Jeff Olson used sidewalk chalk to protest in front of Bank of America. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith charged him with 13 counts of vandalism, which could have meant 13 years in prison and a $13,000 fine. Today the malicious prosecution of Jeff Olson, is On Our Radar.
There is a scene in the original Star Wars movie, where the captive Princess Leia is taken aboard the Death Star and confronted by the corrupt Governor Tarkin. You remember Tarkin, he was the one who blew up Alderon to teach the rebels the lesson that – forgive the Star Trek allusion – “resistance is futile”. Tarkin, who I always thought was very Cheney-like, is about to”enhanced-interrogate” Leia, and she knows it’s coming, but the defiant Princess snipes, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”
It appears in San Diego, we have a very similar situation taking place, minus the trash compactor and the shiny storm trooper uniforms. Bank of America is holding the leash of the city attorney, Jan Goldsmith, (left). I am going to forgo making the easy joke about why Goldsmith’s hair appears as it does in that photo (Bank of America pets him too much). Instead, I think you can get a sense of the man by knowing he spent six years as a state assemblyman where he authored two bills; both sought to get ferrets approved as pets. Both went down in flames. I’m pretty sure the ferret thing and the hairdo are unrelated.
What you should know about Jan Goldsmith now, is that he is a Conservative Republican, and he hates the current Democratic mayor, Bob Filner. To be fair, Mayor Filner hates him back. They have gone head to head on things like tourism, the city’s retirement fund, and medical marijuana, which is important later, because the pot controversy also involves the judge in this case. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith wants to replace San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, and he wants Bank of America to fund his campaign, in the same generous manner they funded his city attorney campaign. Goldsmith lost a Primary for California Treasurer back in 1998, and spent the next ten years as a county judge licking his wounds. City Attorney Goldsmith knows the power of big money, and Bank of American knows he knows.
Mayor Bob Filner (left) is every liberal’s hero. As an 18-year-old Cornell student, he was one of the original Freedom Riders, arrested for disturbing the peace and inciting a riot when the Greyhound bus he was on pulled in to Jackson, Mississippi. He sat in jail for two months rather than post bail. His conviction, and the convictions of all his fellow Freedom Riders, were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, and in that decision, they struck down any law made to separate the races. In a very real way, Bob Filner ended “Whites Only” in the deep south – at least legally.
Bob Filner spent the twenty years following his bus riding days as a history professor at San Diego State, but he was always involved in politics. He worked on the staff of Senator Hubert Humphrey and of a Congressman named Jim Bates, who lost his seat to Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Right-Wing Republican ex-Navy Fighter Ace, who in 2006, was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes? I know you remember him. A gold bidet was rumored to have been among the gifts he solicited. It’s hard to forget a scandal with any kind of toilet.
Cunningham won that seat, only the second Republican ever to do so, by driving home the accusations made by Bate’s female staffers that the Congressman sexually harassed them. The women claimed Bates was one of those huggy guys who can’t keep his hands to himself. My favorite Bates story was that he would sit with his feet up on his desk and try to trap female staffer between his legs when they walked by. You know, the usual congressional chivalry.
Wisely, Bob Filner ran away from Congressman Bates and ran for a seat on the San Diego School Board. When after the 1990 census, California was awarded ten new U.S. House seats, Filner ran against his old boss, Congressman “Touchy Feely” Bates, whose residence had been purposely drawn into the new district by Party hopefuls planning to get Bates rehabilitated and reelected to Congress. Filner won, and was reelected nine times, until he resigned his seat to serve as Mayor of San Diego 2012, the job City Attorney Jan Goldsmith covets.
Falling into the no man’s land between these two political fiefdoms is Jeff Olson, our stalwart hero, who, if the Huffington Post got it right, happens to be gay. Jeff’s sexual identity isn’t really relevant to our story I suppose, but whenever I come across a member of the LGBT community who is the hero of the story I want to tell, it seems to me that I should not just gloss over that fact. The gay guy won! Jeff Olson withstood an attack by a multi-national bank, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, an overbearing ex-cop and an overtly biased judge, (we’ll get to them in a minute) and the gay guy won!
In October of 2011, Jeff Olson, (Right), like so many of us, was attracted to the message of the Occupy Movement and wanted to get involved. Like me, Jeff is not the camping out type. He was at that time, almost 40 years old, not a kid bent on mayhem. But the “financial injustice” that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) talked about? Jeff felt that way too. He believed nobody earning minimum wage should ever be forced to pay a fee to access his pay check. He believed no one should pay 500% for a “payday loan” and that no one should be charged a fee to pay a bill, or make a deposit, or check their account balance. He believed no one should lose their home because the banks brought the country’s economy to its knees, and that the banks should bear some punishment for what they had done. So Jeff and his partner, Stephen Daniels, made some signs and stood outside the Bank of America branch in their North Park neighborhood, exercising their right to free speech without fear of reprisal by the government. God bless America.
“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.”
So unaffiliated with, but inspired by the OWS movement, every few days Jeff and Stephen would bring their homemade signs and stand outside a branch of Bank of America for a couple of hours handing out brochures for the California Coast Credit Union, urging customers to switch. Their leaflet distribution shook Bank of America so badly they put guards around their outdoor ATMs. Then eight days after beginning their protest, Jeff and Stephen had their first run-in with Darell Freeman.
Darell Freemen is Vice President of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security.When I began this story, he had a LinkedIn account that said he is a former San Diego police lieutenant who studied religion at Vanguard University, which describes itself as a “Pentecostal” school. That LinkedIn account seems to have been removed since the recent Jeff Olson verdict.
The only photo I could find of Darell Freeman was this cached Google image that leads to the San Diego Police Facebook Page, but this photo has also been scrubbed, so I have no way of knowing which of these officers is our story’s villain. So for the purposes of visualizing events, I suggest you choose whichever friendly police face looks like it might be the most sympathetic to a pair of gay protester and go with that.
According to a third party who witnessed the confrontation, Freeman cornered Jeff, and accused him of running a business, because California Coast offered a $25 referral fee for each new customer who opened an account . The witness said Freeman demanded to see Jeff’s ID, even though he was on a public sidewalk, and he refused to give either Jeff or the witness his business card when they asked for one. Freeman was heard telling Jeff, he could get Jeff’s account at California Coast closed with one phone call, if he didn’t cease his protests.
Jeff admits Freeman’s intimidating manner worked for awhile. He stayed away. He even called his credit union for reassurance Freeman couldn’t make his money disappear. But eventually he returned. A couple days a week, Jeff would spend a few hours trying to convince people to ditch the big banks and join credit unions. Then, in February, while shopping in that well known domestic terrorist supplier CVS, he came across a box of “Creatology” sidewalk chalk, and a new plan was born.
“I thought it was a perfect way to get my message out there. Much better than handing out leaflets or holding a sign.”
Every few days for the next six months, Jeff would bring his chalk to a bank branch in the early morning hours and write on the sidewalk subversive slogans like: STOP BIG BANKS. Once Jeff even drew an octopus with his tentacles full of cash. We’re talking serious chalk intimidation of a multi-national banking conglomerate. Then the calendar eased into election season. Jeff volunteered to work for the Filner for Mayor campaign, and his interest in financial justice waned. He forgot about Bank of America. But Bank of America did not forget Jeff Olson.
The obvious remedy was for Bank of America to file a civil suit, but that would mean depositions. They would be giving Jeff a forum to go on a fishing expedition. He could make them reveal and defend every questionable banking process they may have engaged in, as Jeff sought to prove his allegations were not slander, but truth. What they needed was for Jeff to be criminally prosecuted. But how to arrange that?
Ex-cop Darell Freeman reached out to his old buddies in blue. Jeff was contacted by an Officer Bill Miles from the San Diego Police Gang Squad, because, if you think about it, who could better handle a hard core chalker like Jeff than the squad tasked with policing the Bloods and the Quatorzes and the Mexican gangs sending body parts across the border? From January to April, in a series of emails that are public record, Freeman pestered Miles and the City Attorney’s Office to bring charges against Jeff. Finally, in April, they bowed to his will. They charged Jeff with thirteen counts of vandalism. The maximum sentence could be up to 13 years in jail and a $13,ooo fine.
Tom Tosdal, (Right) an attorney from nearby Solana Beach, took on Jeff’s case pro-bono.
“As a lawyer, I took an oath to defend the constitution. That’s what this case is for me. The City Attorney is playing politics with Olson’s right to free speech. It’s another form of social control and I won’t sit by and watch it happen. I was there in the Sixties when real protest happened. This, writing in water soluble chalk, is so minor.”
Twice the City Attorney’s Office proffered a plea bargain. In May they offered to drop the case if Jeff agreed to serve 32 hours of community service, pay Bank of America $6,299 in restitution and surrender his driver’s license for a three year period. My favorite provision was that Jeff attend an 8-hour seminar given by the Orwellian sounding “Corrective Behavior Institute.” Don’t you just wonder what that is? Sounds like a class Michele Bachmann’s husband would offer.
Jeff said no. In his mind, he was guilty of nothing more than an exercise of free speech, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take that right away. No American should ever allow that to happen to him. To me, that’s the stuff of heroes.
In June, because their first try went so well, the prosecution made an even worse offer. Jeff would plead guilty to one count of vandalism, serve three years’ probation, pay Bank of America restitution, (amount to be determined) spend 24 hours cleaning up graffiti, and surrender his driver’s license for 2 years. (Why the driver’s license again? He wasn’t chalk driving.) Jeff turned that down too.
The case came before prickly Conservative Judge Howard Shore, (Left) which could not have been a better draw for the prosecution. Remember, I told you the judge hearing Jeff’s case had a connection to the dispute Mayor Filner and City Attorney Goldsmith carried on over medical marijuana?
When Mayor Filner assumed office, he issued an executive order not to bring prosecutions against marijuana pharmacies, a policy that annoys both Jan Goldsmith and Judge Shore. But there are cases in the system from before Mayor Filner’s tenure, and in one of those trials, presided over by Judge Shore, a man named Jovan Jackson was acquitted by a jury, a verdict that didn’t sit well with Judge Shore.
Following his acquittal, Jovan Jackson reopened his medical marijuana pharmacy, and was promptly rearrested. Judge Shore again presided over his trial, but for this second bite of the apple, the judge refused to allow Jackson to use the “medical marijuana is legal in California” defense that had freed him before. Without a defense, Jovan Jackson was found guilty, but his case was overturned on appeal because of Judge Shore ruling.
Judge Shore, who showed himself willing and able to rig the system against defendants in marijuana cases, was more than happy to do the same when the case of the mad chalker, Jeff Olson, came before him. Judge Shore barred the defense from mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial. He also forbad any mention of how sidewalk chalk fades with time, erases with water, or is easy to clean. Then he put a gag order on all parties to the case.
San Diego erupted with protests. A Recall Judge Howard Shore and a Recall Jan Goldsmith page were created on Facebook. A Daily Kos and a Change.org petition were started. The story even caught the interest of Elizabeth Warren who tweeted “You’ve got to be kidding me.” with a link to the story on Huffington Post. A group calling themselves Liberals for Liberty started a Facebook page called Chalk-U-Py San Diego to organize chalk protests. And Mayor Bob Filner called the prosecution “stupid”.
This young man is being persecuted for thirteen counts of vandalism stemming from an expression of political protest that involved washable children’s chalk on a City sidewalk. It is alleged that he has no previous criminal record. If these assertions are correct, I believe this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money. It could also be characterized as an abuse of power that infringes on First Amendment particularly when it is arbitrarily applied to some, but not all, similar speech.”
Jeff Olson went in front of a jury last week. Tom Tosdal, who said he never heard of a trial where the First Amendment couldn’t be mentioned, was reduced to arguing that under California law, vandalism has to have an intent to destroy, and Jeff’s intent was to educate. It was enough for the jury. Jeff Olson was acquitted on all thirteen counts.
Usually, when the jury speaks, the trial ends. But after the verdict was announced, Judge Shore stayed on the bench to complain that the media had rigged the game.
The media set the tone in this case by talking about a potential 13-year sentence. It had a tendency to infuriate the public instead of informing it. Anyone in the system, the lawyers and anyone involved, knew that maximum sentence would never be handed out but still it was reported.
Then Judge Shore called out Mayor Filner for commenting on the trial. (Does it strike anyone else as odd that the judge was calculating Jeff’s sentence before hearing the case?)
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith also issued a post-trial statement defending his decision to spend city money prosecuting rogue chalkers as a favor to Bank of America. He blames Jeff for the expense, because he turned down the plea offers that, in Goldsmith’s way of thinking, Jeff should have grabbed at. Meanwhile, the mayor has slashed the City Attorney’s operating budget and Mr. Goldsmith announced on Good Morning San Diego Monday, that personnel from his department will not be attending any meetings called by Mayor Filner.
There is no word yet whether Bank of America will punish Jan Goldsmith, (or Darell Freeman) for the loss, or if they still plan to contribute to Mr. Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign. As far as I can tell, they are still holding his leash. It seems like nothing ever changes, and yet change still happens.
Thanks to Jeff Olson, free speech has not been ended in San Diego. Bank of America tried, but they could not shut him up. Jeff never flinched in the face of overwhelming power. The gay guy got to be the hero of this story! And gay heroes are always On Our Radar.
Feature Image from Chalk-U-Py Facebook
All portrait photos are from Facebook.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
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