by Kelly Davis
A photo shows Eric Isaacson's 10-year-old daughter carrying a United Nations flag atop an 8-foot aluminum pole at an anti-war demonstration in Balboa Park on March 16. Three days later, her father was arrested for carrying that same pole, this time hoisting an American flag.
The evening of March 19, the same day George W. Bush began bombing Iraq, Isaacson-flag and flagpole in hand-joined an impromptu anti-war demonstration downtown. By the end of the evening, he had been arrested and was later charged with violating a city code that prohibits "any metal stake, club or pipe" at a public demonstration.
A lawyer in his mid-40s, Isaacson spent four months fighting the city on a charge that, he said, could have landed him in jail for up to six months. He believes the flagpole-as-potential-weapon charge was an afterthought by police-there was no evidence to suggest Isaacson planned to do anything other than carry the flag-and that his real crime was being an active witness to what happened that night between police and protestors.
When the group of demonstrators Isaacson was a part of began to march, "out of nowhere and with no warning of any kind, police surrounded us on all sides and started assaulting people with billy clubs," he recalled. One of the protestors called for the group to sit down "and a demonstrator started calling out for witnesses. Kids wanted to go home and the police wouldn't let them."
When Isaacson stood up and began handing out his business card, police arrested him and held him for two hours. In May, he was ordered to appear in Superior Court on a misdemeanor weapons offense. The charge was reduced to an infraction, and on Sept. 12 a judge dismissed the case.
Daniel, who asked that his last name be withheld, was at the same demonstration as Isaacson. "Without any hesitation, the police came up and started hitting us in our chests with these metal rods," he told CityBeat. "We all backed off. I saw two of my friends getting hit repeatedly."
Both Isaacson and Daniel admit that emotions were high that night and there was plenty of chanting, yelling and banging on plastic drums, "but this was a non-violent demonstration," said Isaacson, "completely peaceful."
Since the Bush administration's first hint at a preemptive war, peace rallies in San Diego and beyond have increased exponentially and won over new recruits who feel the need to take a stand against what they say are U.S. bully tactics. Talking to local activists and reading accounts posted on websites such as the San Diego Independent Media Center (www.sdimc.org), a clearinghouse for activist news and events, indicates a general dissatisfaction with how the San Diego Police Department is dealing with the city's vocal activist groups.
Two weeks ago, for example, 25-year-old Michael Cardenas used the SD-IMC site to launch a letter-writing campaign, urging activists to flood local print media with letters to the editor that point out not only specific examples of what activists see as over-policing at local demonstrations, but also incidents where officers were too aggressive when it came to keeping protestors in line.
"There is a repeated pattern of disproportionate police response to political activism in San Diego," Cardenas' letter charged. "At a time when budgets are being cut in schools across the county, the San Diego police force must stop wasting valuable resources."
"It's routine that my friends... get hit, shoved and charged into by police," Cardenas later told CityBeat. "People should be able to go to protests and feel safe, and cops should deal with non-violent protestors in non-violent ways."
Cardenas, who has served as a liaison between demonstrators and police (a representative who informs police about the logistics of a protest) says that while some of his peers might step over the line at the more heated protests, activists groups advocate an "action nonviolence code" that demands tolerance, openness to other viewpoints, sobriety and respect for property and bans weapons at demonstrations.
"In other cities you'll see people breaking windows, smashing newspaper stands," said Cardenas, "but [in] my experience in San Diego, you don't see that."
San Diego Community College English professor Jim Miller, co-author of the recently published book, Under the Perfect Sun, has done extensive research on San Diego's activist past. He says that while the present relationship between police and political activists here is civil compared to an ugly past, when dissenters were regularly harassed and monitored by police, Cardenas' point about over-policing is accurate.
"While I have not witnessed any overt instances of police brutality," Miller said, "it does seem to me that police presence at protests is far too large and frequently unnecessary."
Several local law enforcement sources acknowledged that San Diego activists are largely a peaceful bunch. In fact, a records search of several recent protests revealed no arrests or major incidents. But events elsewhere, such as the WTO protest in Seattle four years ago, have set precedents for what can happen if law enforcement is ill prepared.
""Just in case,' is the [motto] police have for demonstrations," said Lt. Chris Ball, who heads the San Diego Police Department's Central Investigations Unit. "Police point to Seattle, [where law enforcement] didn't adequately prepare and a lot of people got hurt."
Police presence at protests, he added, isn't for intimidation but to protect protestors and the public.
The number of officers assigned to an event is usually based on information either given directly to police by demonstration organizers or based on intelligence gleaned from flyers and e-mails about upcoming actions, Ball explained.
For the Sept. 13 WTO protest in San Ysidro, San Diego Police Sgt. David Contreras, special assistant to the police chief, said his office was told by event organizers that 1,500 to 2,000 protestors planned to show. "Based on that amount and past history, we had a lot of officers there," he said. A task force, as well, was set up to plan for the event. When one-tenth of the expected number turned out, it appeared to demonstrators that they were overwhelmed by police.
Indeed, Cardenas showed CityBeat photos of a line of California Highway Patrol officers, two or three officers deep, blocking and intersection and holding protective shields. Demonstrators later argued that police closed the Camino de la Plaza exit off Interstate 5 in order to keep late arrivals from joining the protest. California Highway Patrol Capt. John Bailey said the off-ramp was closed to keep traffic from blocking the protesters intended marching route. Traffic was re-routed through Tijuana.
Contreras said that to the best of his knowledge, the police department has maintained a healthy relationship with activist groups. On the day CityBeat spoke to Contreras, he had met with representatives from the Raza Rights Coalition, MEChA and the American Friends Service Committee to discuss an action the groups were planning for the border this past Saturday to protest Operation Gatekeeper.
"Five years ago-even two years ago-we couldn't sit down and plan an event," Contreras said. "It's all about respect. It's their constitutional right to demonstrate and we respect that."
Contreras added that the police department takes complaints seriously. "If an officer violates your rights, it's your right to file a complaint against that officer," he said, adding that demonstrators with complaints should call 619-531-2801.
Cardenas, the activist, said his peers-including a young woman who had her toes mashed by a police horse, and another who was put in a chokehold for accidentally brushing up against an officer as she put on her backpack-have been unwilling to file complaints out of fear of retaliation. Cardenas himself is wary of law enforcement after the FBI raided his home following the August fire in University City, for which the Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility. Cardenas is not part of that group but had videotaped a talk given by ELF spokesperson Rod Coronado.
San Diego Chief of Police William Lansdowne, on the job for almost three months now, has made a concerted effort to be accessible to the community, holding open office hours every other Monday. He said he's rearranged the department's Internal Affairs division so that all complaints and investigations go through him.
"They no longer report to an assistant chief," he said. "It gives me direct control over officer misconduct and will make the [review] process quicker."
Lansdowne comes to San Diego from San Jose, which has been held up as a model for training officers to handle crisis situations in nonviolent ways. Lansdowne said he plans to implement the same training here.
Next week will perhaps put Lansdowne to the test in how the department, under his command, handles demonstrations. An Oct. 24 rally at the Hall of Justice downtown will focus on battered women who've been jailed for fighting back against their abusers. On Oct. 25 there will be an action against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Preceding both events is an Oct. 22 rally to mark the 8th annual day of protest against police brutality, a nationwide action meant to draw attention to police excessive use of force. During the demonstration, protestors will march from the Metropolitan Correctional Facility to police headquarters, event organizer Janice Jordan said.
Last year's Oct. 22 rally, held at the federal courthouse, was largely peaceful until security guards locked the doors to the courthouse when a delegation of activists announced plans to pay a visit to then-District Attorney Paul Pfingst's office. Jordan admits demonstrators got "pretty wound up," but, she said, they were simply reacting to being denied access to a public building. Two demonstrators were eventually allowed to enter and presented a signed petition demanding Pfingst put in place a more transparent process for investigating alleged police misconduct. The city's current Citizens Review Board on Police Practices meets in closed session, releasing only a short summary to the public. Critics argue that the review board overwhelmingly exonerates officers accused of misconduct.
Jordan said she'd like to see something in place similar to San Jose's police review board, which is made up of citizens appointed by an independent auditor and who have subpoena power. "We're arguing that the police review board is not acting as an advocate for the community," she said. "They need to come to us and listen to the people who've been directly affected."
Lansdowne said that while he hasn't had time to look carefully at the review board process, "if there's changes that need to be made, we'll make them."