In mid-February of 2012 Jeff Olson walked through the aisles at the CVS Pharmacy on University Avenue in North Park. He was there to pick up gifts for his nephews. The 40-year-old former staffer for a U.S. senator from Washington was off for the day, not from work, but from protesting against Bank of America.
While combing through the toy aisle, Olson spotted a blue box of Creatology sidewalk chalk. The back of the box read: “Decorate sidewalks, play hopscotch and other fun games; washes easily from skin and clothes; super easy for little hands to grip.”
A light bulb went on inside his mind. It was perfect, he thought, not as a gift for his nephews but as a way to protest against the big bank next door.
More than one year later, that decision led Olson here, sitting in a black desk chair at the defendants’ table facing superior court judge Jay M. Bloom, who is tasked with deciding whether the case should be dismissed.
Tall and lanky, Olson is perched on the edge of his seat. He stares at the judge as his lawyer, Tom Tosdal, addresses the court and nods his head at a rapid rate, more dedicated student than defendant in a criminal case. His erect posture and nodding head shows he’s either giddy with excitement for fighting the system or terrified by the system he is trying to fight. It is most likely a combination of the two.
He faces 13 counts of vandalism for writing anti-bank slogans with water-soluble chalk on a public sidewalk outside of three Bank of America branches, two in North Park, another in Hillcrest. The act could put him in jail for 13 years and be on the hook for more than $6000 in restitution if San Diego’s City Attorney’s Office gets its way.
According to the city attorney’s reasoning, the case is much bigger than some scribbles on a sidewalk.
“The People do not fear that this reading of section 594(A) will make criminals of every child using chalk,” reads a document filed in court by deputy city attorney Paige Hazard.
“Chalk festivals may still be permitted. Kids acting without malice may still engage in their art. Circumventing the rules, without permission, under the color of night, and now waiving a banner of the First Amendment, does not negate the fact that defacement occurred, a private business suffered real and substantial monetary damages, and Defendant is responsible.”
During the two-hour preliminary hearing on June 17, Olson’s lawyer argues against the merits of the case. “This is a case about a person’s constitutional rights, the right to free speech and to peaceful political protest,” Tosdal tells the judge.
Deputy city attorney Hazard fires back, “The people do feel chalk is defacement. Mr. Olson did not seek authorization from the Bank of America or the City of San Diego to write messages on the sidewalk. The goal of this case is to address blight. We prosecute cases to protect the quality of life for residents.”
Hazard, a woman in her late 30s, sounds as if she is trying to convince herself of the merits of the case as much as she is the judge. As she speaks, junior attorney William Tanoury scribbles on a yellow legal pad. Another law student working with the City Attorney’s Office sits and watches from the gallery.
As the two lawyers exchange arguments, Olson looks at the judge in an apparent attempt to make eye contact, hoping for some opportunity to show the judge that he is not some reckless vandal or irresponsible Occupier.
Olson was a latecomer to the world of vandalism — or political activism, for that matter. The Portland, Oregon, native was always political but never went further than a heated discussion. It took the bailout and the Occupy Wall Street movement for the agitation to turn to action.
He opposed the billions of dollars given to the big banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, more commonly called TARP. The banks, according to him, preyed on middle and lower classes. They handed out ill-advised loans, and when the bottom dropped out on the real estate market, responded by asking for billions in handouts from the taxpayers.
Olson focused his attention on one of the largest banking institutions, Bank of America. A branch is located two blocks from his North Park home.
At the time, fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street was all the rage. Mobs of disenchanted citizens pitched tents in public squares across the country. They sang protest songs and banged on bongos to rally against social and economic inequality.
Here in San Diego, Occupiers commandeered the plaza at City Hall. In three months’ time, from October 2011 to December 2011, more than 60 protesters were carted off to jail for participating in non-violent sleep-ins.
Olson never protested at a council meeting, pitched a tent, or chanted slogans against the One Percent. Instead, he decided to go where he felt he’d make the most impact — the front doors of the bank.
It’s early June, 17 days until Olson is set to appear before Judge Bloom in a San Diego courtroom. He occupies a small black-leather loveseat inside Santos Coffee Shop in North Park. Olson is tall and thin. He is clean-shaven, his hair neatly combed. He wears a T-shirt that reads, “I am displeased with the entire situation,” in German. His look does not scream “activist!” It doesn’t scream anything at all. He looks like your run-of-the-mill North Park resident in shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers. Olson is unemployed but has been known to take the odd job every now and then, like getting paid to drive a car out to Chicago, for example. So, during the height of the Occupy movement, it’s safe to say he had plenty of time on his hands for politics.
“I didn’t think that going downtown to sleep in a park was a good use of my time,” he says.