The Magazine

Baghdad by the Bay

San Francisco's demonstrators--disobedient, but not civil.

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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San Francisco

IRAQI DISSIDENTS have been tortured and executed. Some critics of the regime have had their tongues cut out; others have had to watch as government thugs raped their wives and children.

But in San Francisco, protesters know what "repression"--their word--really is. Since March 20, antiwar demonstrators have blocked traffic, sabotaged public transit, and hindered access to office buildings in an effort to put an end to "business as usual" in Baghdad by the Bay's financial district. A group called Pukers for Peace held a vomit-in in front of the Federal Building.

Many law-breaking demonstrators have been cited and released. But authorities did hold some protesters--generally only after they were arrested more than once--and forced them to spend the night in small cells or on blankets in a gymnasium. Detainees later complained that they were fed lousy cheese and peanut butter sandwiches. Worse, some women told the San Francisco Chronicle, deputies called them "little girl" and "hon."

In fact, civil rights groups were infuriated that the city went so far as to arrest protesters who broke the law. The antiwar group Direct Action to Stop the War complained about "increased repression from the San Francisco Police Department."

"The mass arrests of protesters who seek only to exercise their democratic rights is part and parcel of the government's campaign to criminalize dissent as it wages war abroad and ravages the working class, blacks and immigrants at home," the Partisan Defense Committee wrote in a letter demanding release and amnesty for all protesters to District Attorney Terence Hallinan.

While protesters announced that they were engaging in civil disobedience à la Martin Luther King, activists remain adamant that the 2,300 arrests--including a dozen protesters originally charged with felonies--should not be prosecuted. In other words, they want the moral status of civil disobedience, but please don't ask them to witness to their beliefs by spending time in Birmingham Jail.

And a police report cataloging items recovered after a skirmish at 7th and Stevenson belies the claim that these were acts of civil disobedience. Officers found "one stun gun, two pipe wrenches, four sling shots, bags containing steel ball bearings, . . . gas masks, spray paint canisters, markers, fire extinguishers, bicycle locks, fishing weights, bolt cutters, pipes, hammers, gloves, knives, beer bottles, spark plugs, a railroad spike, two way radios, lighter fluid, heavy metal skillet, 5 large flags attached to 1/2-inch diameter metal poles approximately 6 foot length and other objects."

These demonstrations aren't really about the war on Iraq, either. On Monday, March 24, Critical Mass, the radical bicycle group that stages monthly rides designed to gridlock automobile traffic, started joining the pedestrian protesters for the evening home-commute traffic snarl-up. Flyers announced that Critical Mass rides would make a statement against "war in Iraq, George Bush's right-wing agenda, oil and car dependency [and] the automobile's infringing upon and degrading public space." These demonstrations aren't so much about the war as they are a group rant against President Bush, the private sector, and mainstream America.

It's expensive. Mayor Willie Brown estimates that, between overtime and lost revenue, the demonstrations cost the city as much as $900,000 a day. With San Francisco facing its largest deficit ever, Brown has urged protesters to demonstrate against the war in their own towns--or in Crawford, Texas.

There's been talk of trying to get the protesters to pay for protest-related expenses, but it's not likely. Already District Attorney Terence Hallinan has announced that he has dropped five of the twelve felony charges against protesters, and reduced the other seven. Earlier Hallinan told me that he wanted to fine protesters, but doing so could require paying police overtime for court testimony.

Hallinan is no Rudy Giuliani. A San Francisco Chronicle analysis found that Hallinan's conviction rate ranked last among the state's 58 counties. He's the rare D.A. with a rap sheet of his own, for numerous infractions in his youth. When Hallinan--also known as Kayo--was a young lawyer, authorities charged him with assaulting a police officer during a demonstration. His trial ended with a hung jury, but Hallinan later sued the city for personal injury and won. Hard to believe, or it should be, but San Francisco voters have elected Hallinan their district attorney twice.

Observers expect slight if any punishment from Hallinan for the thousands of people who came from across California, and the country, to protest the war. They deliberately broke the law. They trampled on the rights of workers and commuters. Then when they were slapped on the wrist, they called it "repression." How little they know of the world.

As one officer told me, for most of those arrested, "The most severe penalty they'll be subjected to is the fact that they'll have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

Debra J. Saunders writes a nationally syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.