Sacramentans demand repeal of parade law

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Community activists and civil rights attorneys flocked to an Aug. 2 public hearing here to challenge the legitimacy of a year-old city ordinance that places sharp and seemingly arbitrary restrictions on what parade marchers or demonstrators can carry with them as they march.

“This ordinance is designed to intimidate people from exercising their right to dissent,” said Bill Durant of the Sacramento Gray Panthers. Referring to his participation in an earlier demonstration, he said, “To the police [the ordinance] meant they could do whatever they wanted. They took the lock to my bicycle, because they said it was too big.”

Stella Levy, a local attorney, said, “The parade ordinance is unquestionably unconstitutional. You should repeal it in entirety and gather together people with constitutional expertise to draft a new one.”

Dozens of people added their own statements at the hearing called by the city government to discuss a possible revision of the parade ordinance hastily passed by the City Council in June of last year. The law was adopted without public notice or citizen input just days before protests against the international “Agricultural Expo” in Sacramento, hosted by the U.S. Agricultural Department to showcase U.S. agribusiness and genetically modified produce in preparation for last year’s WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico.

Besides prohibiting traditional weapons at parades and demonstrations, the ordinance makes it illegal for marchers to carry glass containers, gas masks, golf balls, marbles, bandanas, loose batteries, picket sign posts more than one-quarter inch thick, and many other common items.

Although demonstration organizers had been meeting weekly with the Sacramento Police Department to ensure a peaceful rally last June, they were not informed about the new law until police began arresting demonstrators for violating it.

“What the ordinance did was sweep up innocent people,” said Dean Johansen, a local attorney who helped represent 73 people arrested by the Sacramento police. “Half of them were arrested on the basis of this law alone.”

Pat Driscoll, a local Green Party congressional candidate, said, “San Francisco does not find a need for this kind of ordinance, although massive demonstrations are held there.” Heidi McLean of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture added, “A parade ordinance should say how many Porta-Potties should be provided and how many police are needed for traffic control. … You will be sued over this law over and over, which will cost me as a householder.”

The Sacramento Police Department has enforced the parade ordinance selectively, other speakers charged. For instance, when the veterans’ organizations marched on Memorial Day, they were allowed to carry weapons.

Several people at the hearing complained about police harassment and intimidation at the June demonstration, where the police, in riot gear, weapons at ready, some mounted and others using armored vehicles, lined the streets the marchers took. Besides those arrested, people were beaten up and herded into blind alleys by mounted police.

In several cases, people who had been arrested were not released to friends and family, but were taken out a back way in the middle of the night and dropped off in suburban areas with no public transportation.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.