The War on Protesters
One week after anti-war demonstrators brought San Francisco’s business district to a standstill, the city’s police force has been accused of attempting to repress dissent with widespread brutality, intimidation, and illegal mass arrests.
While San Francisco has become an epicenter of U.S. protests against the war in Iraq, it is now embroiled in a debate over police response to the demonstrations which have resulted in over 2,500 arrests since March 19. Anti-war groups say the police overreacted costing the city millions in overtime pay.
Rachel Lavina, Program Coordinator for the Ella Baker Human Rights Center, says the center’s Police Watch project has received over 80 calls from people recounting vivid stories of police misconduct during protests. Lavina said callers have provided accounts of police tearing protesters’ shoulder rotator cuffs, abusing elderly protesters, roughly separating children from their parents, using overhead strikes with batons, and sweeping areas without giving dispersal orders.
Ross Levy, a San Francisco architect, said he and his young son were caught up in the protests on March 20 after stepping off a streetcar on Market Street. According to Levy, a news photographer who was about to get arrested, threw Levy a bag of undeveloped film prompting police to forcibly pull his son Emett from his shoulders, knock Levy to the ground, and step on his head. Levy suffered a head wound, and the entire incident was captured by TV cameras and broadcast.
Protester Melissa Berridge, who found herself caught up in a mass arrest on Franklin and McAllister streets on March 21, said she was struck across the chest with a nightstick and had her ankles stepped on by police. She said an officer told her that the group was being arrested “to make us think twice about joining any more protests.”
“What we saw was violation of police general orders regarding crowd control, violation of the Constitutional right to peaceful assembly and free speech, and use of excessive force to curb public dissent in San Francisco,” said Ishmael Tarikh, director of Bay Area Police Watch. ”We do anticipate filing suit.”
San Francisco acting Police Chief Alex Fagan said the police department has acted with restraint in dealing with protesters. Fagan displayed a collection of pipe wrenches, hammers, rocks, a skillet, and what he said were other potential weapons seized during police sweeps. But he acknowledged that only 1% of arrests involved protesters who displayed any form of violence. “Not only is this city tolerant, but this police department is tolerant,” said Fagan who said his officers “took a lot of abuse” during the demonstrations. “I think they handled themselves very well.”
Some city officials are charging that the expense of policing the protests, staffing jails and 911 centers, paying clean up crews, parking and traffic costs, will further exacerbate the city’s record $347 million deficit. The city estimated that the the protests were costing its general fund $900,000 a day, half of which were police overtime costs. San Francisco mayor Willie Brown claimed that the total bill could reach $5 to $10 million, and would likely result in further layoffs and cuts in city services. He charged that the demonstrators were “defecating in their own nest.”
In a week in which 500 city employees received pink slips, Mayor Brown said health care services may be especially targeted for cuts if protest costs exacerbate budget shortfalls. But Protester Martha Hawthorne, a nurse at the Castro Mission Health Center, said a proposed 50 cut in her staff had been announced before the protests started. While the clinic was already falling short of caring for existing health care needs, she fully supported the protests. “Our tax dollars are going to kill,” said Hawthorne. “We have to take action against the things our government is doing half way around the world.”
Disputes over budgets and brutality reached a head at the March 25th meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors–the equivalent of the city council. During the meeting, City Supervisor Tony Hall proposed a resolution urging San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan to fully prosecute all arrested demonstrators. Hall also asked the DA to investigate whether protesters could be fined to repay the city’s general fund.
“The question has been raised by a number of constituents,” said Hall. “If they can receive a $250 parking fine while their car is illegally parked and blocking a street, why can’t these protesters be similarly fined for doing the exact same thing?”
DA Hallinan responded to this suggestion by dropping or reducing charges against the 12 demonstrators arrested on felony counts during the protests. Chief Fagan said he was disappointed by this decision, but Hallinan’s move came as no surprise. The DA is currently prosecuting five San Francisco police commanders indicted last month for blocking an investigation of a street fight involving three off duty officers. One of the accused officers is Fagan’s son.
Chris Bowman, who testified during the meeting, said he supported Hall’s call to prosecute protesters. ”My nephew was arrested and if he was arrested a second time, I’d say throw the book at him,” said Bowman. “Sixty percent of voters in the Bay Area say the protests are counterproductive.”
Supervisor Hall proposed a second resolution directing the city attorney to explore legal remedies to recover costs from protest organizers. The resolution also urges city departments to itemize their expenses associated with the protests.”The question we should all be concerned about is how much is all of this going to cost the city, and who is supposed to pay?” asked Hall, citing Hallinan’s assertion that nobody is above the law. “It appears to be the law abiding tax payer who may be the real victims of these protests.”
“The protesters don’t assign police details, yet we are being made the scapegoats for the expense,” countered Lindasusan Ulrich who testified at the supervisor’s meeting. ”I saw one officer shove a man on a bicycle several times, even as he was trying to comply with the officer’s orders. We witnessed another officer throwing down an old man with a cane, who had to be taken off in an ambulance. Another policeman, who like his colleagues, was in full riot gear and had a billy club out, repeated to one protester who was asking to leave, ‘Anyone close enough to be threatening will be hit.’ These are my tax dollars at work?”
Observers pointed to several examples of what they said was the over deployment of idle police. Tarikh noted that he looked out of his office window on Mint Street March 24, and observed police officers eating snacks and playing football. A photo of the football game made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next day.
LeiLani Dowell, spokesperson for the protest group International A.N.S.W.E.R., argues that the strain on the city budget pales in comparison to the cost of each $1.5 million dollar cruise missile, or the $75 billion that Bush has requested from Congress to fight the war. Protest groups say the White House should cover San Francisco’s police overtime expenses.
“Send the bill to Bush!” demanded the street demonstrators, and the mayor has decided to do just that. Brown said on a radio program that he will try to cover demonstration costs with federal Homeland Security funds set aside to secure the city against terrorists. Brown argued that terrorists could use the demonstrations as a distraction to carry out an attack. Policing protesters, said Brown, is part of defending the city, which estimates that it has spent $2.6 million a week on security costs since the March 17th “Code Orange” alert. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, only New York City has chewed through more money guarding buildings, beefing up law enforcement and emergency services.
Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, says Mayor Brown would have have to request the federal funding from the California state Homeland Security director. But according to Roehrkasse, Secretary Tom Ridge has earmarked the funds strictly for terrorism prevention and preparedness. Paying police overtime costs for the purpose of dealing with protesters, says Roehrkasse, is not considered part of those expenses and no other city has asked for similar reimbursement.
P.J. Johnston, the mayor’s press secretary, says a formal request for Homeland Security funds has not yet been made. But he says San Francisco, like many American cities is bearing the brunt of stepped up security costs during the orange alert, and police overtime during the protests is part of that. From our perspective they are not separate and distinct, they are intermingled,” said Johnson.
A Change In Police Tactics
Tarikh suggests that police misconduct in San Francisco was an overreaction to the first day of protest, Thursday, March 20, when thousands of demonstrators blocked traffic downtown and were initially met by only a handful of police officers. By early evening, groups of police and highway patrol officers had descended on street protesters and made over 1,400 arrests.
The tenor of police response changed significantly on Friday, March 21 when officers began to conduct sweeping arrests of groups engaged in lawful sidewalk protests. On Friday afternoon, shoppers and tourists were arrested during a police sweep at the Galleria shopping complex, including an outraged pianist from New York who was performing a concert that evening. Encountering seated protesters at the intersection of Spenser and Market Streets, police tied rags around protester’s necks to jerk them to their feet.
Early Friday evening, police surrounded two separate groups of several hundred protesters on Franklin and Hayes Street. Marchers on Hayes Street found trucks parked on the sidewalk, and demonstrators streamed around them obeying the order to remain on the sidewalks. Police blocked the end of the street, surrounded protesters, and began making arrests.
On Franklin Street, police followed a similar tactic witnessed by this reporter. Obeying police orders to remain on the sidewalk, the group was encircled by officers who threw some protesters to the ground and beat them. Those arrested were handcuffed, photographed at the scene, and transported to a waterfront pier which the police had rented as a detention center. ”We were informed that we were under arrest on charges of failure to disperse and blocking the streets, but these charges were more than mistaken: they were the exact opposite of the truth,” said Ulrich who was arrested in the incident. ”Six hours after being surrounded, arrested, transported, processed, and cited for infractions that we did not commit, we were finally able to head home.”
As the Franklin Street protesters were being loaded into buses, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Matt Gonzalez, stood alone in front of City Hall watching a group of bicyclists who had managed to flee the arrest. ”Go do this on federal property, go do this to a town that refused to pass an anti-war resolution, go protest in front of Congressional reps that refused to take a stand on this,” said Gonzalez gloomily as workers barricaded City Hall in preparation for Saturday’s anti-war rally. ”They are costing us, the city, the people who are against the war. When we get into budget hearings, the city could be out $2 million dollars for this. I could do a lot of good with $2 million dollars.”
”We are not going to sit at home in front of the TV and watch them drop bombs, we won’t be passive,” replied a protester named James Q. who had halted his bike to talk with Gonzalez. ”Everyone needs to do what their conscience tells them to do.”
The anti-war rally in front of San Francisco City Hall the next day, March 22, drew 75,000 demonstrators. After the rally, hundreds of protesters converged on Market Street, the city’s wide central boulevard which has been a flash point for demonstrations. At 5 pm, an NBC news van was surrounded by a crowd shouting, ”tell the truth!” By 5:45 platoons of riot police were marching down Market Street facing off against hundreds of protesters who intermittently occupied the roadway. At 6th and Market, police confiscated a bicycle-drawn sound system at a sidewalk dance party and encircled over 100 protesters, many of whom were arrested. ”We were on the sidewalk dancing and they rushed towards us and hit us with batons,” said Murphy McMahon. ”This one guy was clobbered by four or five police officers, and people in the crowd started throwing bottles. We asked, ‘am I under arrest?,’ but they wouldn’t answer us.”
At about 6:15 Saturday a swarm of bicyclists passed through the intersection of 6th and Market. Twenty riders were knocked off their moving bikes and tackled by police, who arrested them and tossed the bicycles into a pile. By 7 pm, mounted police arrived, and downtown descended into total anarchy. Trashcans burned along Market Street, police were beating protesters at 5th and Market with batons. Onlookers, including non-protesters, shouted at police to stop. ”This is the city I almost died for? This is the country I almost died for? This is the martial law I almost died for?” raged Dennis Kyne, a gulf war veteran who was observing the arrests. ”I’m ashamed, I’m embarrassed. Fuck this war.”
The city was quiet on Sunday, March 23. But by 7:30 on the morning of March 24, Father Louie Vitale was back on Market Street leading a solemn procession of protesters carrying child-sized white coffins. Protesting students at San Francisco State walked out of classes and occupied the ground floor of the campus administration building. Arrests resumed when a group of protesters locked themselves together in front of the Transamerica Pyramid which houses the offices of defense contractor, the Carlyle Group. ”Carlyle gets rich! Our sons and daughters die,” chanted the crowd.
Arrests also took place at the San Francisco Federal Building, but the mood on March 24 was subdued. Behind a police line at the Transamerica Pyramid, a group called The Underground Yoga Parlor for Self-Awareness and Social Justice sang and practiced yoga postures as police looked on. ”We are practicing yoga as a form of resistance to the military industrial media complex that is undermining life as we know it,” said Bhakti, a spokesperson from the group. ”We want to invite America back into its body so its heart can discern its interconnectedness with the rest of the universe.”
At the Board of Supervisors meeting on March 25, scores of people arrested during the protests lined up to testify about their experiences. The testimony was accompanied by the strains of the Star Spangled Banner played for a domestic partnership ceremony taking place downstairs. When Hall suggested that the organizers be made to pay expenses for the protests, those testifying responded with calls of, ”shame!”
”I saw people pinned behind barricades, cops were lunging into the crowd with their nightsticks striking people, and picking up people’s bicycles and throwing them down,” said Kevin Gardner who was in the crowd surrounded and detained by police on Hayes Street.
Karen Heisler said she was arrested while marching on the sidewalk on Franklin Street. ”I witnessed no demonstration of civil disobedience, no violence, no provocation that could have explained the police decision to stop the marchers and block us in,” said Heisler who said she never heard an order to disperse. ”There was no effort on the part of police to arrest for cause, to identify individual unlawful action, such as being in the street, that would support the charges that were ultimately assigned.”
Carla West, who was arrested with 150 other people at the offices of the Bechtel Corporation on March 21, said she too obeyed an order to stay on the sidewalk but was surrounded by police. ”I told them that if you would let us go, we would walk down the sidewalk, but still they arrested us,” said West who said police still have her wallet, cell phone, planner and address book.
Jed Holtzman, who was arrested on Hayes Street, noted that the police gave no order to disperse and swept up legal observers and tourists arrested walking back to their hotel. ”Our troops are supposedly fighting and dying for the preservation and dissemination of these treasured freedoms, and for what?” asked Holtzman. ”For mere protesting to become functionally illegal? This blind and unlawful ‘sweeping’ of the streets of protesters opens the city up to very expensive and deserved lawsuits.”
Chief Fagan asserts that his officers did follow police guidelines during the arrests, and used appropriate force to contain a relatively small number of demonstrators who did not follow police orders. But Gonzalez wasn’t buying the argument. ”We should look at the real costs, not the inflicted costs,” said Gonzalez who listened attentively to the testimony. ”My own experience tells me that in many respects, we had an exaggerated response, and that has unfortunately inflated costs.”
Riva Enteen, program director of the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, said the police department did not follow its own crowd control measures created after the city was successfully sued in 1991. Both Enteen and Tarikh point out that demonstrators cannot be charged with failing to disperse unless an order is given. The ACLU has also complained to police that innocent bystanders were caught up in the sweeps. ”That is what is going to really cost the city,” said Enteen. ”This is going to lead to lawsuits, and it will have a bigger and bigger impact on the budget if they don’t follow the law.”
”Let me be completely clear,” said Lindasusan Ulrich, who was arrested on Franklin Street. ”There was no order to disperse, we were on the sidewalk, as directed by police; and neither I, nor anyone around me saw or heard activity that was illegal, much less dangerous. We were corralled like cattle for exercising our Constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly.”
According to Enteen, protesters can sue the city for false arrest and force them to pay up to $5,000 per litigant. The second option is a class action lawsuit, which she said is now being considered. Both the Lawyers Guild and Police Watch say they are collecting testimony and video evidence in preparation for legal action.
Enteen said police also violated their own policy by holding protesters on a continuing offense if they were rearrested within 72 hours. Peter Birch said he was held for almost 24 hours as a repeat offender despite the fact that he was not cited during his first arrest on March 20. After his second arrest on Hayes Street, Birch said he was separated from the group, and held in a detention cell at the county jail. He was released on $600 bail. ”At no point did anyone tell me what I was charged with,” said Birch who said he appeared in court March 24. The judge could not find his paperwork, and Birch’s case was discharged.
Heisler said she was informed by her citing officer on Franklin Street that if she was rearrested within 72 hours, she too would be booked at the county jail. ”I was arrested for the first time in my life, under false pretenses and was intimidated regarding my right to exercise freedom of speech,” said Heisler.
Supervisor Gonzalez said he was particularly concerned about the mass arrest on Franklin Street, and proposed a hearing to examine police response. ”I want the police department to explain what their protocols are in dealing with the actions in the last few days,” said Gonzalez.
”Please do everything in your power to rein in the out-of-control SFPD,” Holzman asked the supervisors. ”Particularly the Special Operations and Security Bureau who, though created to protect us from terrorist attack, have in a very short time been turned against political activists on the streets of our fair city.”
It’s still to be seen how vigorously protesters are prosecuted, if they are prosecuted at all. ”If the District Attorney does not intend to pursue any of these cases, should the police department set new guidelines for arrests?” asked Supervisor Hall. ”After all, what is the point for the police to exert all this effort, and spend all this overtime, if nothing is going to happen once they do their job?”
At a press conference March 25, a coalition of anti-war groups announced that they will focus on political outreach to encourage residents of the city to support protesters. Organizers said demonstrations will continue, but would now target defense contractors, oil companies and other firms which stand to profit from the war. More protests took place March 26 outside CNN’s San Francisco headquarters demanding an end to sanitized news coverage. On March 28, another eighty protesters, including priests and rabbis were arrested at the Federal Building. One of the protest organizers, Direct Action to Stop the War, has called for a national day of civil disobedience on April 7. ”I don’t think that they are sending a message about the war by shutting down traffic,” said Chief Fagan who said the police would continue to arrest protesters if necessary.
Tanya Mayo, spokesperson for the anti-war group Not In Our Name, said the San Francisco protests must continue, because they have shown the world that not everyone in the U.S. supports the war. ”This is something to be proud of,” said Mayo. ”We have made a powerful statement that this war is not waged in our name and we must stop it.”
ANN HARRISON is a freelance journalist, in the Bay Area. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org