LOS ANGELES – Political activist Jeff Olson was acquitted today of vandalism charges brought against him by the city of San Diego in a case that even the mayor called “nonsense prosecution.”
Last week, news broke about Olson, the San Diego man charged with 13 counts of vandalism for writing anti-bank slogans during the height of the Occupy movement. He wrote statements like “NO THANKS, BIG BANKS,” and drew a picture of an octopus reaching for dollar bills on the sidewalks and walls of Bank of America branches.
Starting last year, Darell Freeman, vice president of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security, began complaining of Olson’s activities to the Deputy City Attorney and an officer from San Diego’s Gang Unit. Freeman doggedly followed up, determined to bring charges against Olson. Eventually his persistence paid off, and he was notified that the city would charge Olson with 13 counts of vandalism, which could result in fines of $13,000 or 13 years in prison.
Olson’s aim, like many involved in Occupy, was to encourage people to transfer their money away from profit-driven and often predatory banks to nonprofit credit unions.
“To me, this is a perfect form of civil disobedience, that is non-violent, non-destructive, and a way for people to exercise their right to free speech.”
However, Judge Howard M. Shore did not view it this way. Last Tuesday, he forbid the very mention of the First Amendment during the trial.
“The State’s Vandalism Statute does not mention First Amendment rights,” Shore asserted, referring to the California law (Penal Code section 594 a) that one cannot cite the First Amendment as a defense for defacing private property.
In an email from the City Attorney’s office, they stated:
“The defense is trying to make this case into a political statement, which it is not. This is just one of some 20,000 criminal cases that are referred to us annually by the police department.”
But what is “NO THANKS, BIG BANKS” if not a political statement? And by the logic of the California defacement law, political activism of any kind that happens to collide with private property (even in a temporary, erasable manner) is reduced to pure vandalism regardless of the message. This implies that the message — no matter how urgent or true — is irrelevant. In this case, the law merely acknowledges the medium of the message and its potential for fiscally harming that most sacred of American investments: private property. Coincidentally, that is also the only message that Bank of America could discern, apparently.
Additionally, one Bank of America branch also alleged that it cost them $6,000 to erase Olson’s drawings, a puzzling amount considering that, as stated above, it was chalk.
Understandably, public outcry ensued. Nationwide outlets soon picked up the story, which was diligently covered by the San Diego Reader, and calls of a mistrial were made. A chalk-drawing protest called Chalk-U-Py was held in front of San Diego’s Hall of Justice on Saturday, as well as a “Chalk-In” yesterday morning.
Last week, Mayor Filner stated, “It’s washable chalk, it’s political slogans … I think it’s a stupid case. It’s costing us money.”
Today, Olson left the court a free and relieved man, proving the pen mightier than the sword.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.