Jailing the sidewalk chalk protesters constitutes the real crime

Authorities have the right to remain silent, but they have a duty to move to dismiss the gross misdemeanor charges facing four protesters who earlier this month wrote critical messages about the cops in chalk on the public sidewalks downtown near our local palaces of law enforcement and justice.

Although the first arrests came Aug. 10, when Sunset Activist Collective members Brian Ballentine and Kelly Patterson were taken into custody on graffiti charges at Metro headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for scrawling criticism of the police department’s use of force policies on the sidewalk, the pint-sized protests have been going on for months. Most people with an IQ above the temperature of tepid tea can see they’re exercising their First Amendment right of free speech and aren’t graffiti vandals.

Three days after those arrests, Sunset members Hailee Jewell and Catalino de la Cruz Dazo were arrested for making similar chalk scribbles outside the Regional Justice Center. Interestingly, sources confirm they politely moved their protest away from the front of the courthouse in an effort not to block the busy entrance when marshals asked them to do so. They weren’t exactly trying to burn the mutha’ down.

The organization is feisty, but we’re not exactly talking about the Weather Underground movement here. The Sunset Activist Collective sounds like a senior citizens’ bridge club.

As reported in the Review-Journal and elsewhere, the protesters’ statements were stinging and even vilifying of the police. But so what?

The most biting remark I saw was “Justice for Stanley Gibson — Gulf War vet murdered by Metro.” While I can see why the department is sensitive about killing the unarmed man, the mentally troubled Gibson wasn’t murdered. Although the car he was driving was blocked in, surrounded by police and was no threat to the public when he was shot by an officer firing an AR-15 assault-style weapon, officially that’s not murder. That was, we’ve been told, the result of a miscommunication.

The fact the Gibson killing has resulted in sidewalk scribbles and not a mass march on the Strip is surprising and fortunate for our peacekeepers. The idea that police saw fit to snuff even that docile level of outcry should disturb everyone.

In addition to jail time and a criminal charge, the protesters also are threatened with an absurdly estimated $1,550 charge to clean up their chalk talk. Protesters last week had a media field day when they chalked the sidewalk in front of Metro HQ and — like magic — managed to make it disappear with water and brooms.

A preliminary hearing is set for early December in Justice Court, but this embarrassment should never get that far. Every day retiring Sheriff Doug Gillespie and District Attorney Steve Wolfson let this stinker of a case linger is one more chance for political critics to question their leadership in two of the toughest jobs in the county.

If they’re not careful, someone will wonder aloud why the city attorney’s office declined to prosecute the chalk protesters. Did the city’s legal minds actually take time to read their copy of the Constitution?

Others will see the influential specter of the Police Protective Association, the cops’ union known for its political activism, behind the lack of action by local authorities.

Law partners Maggie McLetchie and Robert Langford have read the Constitution and represent the chalk-stained leaders of this hopscotch heresy.

“It still just comes down to the fact this is about the content, not about what they were actually doing,” Langford says. “The thing that’s most troubling to me is the way that they intentionally made it so that it was a gross misdemeanor charge, instead of a misdemeanor, so that they could arrest them instead of giving them a citation. That’s where it became out of line.”

Cops have a hard job. They make mistakes. This was one of them.

The police protests were written in chalk, but the Constitution is not. It’s time the sheriff and district attorney publicly made that distinction.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.