Thursday, June 15, 2006
Seconds after putting up this sign I turned and saw two SFPD walking onto the overpass, about thirty feet away. I was, as they say, "totally busted". I stood there, smiled, and waited for them to reach me. "You see any kids up here?" one of them asked. "Uh, no."
"We got a call that said there were kids throwing rocks off here."
"No. Haven't seen any."
There was a pregnant pause and then he asked. "What does the sign say?" So I told him: "2,974 Arms... 3,244 Legs... 1,672 Lives." He thought about this for a second and then said "Probably be a whole lot more too." And that was it. He said something about letting them know if I saw any kids throwing rocks and then they just left. No asking for ID, no warnings, lectures... nothing.
I was sure they were just being polite and letting me go before they took down the sign, but some ten minutes later, when I got this picture, it was still there. In fact, it was still up two days later.
That was my most amiable run-in with the cops. The worst was a month or two later when a guy in a black unmarked car caught me hanging "The War is a Lie." over the 280. Right away he came off pretty hard ass, asking for ID and responding to my "any problem?" with a stern but not quite threatening litany of "What you're doing is illegal...", "We've had numerous complaints," "This is serious," etc. etc. I apologized politely and explained that I considered it my patriotic duty to speak out in this fashion but recognized that reasonable men could differ on this and was willing to defer the matter entirely to his authority. I was as nice as I could possibly be.
He ran my name through the computer and while it came up clean, it resembled one that didn't and if I didn't mind he'd like to take me down to the station and have me printed to make sure I wasn't the other guy. Although it sounded bogus, I wasn't going to make any fuss, so I said sure and he called for a backup to pick me up.
When they arrived they handcuffed me and put me in the back of a windowless police van. I was a little surprised by the handcuffs, but they told me it was standard operating procedure, which pretty much put an end to the discussion.
The ride took about ten minutes. Once at the station I was handcuffed to a bench for a couple minutes, then got printed and released and driven back to my truck by the first cop who’d arrested, or “detained” me. We talked amicably about the war (which he was against,) his job, the freeways, homeland security, free speech and Rosa Parks, whose body was lying in state in the Capitol at the time. He was a nice guy. When he dropped me off his last words were: "You be careful out there hanging those signs..."
In the early days of this project, I hired a lawyer in Santa Cruz who'd represented Amy Courtney and Cassandra Brown in their freeway free speech case (Brown v. California Dept. of Transportation). He assured me that any arrest based soley on the placement of signs would be nullified immediately in court, and that the right to free political speech is one of our most sacred and would trump whatever minor infractions I might be guilty of in its pursuit. If you have questions about this, and you should, I suggest giving a call to your local branch of the ACLU or National Lawyer's Guild and having a chat.
Until we have a definitive Day in Court, we're still operating in something of a gray area. If you're stopped by police, be as polite and cooperative as you can possibly be. It's probably just a matter of time before one of us gets arrested for this, and when that happens it's important the arrest be made solely for sign-hanging, not "disorderly conduct", "refusal to comply with a lawful order" (take down the sign if they ask you to...) or "public intoxication" (Try not to be wasted.) Explain that you felt your actions were protected by the first amendment and that you were simply doing what you considered to be your duty as a citizen. Apologize even if you don't mean it.
The gravest danger we face is not from cops but from angry partisans. These are people who've been fed years of Limbaugh, Coulter & Hannity and been brainwashed into thinking that you and everybody who thinks like you is trying to destroy America: try to avoid them. Remember: you pick the time, you pick the place. If a spot seems iffy, don’t do it. You’ve got miles and miles of prospective sites to choose from.
Of course, operating in California gives me something of an advantage. I’m sure the cops aren’t quite so easygoing in Dallas or Hazzard County, but that’s on the street. In the courts, no citizen should be punished for speaking out politically to their fellow citizens. At least not here in America. At least not yet.
To those of you who’d like to post signs but are afraid of being caught, arrested or hassled by cops, take a little time to think about the people in other countries who actually are putting their lives on the line when they speak out against their governments. Think about them and what they might say about keeping silent in a place where it’s still legal to speak.