'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Don't Walk Across the Bridge 

The Golden Gate Bridge is for tourism and commerce only:

Police took 10 war protesters into custody Monday at the Golden Gate Bridge after a three-hour standoff that backed up New Year's Day traffic and frayed tempers of tourists and bicyclists hoping for a jaunt across the span.

The confrontation began at noon when about a dozen members of the women's peace organization CodePink prepared to walk across the bridge as a vigil to remember the 3,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

Officers from the California Highway Patrol, the Golden Gate Bridge District and the San Francisco Police Department barred their way and also refused to let tourists onto the span.

The protesters eventually decided to cross a police line and were taken into custody. Bicyclists began crossing the west side of bridge again by 3 p.m., but foot traffic on the east side of the bridge remained off limits after the protesters dispersed.

Among those detained was CodePink co-founder and prominent San Francisco peace activist Medea Benjamin.

"We didn't do anything illegal, nor did we plan to do anything illegal," she said after she was released from custody. Benjamin said she and nine others have been charged with trespassing, although Highway Patrol officials wouldn't confirm the arrests.

Before she was taken into custody, Benjamin said that the group planned a "solemn march," single-file, across the bridge, with no intention of disrupting tourists or traffic. They planned to meet another small group of protesters crossing from the Vista Point parking area on the north end of the bridge.

But police, citing security concerns, closed the sidewalk entrances, and a standoff ensued.

"Vigils are taking place all across the country. This may be the only place -- in Nancy Pelosi's home district -- where that's not allowed," said Benjamin, who has been arrested numerous times for protesting the war, including her disruption of a speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before a joint session of Congress in July.

Police at the scene said they were concerned about what the protesters might do once they were on the bridge.

Police closed off a lane of northbound bridge traffic as they prepared to arrest the protesters, leading to a major traffic back-up on Doyle Drive back to the Marina District and on the 19th Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard approaches to the bridge.

Tourist milled outside the south entrance to the bridge sidewalk, some bemused, some outraged that they were forbidden to walk through the gate.

Interestingly, the police assaulted the media that tried to film the confrontation:

A cameraman from News 7 San Franciso was filming the protest and the police tried to keep him from doing so. Apparently the police struck the cameraman, injuring his eye and damaging the camera. The cameraman was at the hospital, according the most recent report. When a reporter attempted to get name and badge number of the offending officer, that officer refused to give his name and physically covered his badge with his hand; this is in direct violation of standard police procedure.

Anyone who has ever walked across the bridge can immediately recognize the absurdity of this police response. Indeed, the walkways on each side of the bridge are so wide that it is possible to go across the bridge by bike, which I have done several times, without risking injury to anyone, yet it was necessary to call officers from the California Highway Patrol, the Golden Gate Bridge District and the San Francisco Police Department to the scene to deal with 10 protesters. Let's repeat that: 10 protesters.

More astute readers have already identified the motivation for it. The bridge is federal property, and, with Bush as President, there is a hard line. No politically oriented marches across the bridge without a permit, no exceptions. Hence, the need to shut down the CODEPINK action regardless of the impact upon traffic and tourists. Enforcement of the policy is so essential that the police are now using violence against the local media to discourage it from covering any incidents of this kind in the future.

Nor is this the first episode of this kind. A protest in support of the Palestinians in May 2002 received even worse treatment, because, even though they had a permit, unlike CODEPINK, the marchers couldn't get across the bridge quickly enough to comply with the terms of it:

An anti-war protest on the Golden Gate Bridge turned ugly Saturday when police stopped northbound traffic to arrest demonstrators, causing a backup several miles long.

Authorities arrested 30 of the approximately 150 participants in the march, organized by the All People's Coalition to Stop U.S. Terror and Occupation.

The coalition, which represents a variety of left-wing causes -- including support for Palestinians and opposition to U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Mideast -- had a permit to march from Crissy Field across the eastern walkway of the bridge and back between noon and 2 p.m.

But before the marchers finished crossing the bridge, the California Highway Patrol ordered them to turn around and leave the bridge or face immediate arrest.

When some of the demonstrators refused, the CHP began making arrests and closed some or all northbound lanes for the next half hour.

"They agreed to start their walk in time to complete it by 2 p.m.," said bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie.

The march was allowed on the condition that activists would not carry signs,banners or noisemakers such as bullhorns or drums, said Currie. Officers stationed at the entrance to the bridge checked each protester and removed such items from some of them.

At 1:35 p.m., about 20 CHP officers clad in riot gear blocked the eastern walkway and told demonstrators to turn around. When the 150 marchers did not immediately obey, the CHP decided to force them to return.

Many refused and sat down while others chanted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as officers moved in, carrying batons and using pepper spray. Police arrested some protesters, shoving others back.

Some demonstrators accused the highway patrol of overreacting and causing the traffic delays.

"This response was totally uncalled for -- it's a huge overreaction to a peaceful event," said co-organizer Wendy Snyder.

"We stayed on the sidewalk," said co-organizer Claudia Hernandez, 29, of Pinole. "We just wanted to finish the march and they began pushing us back."

CHP spokesman Sgt. Wayne Ziese said all but one of those arrested were booked on misdemeanor charges, including obstructing a walkway and resisting arrest. One girl, who told police she was 11 years old, was booked on a felony charge of assaulting an officer, and taken to juvenile hall, he said.

Ziese said the arrests were necessary to ensure that the protesters would be off the bridge by the 2 p.m. deadline.

"It was quite clear they were not going to be able to comply with that permit," Ziese said.

"They should have made it clear to us earlier," countered Bakaria Olatunji, chairman of the coalition. "If they had left us alone and let us finish, this would have all gone smoother, even if it took longer."

The arrest of the 11 year old girl was especially troubling:

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says photos and video shot at the protest show that police acted improperly in arresting the girl.

Eleven year-old, Sophia Abrahim, was arrested Saturday when police blocked a march across the Golden Gate Bridge, despite the fact that event organizers had a valid permit to cross the bridge. Media reports quoted witnesses who said police over-reacted to a relatively small number of protestors. One passerby told the San Francisco Chronicle: "I don't think these demonstrators presented any threat to anyone. The police are the ones who shut everything down. I would rather see all of these officers looking for terrorists in airports." Witnesses also say police manhandled journalists during the march.

A statement issued today by CAIR Board Chairman Omar Ahmad read in part: "It is unconscionable that police clad in riot gear would pull an 11-year-old child out of a group of peaceful protestors, throw her to the ground, handcuff her, haul her away like a common criminal, and then keep her shackled for hours at a police station. From all accounts, this girl did nothing to provoke arrest. The officers involved in this incident should be suspended pending an immediate and thorough investigation."

Sophia Abrahim, 11, has made a statement concerning her ordeal on Saturday during the anti-war, pro-Palestinian demonstration in San Francisco, dubbed by supporters as "Take It To The Bridge 2002". She said, "They were chasing me and pushing everyone with the bats, the stick thingies and I told them, 'Hey, don't touch me! For the last time...'"

Beyond the assault upon the marchers, and embarassing arrest of an 11 year old, we discover that, yet again, Witnesses also say police manhandled journalists during the march. It is undoubtedly pointless to expect that the Bush Administration would order federal law enforcement authorities to respond to political protest with anything other than tactics of intimidation. Perhaps, though, it might be a good time for the California Highway Patrol and the San Francisco Police Department to evaluate whether they should suspend their involvement. After all, Michael Bloomberg allowed thousands of New Yorkers to march through the commericial retail sales district of New York, during the peak holiday season, without a permit and without incident, to protest the killing of Sean Bell by the NYPD.

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