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Sacramento’s War on Free Speech


The Sacramento City Council appears to be doing John Ashcroft’s dirty work by passing two unconstitutional ordinances, 2003-026 and 2003-028, that suppress freedom of speech. The Council unanimously voted for the secretive resolutions on June 17, just prior to the USDA Conference on Biotech and Agriculture on June 23 to 25.

Supposedly fearing “another Seattle,” the Council set chilling restrictions on the size and construction of protest signs. Ordinance 2003-026 stated, “It shall be unlawful for any person to carry or possess any sign, poster, plaque or notice” unless it “is constructed solely of a cloth, paper or cardboard material no greater than one-quarter inch in thickness.”

The ordinance also prohibited the carrying or possession of “any length of lumber, wood or wood lath unless it is one-fourth inch or less in thickness and two inches or less in width or if not generally rectangular in shape, such object shall not exceed three-quarters inch in its thickest dimension.” It specified that “both ends of the length of lumber, wood or wood lath shall be blunt and shall not be pointed.”

The same ordinance outlawed possession of glass bottles, jars or containers (making it illegal to drink a bottle of mineral water!) It also outlawed the carrying and possession of golf balls, ball bearings and marbles.

Furthermore the odious ordinance deemed unlawful “for any person to carry, possess or wear any gas mask or similar device to filter all air breathed and that would protect the respiratory tract and face against irritating, noxious or poisonous gases.”

Although the organizers of the protest had been meeting with the Police Department for months about the protest plans and had gone out of their way to get the necessary permits, they were never informed of the ordinance being on the city council agenda. And the agenda item was not put onto the agenda until the last possible minute to avoid public scrutiny.

The ordinance was moved by Council Member Sheedy and seconded by Lauren Hammond. The Council members, including Steve Cohn, Hammond, Dave Jones, Bonnie Pannell, Sandy Sheedy, Ray Tretheway, Jimmy Yee and Mayor Heather Fargo, voted for the ordinance. Councilman Robbie Waters wasn’t present.

The repressive ordinance was buttressed by an unprecedented presence of thousands of “Robo-cop” attired police from the city, CHP, state police and other jurisdictions. A total of 77 people were arrested, 3 in Davis and rest in Sacramento, during the agricultural ministerial that brought thousands of people from California and internationally to protest the promotion of genetically engineered food.

Apparently only 6 of those have been charged by the District Attorney, including three under the ordinance, according to Amy Sprowles, who worked on the legal team during the mobilization. The legal team lawyers are working to substantiate that claim.

In fact, two of those arrested were local pranksters holding “Save naboo!’ and “Stop the Imperial Senate!” signs to make fun of the protesters. However, the joke backfired on them when they were arrested for violating the draconian protest sign regulations under the provisions of the unpublicized ordinance.

The Sacramento Police Department said in a press release on June 22 that said, “Prior to the march, officers confiscated a bag in front of the Capitol which contained cans of spray paint and several dangerous weapons. The items included: light bulbs filled with flammable liquid, a wrist rocket, sharpened sticks, and wooden shields.”

The press release was accompanied with photos, including one captioned, “Anarchist literature and light bulbs filled with flammable liquid” and another captioned, “Sling portion of the wrist rocket and sharpened sticks.”

Reports from sources within the Department indicate that the mobilization was successfully infiltrated by police agents- and that agent provocateurs may have been employed. Local activists are speculating that these supposed “weapons” may have been part of COINTELPRO-like set up.

Interestingly enough, the legal team has received no information on anybody being charged with possession of these “weapons” – except for one individual who was arrested for wearing a “shield.”

Outraged about the large number of arrests during the bio-tech conference, many under the controversial ordinance, over 30 members of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture and supporting groups, including the Gray Panthers, Peace Action and Veterans for Peace, held a press conference before the July 17th City Council Meeting. During the public comment of the council meeting, they passionately blasted the ordinance and the massive, almost comical police presence during the public comment section of the meeting.

Heidi McLean, spokesperson for the Coalition, presented the coalition’s list of demands during the press conference and council meeting: o The Council must rescind the Biotech Ordinances o The City must drop all charges against those arrested in relation to the Biotech Conference. o An independent evaluation of the use of city resources and law enforcement in relation to the ministerial must be performed.

Julia Harumi Mass of the ACLU reported that she had received many disturbing reports, include problems that mobilization organizers had with getting access to parks and excessive fee requirements in the weeks before the mobilization.

In response to a comment by Mayor Heather Fargo (in response to my testimony) that the ordinance wasn’t secretive and was voted for unanimously in a council meeting, Mass noted that the process appeared designed to avoid public scrutiny.

“The agenda item was not on the agenda on Wednesday, but was typed in Saturday,” she explained. “And the people engaged in the mobilization activities were not informed of it before or after the council meeting. As a result, many people with no intent of civil disobedience were arrested.”

She said the “overbroad” ordinance was a “constitutional loss,” and supported SCSA’s call for an independent review of police misconduct during the conference and a repeal of the ordinance.

Other participants in the mobilization said the huge police presence deterred many members of the public from coming to the event to exercise their right to freedom of speech out of fear. Although the police were prepared for 10,000 demonstrators, only several thousand showed up for the rally and march and other actions.

“I thought it was the right of everybody to show opposition to the city’s closing of our sustainable community garden,” said Rita Gonzalez, a member of the Mandella Community Garden Board who was arrested during the ministerial. “But I chose to keep my seven year old daughter at home for her own safety during the ministerial because of the heavy police presence.”

She was also very disturbed that the horse stables for thousands of cops were put in Cesar Chavez Park, showing immense disrespect to “a park dedicated to a man who fought industrial agriculture.” “It’s becoming more and more illegal to do what I consider my patriotic duty to do – to bring to light what our policy makers are doing. I’m saddened by the fact that the city doesn’t help things out, but makes things worse,” she stated.

Dr. David Walker blasted the city for the squandering of over $1,000,000 in tax dollars for an overwhelming – and unneeded – police presence. He also criticized the city council for providing subsidized rent to the conference (50 percent), even though there was a sum loss of revenue to downtown businesses because of the heavy police presence.

“The form of training the police underwent the weeks before the conference was highly inappropriate,” said Walker. “It created a paramilitary atmosphere of fear and confrontation.” Bill Duran of the Grey Panthers said the police presence on the streets amounted to “terrorism” against the populace.

“The Robo Guys arrested people even though they did everything they were instructed to do by the police,” said Duran. “One guy was stopped because he had a bandanna, while another was stopped for having goggles, although he had no idea it was illegal.”

Local activist Cory Fulton said he was “saddened and frustrated by the police conduct during the expo. It was reminiscent of a fascist state. The people who were police liaisons were not told about the ordinance, creating a breech of trust with the community. There were many programs that the $1,000,000 could have been spent on – instead of pepper balls and tazers – and it discouraged public attendance.”

George McAdow, a teacher in the Sacramento Unified School District who attended the demonstration on June 23, said that “Sacramento looked like a police state.”

“Some of my students participated in the rally and march,” he explained. “The City of Sacramento taught them a message loud and clear – that it was alright in Sacramento to end our civil liberties.”

Heidi McLean asked the council to put the group’s demands on the agenda for the next meeting of the city Council. “We will present a detailed report of police misconduct,” she said. “We on the police liason committee met with the police chief prior to the passing of the ordinance. We never got a phone call about the ordinance – this creates no trust in the process.”

Bob Thomas, city manager, responded to the activists’ comments by saying the city would be release its report on the conference “4 to 6 weeks” after the date of the council meeting.

“Our goal during the ministerial was to (1) protect first amendment rights and (2) make sure that no violence, property damage or personal injuries took place,” he stated. “There were activities of a violent nature and material to promote violence during the protests.”

“We were pleased with the conduct of the police because they protected human rights,” he added. “There was no property damage, in comparison to Seattle where there was $3 million damage. The loss of revenue was minimal, whereas in Seattle is was $17 million.”

He contended, “A few wrecked it for the 90 percent who were peaceful. We will present to you the facts and how we need to plan for future events.”

However, many protesters thought the comparison to Seattle in 1999 and Sacramento, a specific agricultural expo in contrast with a WTO meeting, was absurd. Several thousand came to the demonstrations in Sacramento, in comparison to the 50,000 people that went to the WTO meeting in Seattle.

Council Member Lauren Hammond asked the City Manager to give early notice regarding the release of the staff report on the ministerial to the coalition.

The bottom line? None of the city council members could successfully explain why none of the organizers – nor the public – were informed about a ridiculous, secretive ordinance that thwarted freedom of speech and expression. At press time, this draconian ordinance remained on the books.

(Sacramento city residents are urged to call, email and write their City Council representative and the Mayor to express their support of the three demands made by SCSA. Go to to find council members’ contact information).

DAN BACHER can be reached at:


Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher

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