Monday, July 1, 2013

Bank of America's latest bit of theater of the absurd

The news for civil rights, women's reproductive freedom, and democracy has been see-sawing like crazy lately. The latest, breaking news of the trial of Jeff Olson, who was prosecuted for writing--with water-soluble chalk-- on public sidewalks in front of San Diego Bank of America branches, offers a victory--even as it reveals just how off-kilter our judicial system is. Olson faced a sentence of thirteen years in prison for writing protest messages that could be easily washed away by anyone who wanted to. (Not quite as bad as that Texas court's sentencing a kid who'd attempted to steal a candy bar to prison for life, but ridiculous enough.)  In a nutshell,
Bank of America pushed for the prosecution of Olson on vandalism charges for writing his First Amendment opinions on public sidewalks (and in one case on Bank of America pavement). In fact the elected conservative SD City Attorney, Jan Goldsmith, didn't even initiate charges against Olson until months after he wrote in chalk on sidewalks in front of three Bank of America branches in SD. It was only after the local security officer for Bank of America relentlessly prodded the City Attorney's office that Olson was charged with the 13 counts of vandalism.
The trial judge, Howard Shore, not only forbade Olson and his defense to mention the First Amendment or little things like freedom of speech in his defense, he also put a gag order on Olson for the course of the trial. And he had special condemnation for the mayor of San Diego, too:
Judge Howard Shore also chastised the Mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner. Filner apparently in the judge's eyes had the temerity to call the trial of Olson a waste of time and taxpayer money. According to the San Diego Reader, Filner sent out a memorandum on June 20 that read in part:
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.
Judge Shore, in essence, warned the mayor of San Diego, who happens to be a Democrat in a traditionally conservative city, to keep his comments to himself, and would likely have issued a gag order on the mayor if Judge Shore were able.
It's farcical, sure. But just think for a minute how serious such farcical abuses of the law really is. Many of us are always talking about how it's gotten to be difficult to tell the difference between reports of political reality and displays of political satire. As Mark Karlin writes, "No Bank of America top officials were prosecuted for any number of questionable legal activities leading to this nation's taxpayers bailing out the banks too big to fail." As far as Bank of America officials (and certain judges and prosecutors) are concerned, the law is not an instrument of justice, but of protecting the interests of a tiny, wealthy elite. We see this every day not only in the way that political activists are treated by our various judicial systems, but also--and especially-- in the large-scale jailing of black men. We're also seeing it used, now, by the Obama Administration to punish whistle blowers revealing government policies to citizens, declaring them "traitors" as though they were the revealing secrets to foreign powers rather than government policies and actions to the citizens they supposedly work for.