Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy checkbook

Is the city wasting hundreds of thousands to crack down on protesters?
Russell Rawlings (right, seated) prepares to be arrested for staying in Cesar Chavez Plaza past 11 p.m. on October 18. The activist has been charged three times since Occupy Sacramento began. PHOTO BY NICK MILLER
By , Sacramento News & Review

This article was published on .

The city of Sacramento’s bill for police enforcement of the now-three-weeks-old Occupy Sacramento movement at downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza is upward of $100,000, according to police-department data and SN&R estimates.

These costs, updated through Tuesday, October 25, include regular use of some 70 riot-gear-clad officers, 35 police vehicles, two police wagons, a remote prebooking station, street closures, overtime pay and also additional officers that were reassigned from existing city patrol beats.

The crackdown is an almost nightly affair that ramps up just after 11 p.m., when the city’s ordinance says protesters must leave the park, and, in some cases, lasts past 2 a.m.

As of deadline, 75 protesters have been arrested since the local Occupy group began on October 6. The activists are part of a worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement, which originated in New York City’s Zuccotti Park this past September and is protesting the disparity of wealth between the rich and poor.

Russell Rawlings, an activist with Disability Organizing Group For Initiating Total Equality, or DOGFITE, has been arrested three times so far at Occupy Sacramento. The Oak Park resident laughs when asked about the police presence at the protests, which he calls “entirely excessive” and “almost comical.”

“It’s pretty bizarre seeing a bunch of cops with riot gear circling around you,” Rawlings told SN&R. “Nobody even tries to resist.”

Police enforcement at other Sacramento events pales in comparison to the strategy implemented by the city manager at Occupy Sacramento. During Second Saturday, for instance, the gang unit no longer patrols the streets—this despite the gang-related death of Victor Hugo Perez Zavala last year—and only some two dozen officers worked Second Saturday this past summer.

The city manager’s office wouldn’t comment specifically on Occupy Sacramento enforcement costs but states that it “has a history of supporting free speech and peaceful demonstrations” and will “continue that tradition while ensuring that all laws are obeyed.”

This past Thursday, Mayor Kevin Johnson—who days earlier along with the city council declined to allow protesters to stay overnight—tried personally to usher the protesters out of Cesar Chavez. He addressed the occupiers for the first time and urged activists to leave.

Protesters did not abide, however, and later that night chanted, “One-term mayor! One-term mayor!” Four individuals were arrested that evening.

Activists are typically cited and arrested just after midnight. Officers charge them with Penal Code 409, or unlawful assembly, but this charge typically is either modified or dismissed. For instance, those arrested this past week at Occupy Sacramento were also charged with loitering. And, on the first night of protests, the 20 that were arrested were charged with trespassing—and subsequently banned from Cesar Chavez Plaza for life.

By the next day, however, the city police dropped said trespassing charges—they said it was an accident—and even sent letters to the 20 arrested offering the department’s “sincerest apologies,” signed by police captain Ken Bernard.

At the jail, it takes between six to 12 hours to be fingerprinted, photographed, frisked and receive a medical check. By protocol, the jail nurse is supposed to administer a tuberculosis test, but some Occupy Sacramento arrestees say they have a right not to be tested, have refused and argued with their jailers.

In the beginning days of the protests, local Occupy members would inform police before 11 p.m. of how many activists intended to be arrested that evening. This is no longer the case, however, according to officer Norm Leong, who was recently tapped to lead the enforcement efforts at Occupy Sacramento.

And, while the city sees the occupation as a violation of its ordinance, California cities, such as Los Angeles, have allowed its Occupy protesters to remain overnight.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union views the city’s stance as a First Amendment issue—and this week threatened City Hall with a lawsuit.

This, of course, will cost the city even more money—not to mention that Occupy Sacramento vows to continue protesting.

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