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Not in My Court Yard



Any driver with half a brain knows that if you flip the finger to a passing cop he will pull you over. And if you chalk "Fuck the sheriff" in front of a county court, well that's trouble. Someone did that. And now there's trouble.

You have the right to do both. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects finger flipping and sheriff cursing. That's what is so wonderful about it. There's an old joke. A tourist in Red Square meets a Russian citizen. The American says: "The thing that makes the U.S. so great is that I can stand in front of the White House and say 'Fuck Obama' and nothing will happen to me." The Russian says: "Same here!" The tourist says: "Really?" The Russian says: "Oh yes. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and say 'Fuck Obama!' and nothing will happen to me."

The courts in this country protect the U.S. Constitution and therefore our First Amendment rights. That's what's so wonderful about our justice system. And the sheriff protects the court. So he should protect the exercise of constitutional rights in front of the court -- and that includes speech and assembly.

Last week the Board of Supervisors enacted an emergency ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to among other things: "write, print, cut or carve or otherwise mark in or upon any building or buildings or any seats or benches or any other property whatsoever on the County Courthouse grounds, or any other property whatsoever belonging to the County." It would also be a misdemeanor to "secure items to County property."

These are buried in an ordinance that ostensibly seeks to control out-of-control camping, animals and defecation outside the courthouse or anything that interferes with court and county business. But we already had laws against physical assault, vandalism and public defecation. Before the new ordinance, you couldn't attack people or spray paint county walls or poop on sidewalks.

The ragtag group of people who call themselves Occupy Humboldt has camped outside the courthouse more or less since October. To my knowledge, the county continued to function. What is at issue here is the enforcement of laws on behavior which we already had on the books. Our laws are intended to keep us safe, not necessarily to make us feel comfortable. And certainly not to protect law enforcement officers from hurt feelings.

In a story Megan Hansen wrote in the March 19 Times-Standard, court security guard Dante Chelossi said he can see everything going on in front of the courthouse as he screens people for weapons. He said that the Occupy folks weren't usually the ones causing problems when law enforcement needed to be called. "We never really have a problem with the protesters," Chelossi told Hansen. "We've heard protesters complain about (the homeless and mentally ill)." And if law enforcement needed to be called, how long do you think it took them to respond? Did we really have a situation in which the sheriff's office couldn't protect people in its own front yard?

But let me get back to Sheriff Michael Downey and the securing things to county property.

It seems to me that the real problem started when people began hanging signs on the fence outside the courthouse and refused to take them down when police and sheriff's deputies told them to, citing California Penal Code Section 602f. That's according to a March 9 story in the T-S. What seemed to empower the protesters was an email to the effect that the district attorney's office wouldn't prosecute people for sign affixation.

That got Downey all huffy. He sent an email back to the D.A.'s office saying he would suspend "all efforts to do anything with the continued assault on the courthouse, the employees and the general public due to the immunity given to them by your office."

That reminds me of a tussle I had with my 7-year-old daughter this morning. She found a piece of her artwork on the dish drainer with colors bled out and got so mad she declared she would make no more art for our house, since we obviously couldn't take care of it properly.

What frustrated Downey, he told Hansen, was that the chain-link fence was county property not public property. I guess that makes Downey a county servant not a public servant. And it makes me a serial trespasser. All this time I thought it was on public land I walked my dog. It turned out it was city land.

I also wonder why he thinks that if the district attorney wouldn't prosecute people under Penal Code section 602f, he would prosecute them under the new ordinance.

How great would it be if we had a sheriff who went out of his way to protect chalk on court pavement and signs on court fences that disparaged him and his department? It would take someone with skin as thick as his badge.

On Feb. 2, Eureka resident Julie Salmine arranged a counter demonstration to protest the Occupy protest. Now that's the First Amendment in action. In this country, people protest protests. I recalled that story in the T-S when I read a story on Reuters March 16 about a massive protest in Russia in reaction to a government documentary that featured negative misinformation about protests against Vladimir Putin's rule. In other words, attempts to quash anti-government protests met with more protests.

A Russian tourist walks up to the Humboldt County Courthouse and sees sheriff's deputies arrest a protester for posting a sign to a chain link fence. He says to a Eureka resident in the crowd: "Same in my country!"

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She would like to stress that civil disobedience seems to be most effective when people practice civility as part of their disobedience.


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