Sacramento City Council Committee Shoots Down Proposed Protest Law

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By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Several Sacramento City Council members bucked the wishes of their police department Tuesday – something you don’t see every day – and voted to not approve a so-called emergency proposal to restrict what protestors can take to public demonstrations.

The measure – which was hastily pulled from the city’s full city council agenda two weeks ago amid big protests – was rejected again Tuesday by the council’s Law and Legislation Committee because of the community’s concern for personal safety and civil rights violations, among other reasons.

The proposed ordinance would ban firearms, knives, sticks,  pepper spray, mace, stun guns, bricks, rocks, pieces of asphalt, concrete, pellets, ball bearings, poles, bats, chains, torches, lanterns, balloons, bottles and more than a dozen other items considered to be weapons or capable of delivering weapons.

The SPD claims it wants to ban these and other items for the “safety” of those attending protests, rallies and demonstrations. The police noted that “improvised” weapons have been used at Sacramento protests, but had a difficult time pointing to examples, despite at least 214 demonstrations held here the past year alone, by SPD’s count.

“We know we have trust issues with the public; this ordinance is not meant to quell protests,” said SPD, although the SPD referred to constitutionally protected demonstrations also as “civil disorders.”

But council members were not buying what the SPD was selling Tuesday.

“I can’t support this without substantial changes. We should have done more outreach…this is causing more distrust by the public; we started off on the wrong foot. This is the wrong strategy for nonviolent protests,” said District 4 councilman Steve Hansen, who recounted his many protest experiences from demonstrating about U.S. intervention in Central America to social justice actions at the Capitol and elsewhere.

“People have the right to defend themselves; I carry pepper spray, and so does my daughter,” said District 3 council member Jeff Harris, who failed to get a straight answer from police in council chambers to his query about whether he or his daughter would be arrested if they wandered by a protest and were caught with the to-be-banned pepper spray. “This is a tricky issue,” noted Harris.

And District 6 council member Eric Guerra said he and family members would have been guilty of breaking the proposed ordinance by carrying signs and banners in the Cesar Chavez marches in the past.

While he said he appreciated the intervention of police for safety, Guerra added Sacramento does “better than anywhere else” holding nonviolent protests. The ordinance complicates an officer’s duty. Something is missing. This ordinance is not ready for a full council presentation.”

He also encouraged the community to work with police to come up with a workable ordinance that does provide public safety without restricting civil rights. “That’s a challenge,” Guerra said to the crowd.

“This is a solution without a problem. Our protests are notoriously peaceful. We (the community) are not asking for this ordinance,” said attorney Amar Singh Shergill. What happens, he added, when “violent bigots go after us and we are unarmed.”

Tanya Faison, lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Sacramento, echoed Shergill’s concern, admitting she keeps pepper spray because she feels unsafe at protests and at other times, explaining how she’s been threatened with rape or murder, and had bottles thrown at her on the picket lines.

“I have been threatened in person and on social media. The police should just do their job when they come after me,” she said.

And civil rights attorney Mark Merin said he was in “shock” by the proposed ordinance.

“I just can’t take it seriously. It’s an irrational distraction and not enforceable (because) it’s prior restraint,” adding the city can’t outlaw everything, and suggested “fists” can kill. “You can’t be told to keep your fists in your pocket. Anyone who votes for this doesn’t have an understanding of civil rights,” he said.

“Stay out of the mire of trying to regulate otherwise legal activity. If you  see some event, you are criminalized right there. You have to strip yourself of items to participate. That’s a civil rights violation,” he explained.

NAACP president Betty Williams, and others, addressed the elephant in the room.

“The timing of this is meant to contain and discourage our community,” she said. The District Attorney is nearing a decision on whether the officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark last year will be prosecuted, and the city is girding for major street protests if the answer in the expected “no” from County DA Anne Marie Schubert.

Williams also pointed out that based on the ordinance “Dr. Martin Luther King couldn’t hold a march here without being arrested.” And asked the council if its intention was to “get us killed,” by noting that while she is disarmed a bystander not part of the protest “can walk up and shoot me.”

Community member Carley Brannin questioned the emergency claim by SPD.

“If this is really an emergency why didn’t you propose this after the Capitol protest (two years ago) when Blacks were stabbed (by members of white supremacist groups),” she said.

Councilmember Hansen addressed that later, noting that “the CHP did not show up to work that day” at the Capitol, referring to reports by observers that CHP officers did little to prevent the violence from occurring.

A disabled veteran said that the ordinance would “legislate a public safety risk,” and not protect demonstrators who would be disarmed. “I’ve lost brothers and sisters in war – now I’ll be losing loved ones,” she said.

According to the city, the ordinance is needed to “help” demonstrators be safe. The ordinance proposal states in part:

“In recent years, there have been numerous protests, demonstrations and rallies in cities throughout the country, including Sacramento, which have resulted in violence, destruction of property, and injuries to civilians and law enforcement.  Specific to the City of Sacramento, individuals have used items such as bottles, rocks, bats, pepper spray, knives, and sticks, to cause injury and damage. 

“Unfortunately, events in which protestors and counter-protestors utilize improvised weapons to harm one another are becoming commonplace, and they have been shown to occur at random and without forewarning.  Therefore, as a matter of public safety, it is crucial that law enforcement be permitted to protect citizens attempting to engage in lawful, free speech.”

However, as the National Lawyers Guild of Sacramento and others pointed out, there are already laws that criminalize the most dangerous of the crimes, including the carrying of firearms and knives.

Additionally, virtually all of the examples cited by the City happened not in Sacramento, and many not in California, said the NLG, also noting that the thousands allegedly spent for protests of the killings of Black citizens were for over-deployed, and overzealous police

“At first glance, many of the items noted in the proposed ordinance are already illegal. There are ample statutes to cover the violent use of them. Some others are used for self-defense and should not be specifically banned for those attending public events but otherwise legal to carry. Additionally, these items generally are banned at State Capitol events – and a violent melee there in 2016 that sent seven people to the hospital occurred despite those rules,” said Elizabeth Kim, president of the NLG local chapter.

“We are very concerned about a slippery slope here, where this is just a starting point to criminalize freedom of expression in this city, and eventually, as has happened in other municipalities, ban everything from backpacks to bottled water,” she added.


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