San Diego Man Faces 13 Years In Prison For Writing On Sidewalks With Chalk

Security Camera footage of Jeff Olson, from the San Diego Reader

Security Camera footage of Jeff Olson, from the San Diego Reader

Jeff Olson was inspired by the Occupy movement but it wasn’t his style to sleep in tents and participate in human microphone speeches. Nevertheless, Jeff wanted to be involved, wanted to make a statement and share in the outrage we all felt. So the former U.S. Senate staffer focused his ire on the banks:

“I thought my time would be better spent at the banks, trying to convince people to ditch these banks for local credit unions. I believed that was the best way to hold the executives and the corporations accountable for bringing this country to the brink of collapse.”

The first time he went to the sidewalk in front of a San Diego Bank Of America was October 3, 2011 – he was carrying a homemade sign. A week later, Olson and his partner were confronted by a BOA Vice-President. Darell Freeman accused the pair of “running a business” outside the bank. A business? Two guys with a homemade sign. What kind of business did he think it was? San Diego Reader reporter, David Batterson, just happened to witness the dispute:

“The man identified himself as Darell Freeman, corporate security for the bank. He refused to give me his business card when I asked for it. He told [Olson] that he could, ‘with one phone call,’ get [Olson’s] credit union account canceled at California Coast. He threatened to make the call if [he] kept up the demonstration.”

This is the kind of person who has been let off the hook by the government for nearly destroying the U.S. economy. This is the sort of supercilious asshat who wields power over the financial lives of the rest of us, playing games with our lives. It’s the kind of jackass who threatens people for being angry at he and his cronies.

Olson knew it was an empty threat but he checked with his bank just in case and was reassured that Freeman couldn’t do that. So Jeff Olson decided to keep up with his protest but in a different fashion. He bought a box of Creatology chalk in February 2012 and started writing on the sidewalks in front of various BOA branches. He wrote “Stop big banks” and “Stop Bank” in the colorful, and water-soluble, chalk. He even drew pictures: an octopus with wads of cash in its tentacles. After six months, Olson stopped his chalk-writing to work on getting Democratic Congressman Bob Filner elected.

That wasn’t the end of it though, not for the spiteful Mr. Freeman. He contacted the City Attorney’s office and asked them to arrest and charge Jeff Olson. Several times. You might say that he dogged that office until they filed 13 charges of vandalism against Olson on April 15 of this year. Bank Of America claimed that it cost them $6,000 to clean the sidewalks. Six-thousand dollars?! To hose off a section of sidewalk? What the hell are the using to do it – Moët and Chandon?

But City Attorney Jan Goldsmith is convinced that he is doing the right thing. I have to wonder if he’s getting an extra incentive from Freeman and BOA. In a court document he wrote:

“The People do not fear that this reading of section 594(A) will make criminals of every child using chalk. Chalk festivals may still be permitted. Kids acting without malice may still engage in their art. Circumventing the rules, without permission, under the color of night, and now waiving a banner of the First Amendment, does not negate the fact that defacement occurred, a private business suffered real and substantial monetary damages, and Defendant is responsible.”

Poor Bank Of America, they had their fee-fees hurt and had to waste perfectly good champagne to clean their sidewalks. This is exactly the sort of privileged and spoiled behavior that gets businesses boycotted.

Jeff Olson could get a $13,000 fine and up to 13 years in jail. That’s right: 13 years in jail for writing on a sidewalk with chalk. Water-soluble chalk. Thankfully, attorney Tom Tosdal is representing Olson pro bono. Tosdal sees this as a First Amendment issue. But since the judge in the case has ruled that Tosdal can’t even mention the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum or political speech during the trial, he has his work cut out for him. Olson also has Congressman Bob Filner, the man he worked to get elected, on his side. Filner sent a memo to Goldsmith and City Council President Todd Gloria asking that the case be dismissed, calling it “a waste of taxpayer money” and “an abuse of power.” So far, it has been ignored.

This case is just the latest example of such abuse of power. We are seeing more and more cases like this along with police brutality – instances that clearly indicate a flagrant level of vindictiveness that is going unpunished and largely unremarked. And it’s getting worse. When a man can be arrested for writing in water-soluble chalk on a public sidewalk in front of a company that is shameless in its exercise of privilege and culpability in the wrecking of our economy, I despair for this country. Folks, 1984 is meant to be a cautionary tale, not a how-to manual.

The trial began Tuesday morning (you can follow it on several Facebook Occupy pages) with opening arguments. I know you will all join me in hoping that justice is not for sale and that a man who was exercising his Constitutional right is not sent to prison while bank officials sit safe in their cozy offices. We are all Jeff Olson.