Olson has grievances against the Bank of America stemming from Occupy efforts that urged the public to shift money from the Bank of America and place it elsewhere—this in response to the bank’s acceptance of bailout funds.
While scrawling, Olson was accosted by a bank manager and threatened with arrest. The bank eventually followed through on the threats and Olson was charged with 13 counts of vandalism for chalking messages inimical to the bank on the sidewalk by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. Bank of America claims it cost them $6000 to hose down the sidewalks after Olson’s acts and this is enough to slap Olson with $13,000 in fines, costs for restitution to the bank—and a likely sentence of 13 years in state prison if Olson is convicted.
Unsurprisingly, the assistant city attorney at Olson’s initial hearing before Superior Court Judge Howard Shore was granted her motion to prohibit Olson’s attorney from arguing a “free speech” defense. Judge Shore reminded those present that California law pertaining to vandalism says nothing about first amendment guarantees and this presumably leaves Olson hanging in the breeze at trial.
The alleged vandalism charges Olson faces are for chalking “Stop Big Banks”, “Stop Bank Blight.com” and vague cartoon characters with lots of arms and money in their hands—hardly the stuff of anarchist revolution. Even if Olson championed anarchist revolution, such speech is not anything for rational people to worry about.
Unfortunately, rationality does not exist at Jan Goldsmith’s office. If it did, none of his assistant city attorneys would carry water for so trifling a charge as this.
Unfortunately for Olson and the rest of us, Goldsmith is bent on making an example of Olson and using him to scare others into silence where big business is concerned. Goldsmith’s vacuous statement following Olson’s hearing acknowledge that laws pertaining to vandalism will not make criminals out of children with chalk and that art will be permitted—so long as no powerful businesses claim that it suffered monetary damage from “vandals”. Even at first reading, Goldsmith’s statement reveals his willingness to defer to the needs of the powerful even when proof of damage is lacking, or in this case utterly unbelievable.
Goldsmith prefers to be a martinet and this has meaning for everyone in San Diego and for the city generally. San Diego depends on tourism and a Sheriff Joe Arpaio-wannabe ready to go off half cocked for agitated chicken scratching does not make San Diego any more appetizing to those elsewhere. Those elsewhere have taken note of Goldsmith’s hard line; media have had a field day cutting Goldsmith to ribbons for his angst-driven prosecution of a man who should face no more than a low fine if convicted on a misdeamenor charge. Even Russian media have cogently remarked on how similar Goldsmith’s scare tactic is to Brezhnev’s and recalls that under Soviet rule, dissidents could be put away for the same number of years on a first offense. To Americans, this ought to be anathema. To Jan Goldsmith, it’s a measure of how important he is.
Respect for law is the glue that holds citizens to the social contract we all live under and that respect is degraded when heavy penalties are unjustly and arbitrarily applied. Goldsmith’s ego outstrips his intellect in his desire to shut up dissent and he cares not one whit how much this case will cost the city when it goes to the appellate court—where it will get slam dunked and handed back to the City Attorney in little pieces.
Beyond even that, the sheer ridiculousness of Goldsmith’s heavy handedness exposes him as having judgment inferior to his pay grade. One expects that he’ll shoot people for double parking outside Petco or torture material witnesses in shoplifting cases at Walmart any day now. Repeat-offending violent criminals in this state often get less than 13 years for assault and battery or attempted murder; rapists sometimes don’t draw that long a sentence and neither do some who are convicted of manslaughter. To charge an angry, frustrated man with no previous criminal record with crimes carrying such a long sentence is not merely absurd but immoral on its face and its a marker of the City Attorney’s lack of good sense that makes him highly suspect concerning just what “people” of San Diego he presumes to work for. Mayor Bob Filner is entirely correct in his efforts to cut funding for Goldsmith’s office; if this kind of ham-handedness is what we can expect from him, we should recognize City Attorney Jan Goldsmith for the menace he is to all of us—and to justice itself.