The rights stuff

To no one’s surprise, City Manager Bob Thomas’ report last week about the city’s handling of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ministerial meeting in June contained nothing but good news.

One highlight was a signed letter from Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, thanking Sacramento for making the conference a great success. “The ministers from around the globe were allowed to learn about new technologies in a safe and comfortable environment,” she wrote. The endorsement of a Cabinet official like Veneman, we are told, is a major public-relations coup for Sacramento and a big boost to the local convention industry.

We’re glad the ministers, and the corporate representatives that courted them, felt safe and comfortable—undisturbed by the 2,000 or so protesters outside with deep reservations about what those new technologies mean to the future of the world’s food supply. We certainly hope they felt safe and comfortable, because we paid dearly—in the diminishment of our rights to peacefully assemble and protest—to make it so.

We all know plenty about the overwhelming police presence that was deployed that week—a show of force clearly intended to intimidate demonstrators—so we won’t repeat the litany of police overreactions here.

But the mayor and council need to acknowledge the egregious mistake they made by going behind the backs of their constituents and enacting sweeping new restrictions on political demonstrations. (See “Know your riots” by Cosmo Garvin, SN&R News, September 11.)

The fast-tracked parade ordinances gave police the authority to arrest protesters for just about anything: wearing a bandanna, having a sign that was the wrong size or carrying any object that might conceivably be thrown at a cop or a window. The laws are overly broad and easily subject to abuse, as we saw during the June protests.

The ordinances were justified, we were told, by intelligence gathered from the Web proving that protesters were planning massive violent disruptions in the city. The “evidence of disruption plans” presented in the city manager’s report—a pair of anonymous e-mails posted to activist Web sites in April—was laughable. And yet, that dubious threat assessment and some very unrealistic fears about a repeat of the protests in Seattle in 1999 were enough to convince the council to pass the “emergency ordinances” without proper public notice or any public input, just days before the conference began.

What’s worse: The mayor and council have since shrugged and said they would review the ordinances—which are still enforceable—and possibly “tweak” them several months down the road.

That’s not acceptable. Those ordinances—and the manner in which they were enacted—are an affront to our local democracy and should not remain on the books a day longer. If city officials really feel we ought to trade in some of our civil liberties for a little more security, then they need to make that case in the full view of the public.