent videographers, showing Dove in a standoff with police in Capitol Park. She has her arms outstretched and appears to be telling police that she is only reaching for the bottle of water on the ground in front of her. When she bends down to pick up the bottle, an officer thrusts a Taser into her ribcage and appears to fire it. Dove’s skin is lit up with a yellowish glow. When she twists away from the device, another officer grabs her by the hair and throws her to the ground. Dove has filed a claim in Sacramento Superior Court, a precursor to what likely will become a civil-rights lawsuit.
The video also shows people being snatched off of sidewalks and arrested for wearing gas masks or bandannas.
Wearing them wasn’t a crime in Sacramento even a week before the protests started. It was made a crime by the city council in an “emergency ordinance” adopted on June 17—without public input and apparently without the knowledge of protest organizers who held the permits for marches and who had been in what they believed was close contact with city and police officials.
The new ordinance prohibits a whole host of materials from being used at parades and protests, including gas masks and bandannas (which can be used to protect from chemical agents and also are the signature accouterment of the Black Bloc); squirt guns; slingshots; signs or banners that are more than one-quarter inch in thickness; and “solid shapes made of rubber, plastic, metal, wood or any other similar hard substance,” that could be thrown.
The broad definition of prohibited items means that “they can arrest anybody for anything,” said SCSA organizer Heidi McLean.
The city manager asked the council to approve the new ban as an emergency ordinance, so it would be effective immediately. The ordinance was approved unanimously by the council June 17, just three days before the ministerial meeting was to begin.
When asked what the “emergency” was, city spokeswoman Liz Brenner said the Sacramento police and the city manager had obtained “late intelligence” from the police that some protesters were planning violence against people or property. Police have offered few specific details about that intelligence but seem to have relied heavily on Internet chatter. The city council normally posts agenda items on the Friday before the Tuesday council meeting. But the protest ordinance did not appear on Friday’s agenda or on the city’s Web site.
The city clerk did later type a notice, into a small space on the agenda, that the new ordinance would be voted on, and that notice was posted inside City Hall late Saturday morning. The posting barely met the deadline required under state public-meeting laws. Regardless of whether the intent was to pass the ordinance in secret, that was the effect.
Data collected by SCSA suggests the new ordinance was used more than any other law to arrest protesters, even though most people wouldn’t have known that wearing a bandanna or having a certain kind of banner was illegal.
“We were begging them to tell us how to have a legal protest. But they didn’t,” said Dr. Craig Tucker, an SCSA organizer. “While they were hoodooing the public and passing this thing in secret,” he said, “we’re working with a police liaison—who never told us anything about it.”
Julia Mass, an attorney with the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she also was disturbed by the manner in which the ordinance was passed.
“Given that they were planning for this event for months, it seems strange at best that they wouldn’t have had the foresight to pass it in time for the public to give their input,” said Mass. “Setting aside the dubious claim that there was an emergency, the police at least could have made the ordinance known to protest organizers.”
Mass and local citizens are asking the council to repeal the ordinance, now that the emergency has passed, and to consider any new laws only with full public input.
Mayor Heather Fargo said the ordinance was appropriate “based on the information that we had at the time.”
But she also said she felt the new law would have to be revised. “Our ordinances need to be understandable and enforceable,” she said, suggesting that the ordinance was too broad and vague in places.
Fargo also acknowledged concerns that organizers had not been told about the ordinance: “If that’s true, that was certainly a mistake.” All of these questions, the mayor said, would be addressed at the September 16 council meeting.
Still, it seems unlikely the council will repeal the new law altogether.
City spokeswoman Brenner said the previous city ordinances had been on the books since the 1970s and didn’t contemplate the kind of unrest that occurred at the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting in 1999. “We needed to bring it into the 21st century,” she explained.
But new restrictions on speech, and a heavily militarized local police force, appear to owe as much to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as they do the “battle of Seattle.”
For example, the Sacramento Police Department’s own television program, City Beat, which is funded with state grant money for recruitment, recently drew a remarkably strong link between terrorists and protesters. A recent episode, which aired on Channel 10 and the local public-access cable channel, included three segments: one on local efforts to coordinate with other agencies to bolster homeland security, one on the handling of the June protests and one on the firebombing of City Councilman Jimmie Yee’s home by white supremacists nearly 10 years ago.
The segment concerning the conference protests includes a lot of congratulations and glowing testimonials from businesses like the Hyatt Regency hotel and organizations like the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, for the superb job the police did during the event. But mostly, the program connects, over and over again, civilian protests and acts of terror. The conference protests, according to the narrator, presented a “unique opportunity to put into practice the interagency communication needed in a post-9/11 world.”
The show ends with a sweeping conclusion: “This edition of City Beat has looked at the ongoing threat from those who would use terror to disrupt our way of life. Law enforcement must always be prepared to stay a step ahead of America’s enemies.”
When asked about the message of the program, police spokesman Sgt. Justin Risley said “the link is fairly obvious” between domestic political demonstrations and the war on terror.
“We’re talking about a large-scale international event that attracts people who want to create disruption and brings with it the potential for terrorist attack.”
Risley said the intelligence gathered by the Sacramento Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies raised concerns about violence, but he could not give any specific details. Police did seize light bulbs filled with flammable liquids, slingshots, and dirt balls filled with organic seeds that were considered dangerous projectiles under the new city ordinance.
Risley said police were concerned about the participation of groups like the Black Bloc anarchists and the Earth Liberation Front, which recently torched a Hummer dealership in San Diego.
The police department relied, to some extent, on intelligence gathered by the new California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC). The new department within the attorney general’s office was created in September 2001, in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
CATIC helped the Oakland Police Department prepare for anti-war protests in that city in the spring. According to the Oakland Tribune, one CATIC official suggested in an April 2 bulletin that a protest against the Iraq war could itself be considered an act of terrorism. Five days later, police fired wooden slugs into a crowd at the Port of Oakland, injuring more than a dozen protesters and dock workers and prompting an investigation into police conduct.
Attorney general’s spokesman Nathan Barankin said CATIC’s report to the city of Sacramento was secret and would not be made available to the public. When asked whether the CATIC report would have prompted such an intense police presence, Barankin said, “They made their own decisions. There was nothing in there that said there would be Armageddon.”
To folks like Craig Tucker, comparing Al Qaeda-type plots to blow up bridges to environmentalists who dress up as butterflies and block traffic is infuriating.
“We’re not doing anything different than what our founding fathers did. We leaflet, and we march. A group of people who worry about the food we eat should not be lumped in with the guys who blow up skyscrapers,” Tucker said.
It can be hard to keep up with the rules in the post-9/11 world. During the ministerial meeting, one amateur videographer recorded the very strange incapacitation of a giant puppet by Sacramento police.
It was Death, a tall black figure with a massive skull and a man named David Solnit inside. Solnit walked ponderously in the street, struggling to keep the head balanced while using a megaphone to broadcast slogans from Death’s midsection.
Suddenly, three or four riot police came into view, bringing Death hard to the ground.
“We just want the megaphone. Give us the megaphone,” one officer could be heard saying.
And just as suddenly, they were gone, with Solnit’s amplification device.
“I was trying to speak directly to the ministers,” he said into the camera, looking dazed. “And I got tackled and twisted, and they took my bullhorn away.”
You might assume that the new parade ordinance prohibits megaphones, along with bandannas and gas masks and substances that are capable of being thrown or projected. But, in fact, it does not. Still, by this time, some protesters were vaguely aware of the new rule, and one observer assumed that the takedown was just part of the post-Seattle, post-9/11 rules. He was an older man who, when asked on camera what he believed had just happened, said, "I’m not sure. Actually, I heard there’s a new law where you can’t have anything that makes a sound that carries too far."