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Sacramento Mobilization Activists Blast City Council For Gagging Free Speech

Since the Sacramento mobilization was over in June, local activists from the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agricultural have been pushing the City Council to rescind two unconstitutional ordinances that attacked freedom of speech and assembly during the Bio-tech Expo. This is an an article that I wrote for the local alternative publication, Because People Matter. A longer version of it is on www.counterpunch.org. I will update readers of this website of events as they transpire.
Mobilization Activists Blast City Council For Gagging Free Speech

by Dan Bacher

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 from June 23 through 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.

Although the protest organizers had been meeting with the Police Department for months about the 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.

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 was absent.

The repressive ordinance was buttressed by an unprecedented presence of thousands of "Robo-cop" attired police from the city, CHP, state police and the federal government. 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.

Outraged about the large number of arrests during the bio-tech conference, including many under the controversial ordinance, over 30 members of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture (SCSA) and supporting groups, such as the Gray Panthers, Peace Action and Veterans for Peace, held a press conference before the July 17th City Council Meeting.

Heidi McLean, council spokesperson, presented the coalition's three demands during the press conference and public comment section of the council meeting:

The Council must rescind the Biotech Ordinances
The City must drop all charges against those arrested in relation to the Biotech Conference.
An independent evaluation of the use of city resources and law enforcement in relation to the ministerial must be performed.

During the City Council meeting, Julia Harumi Mass of the ACLU noted that the ordinance 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 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 mobilization participants said the huge police presence deterred many people to exercise their right to freedom of speech out of fear.

"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."

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

"We were pleased with the conduct of the police because they protected human rights," claimed Thomas. "There was no property damage, in comparison to Seattle where there was $3 million damage. The loss of revenue was minimal, whereas in Seattle it was $17 million."

None of the city council members could successfully explain why none of the organizers - nor the public - were informed about ridiculous, secretive ordinances that thwarted freedom of speech and expression. At press time, these draconian ordinances 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  http://www.sacto.org/council/map.htm to find council members' contact information.