By Jesse Franz
On Nov. 14, after a week of nightly arrests by sheriff’s deputies, Occupy Fresno, a group that has continuously encamped at Courthouse Park since Oct. 15, filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that its civil liberties and First Amendment rights had been violated by Fresno County.
What started as a simple protest in New York has evolved into one of the most widespread and continuous displays of First Amendment rights in this nation’s history. For two and a half months, protesters have occupied cities around the country and around the globe. However, as the leaves begin to change colors and the weather becomes crisp, nearly simultaneously police pressure on nearly all Occupy movements has dramatically increased.
Stories of police brutality at Occupy Oakland have dominated the headlines throughout the last month. Viral videos display images of people like Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Kayvan Sabehgi peacefully protesting, but nonetheless beaten by police and hospitalized in critical condition. Rubber bullets, flash bang grenades and tear gas are no longer the worst-case scenario for some Occupy protesters but a near-daily reality.
A protest that was started to voice the grievances of the “99%” now finds itself at odds with those who have been tasked to protect and serve them. And Occupy Fresno has not been spared this confrontation.
Not deterred by the expiration of its permit on Nov. 1, or the Fresno County sheriff’s warnings that protesters would be subject to fines and arrest, Occupy Fresno continued the encampment of Courthouse Park. On Nov. 6, police began the arrests of protesters who refused to leave the park, using more than 30 deputies to arrest 15 protesters.
One person arrested on Nov. 6 was Occupy Fresno’s volunteer attorney Bob Navarro. At Occupy’s daily general assembly the next day, after praising the protest’s organization and peaceful tactics, he said of his arrest jokingly, “It was the first time I’ve been arrested, but it couldn’t have been a nicer experience.”
Since then, sheriff’s deputies have begun nightly arrests of protesters who refuse to leave the park, and the deputies have started their own 24-hour-a-day occupation of Courthouse Park in order to uphold park policies. Citing a county ordinance (which states that the park is closed from midnight to 6 a.m.), the sheriff’s deputies have arrested more than 80 protesters who refused to leave in defense of what they claim is their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.
Soon after midnight each night, some protesters leave the park and stand watching at the sidewalk as legal observers, whereas other protesters take their position in the encampment volunteering to be arrested, and every night since Nov. 6 (at least until this article went to press), the sheriff’s deputies have turned on their spotlights and one has announced over a loudspeaker, “I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly. In the name of the people of the State of California, you are ordered to disperse immediately. Failure to do so will result in your immediate arrest.”
This announcement fills Courthouse Park nightly, but nearly just as regularly a voice comes from the protesters saying, “We are the people of California, and we will not leave our land.”
Soon after, as many as 40 sheriff’s deputies clad in riot gear and shields march in two single file lines down the park’s sidewalk. Some deputies move toward the protesters voluntarily and peaceful awaiting arrest, whereas others move toward the sidewalk to keep those observing at bay.
As protesters are being arrested, chants can be heard from the Occupiers saying, “The people, united, will never be divided” and “Let them go, arrest the CEOs,” among others.
During the earlier days of the arrests, one sheriff’s deputy, whose jacket read G. Andreotti, was heard saying derogatorily toward the protest, “You know what’s sad about this? This is a conservative community.”
However, other sheriff’s deputies have stated in conversation that many of them agree with the protesters but are required to carry out their orders to uphold the county ordinance.
Those who are arrested are then put into the sheriff’s vans and taken to the county jail only a block away from the park, to be released hours later with citations.
As this happens night after night, the sheriff has been upholding the ordinance more strictly. Some protesters not wanting to be arrested have attempted to comply with the orders of the sheriff’s deputies to vacate the park and move toward the sidewalk but have been arrested en route to, or even as they watch from what they’ve been told is a legal distance on, the sidewalk. The sheriff’s deputies have said that this is due to them not leaving fast enough. However, a man was arrested off the sidewalk while observing 15 minutes after he allegedly failed to leave the park in adequate haste.
To date, Occupy Fresno has never shown violence, a trait that is both praised by Fresno County sheriff’s deputies and has led to some calling Occupy Fresno the most nonviolent Occupy movement in the country. However, some protesters like Rosendo Rodriguez are disgruntled with what they feel is overwhelming force saying, “We have been hit every night; no other Occupy movement in the nation is hit every night.” He continues, “We are always hit with overwhelming force; there may be seven protesters and 40 officers.”
It is not yet known the amount of government resources spent on upholding the ordinance that prohibits the protesters from being in the park overnight, however, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims has felt community pressure to end what some see as a waste of county resources.
On Nov. 9, in an editorial, Bill McEwen of the Fresno Bee said critically of the law enforcement action, “I showed up Wed. morning to check out Occupy Fresno. There was one Occupier: Pat Sigala, 67, disabled and a past recipient of the Center for Nonviolence’s Way of Peace award. Fifteen yards from Sigala were three sheriff’s deputies—in a county that doesn’t have money to keep car thieves and burglars in jail.”
On top of public pressure, Sheriff Mims now faces a lawsuit and a restraining order filed by Occupy Fresno on Nov. 14 directed toward the Sheriff’s Office, “challenging the violations of civil liberties and First Amendment rights by Fresno County,” as Occupy Fresno’s official press release states. The outcome was pending as this article went to press.
One of the major issues that the Occupy movement brings up in that lawsuit is if the park ordinance supersedes the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. One member of Occupy Fresno, prior to the arrests on Nov. 7, asked the question of Lt. Gregg Andreotti, “Does the penal code here and the ordinances that you’ve said that we’re violating trump the constitutional First Amendment to peaceably assemble protest the government?”
Lt. Andreotti responded saying, “That is what we are enforcing.”
The member of Occupy Fresno who asked the question then asked for clarification of the officer’s statement, but was denied.
Even though most media coverage of Occupy Fresno has been relegated to these arrests, the group has also continued protesting what they see as greed and corruption in corporate and government entities.
The group weekly attends the Fresno Unified School District board meeting to argue for pay cuts to administrative officials who take home salaries higher than the group feels is just. On the Web site, occupyfresnoca.com, Occupy Fresno has laid out a plan to cut salaries of administrative officials and return funding to the teachers and classrooms. Occupy Fresno has also been heavily involved in the protests against education price increases at Fresno State.
As police pressure mounts on Occupy Fresno and other movements around the country, some have started calling this the Occupy Movement’s second act—a time in which mounting governmental pressures and the natural weather will have to be addressed by all Occupiers. However, numerous protesters say that they are in for the long haul, and perhaps this movement’s longevity can be summed by what many of them say as the sheriff’s vans filled with arrested protesters pull away, “See you guys tomorrow.”
Jesse Franz is a writer for various publications around Fresno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.