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Justin Wolff 8:30 a.m., June 16
Jan Goldsmith's job as City Attorney is to represent the City of San Diego. In addition, it appears as if his office is also fully prepared to stand up for the little...rather, the big banks.
On Tuesday, the City Attorney's Office will make their case for prosecution of a 40-year-old man for writing anti-bank slogans in water soluble chalk on the sidewalk outside of three Bank of America branches in Mid-City.
This week, North Park resident Jeff Olson will appear in court to fight a charge of 13 counts of misdemeanor vandalism charges for writing protest slogans in chalk from February to August 2012. The charges could send Olson to jail for 13 years and put him on the hook for $13,000 in restitution to the City and to Bank of America.
Olson, a former staffer for a U.S. Senator from Washington, began to get involved in political activism around the time that Occupy Wall Street was in full swing. But for him, sleeping in a tent downtown or singing along to protest songs was not the right strategy.
"I thought my time would be better spent at the banks, trying to convince people to ditch these banks for local credit unions. I believed that was the best way to hold the executives and the corporations accountable for bringing this country to the brink of collapse," says Olson while occupying a small table at Santos Coffee Shop in North Park during an interview late last month.
It was October 3, 2011 when Olson first appeared outside of the Bank of America on University Avenue in North Park with a homemade sign.
Eight days later, gearing up for National Bank Transfer Day, Olson and his partner, Stephen Daniels, were confronted by Darell Freeman, Vice President of Bank of America's Global Corporate Security. Freeman, a former police officer, accused Olson and Daniels of running a business outside of the bank.
"The man identified himself as Darell Freeman, corporate security for the bank. He refused to give me his business card when I asked for it. He told [Olson] that he could, “with one phone call,” get [Olson's] credit union account canceled at California Coast. He threatened to make the call if [he] kept up the demonstration," wrote Batterson in his October 2011 article.
"It was just an empty threat," says Olson. "He was trying to scare me away. To be honest, it did at first. I even called my bank and they said he couldn't do anything like that."
Undeterred, Olson continued his protests outside of the Bank of America. In February 2012, he came across a box of "Creatology" chalk at the CVS Pharmacy in North Park.
"I thought it was a perfect way to get my message out there. Much better than handing out leaflets or holding a sign."
For the next six months, Olson visited the bank a few days a week in the early morning hours. He scribbled slogans on the sidewalk such as "Stop big banks," and "Stop Bank Blight.com."
One day he drew Octopus arms protruding out from the bank walls. At the ends of the arms, stuck to its tentacles, were wads of cash.
As the election neared Olson put down the stick of chalk and became involved campaigning for then Congressman Bob Filner and against his opponent Carl DeMaio.
Filner won. The economy rebounded. Olson's political activism waned. He moved on.
Unfortunately for him, the same can not be said for Freeman and the City Attorney's Office.
On August 28, Olson was contacted by Officer Bill Miles from San Diego's Gang Unit.
Months later, on January 7, 2013 Freeman pressed Miles and Goldsmith's attorneys to take action against Olson.
"Any updates on this," Freeman wrote in an email to Miles and Deputy City Attorney Nicole Kukas obtained through a public records request.
Two minutes later, Kukas responded. "Thank you for checking in on this case. It is still under review. I will give you an update by the end of the week."
No update came. Ten days later, Freeman was back on the case.
"Any updates on a filing?"
"I appreciate your patience," wrote Officer Miles just three hours after Freeman's message. "I will forward this to the City Attorney."
Then on April 15, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard contacted Freeman with the good news. "I wanted to let you know that we will be filing 13 counts of vandalism as a result of the incidents you reported."
A heavy handed decision?
Not according to the City Attorney's Office.
This from a court document filed by Hazard.
“The People do not fear that this reading of section 594(A) will make criminals of every child using chalk. 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.”
Tom Tosdal, a Solana Beach-based lawyer, is defending Olson pro-bono. Tosdal says he could not turn down the case.
“As a lawyer, I took an oath to defend the constitution. That’s what this case is for me. The City Attorney is playing politics with Olson’s right to free speech. It’s another form of social control and I won’t sit by and watch it happen. I was there in the Sixties when real protest happened. This, writing in water soluble chalk, is so minor.”
Olson says he is ready for trial but that doesn't mean he is not nervous.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never been inside a courtroom before. I’m anxious but also still wanting to fight this. I just can’t believe this is happening. To me, this is a perfect form of civil disobedience, that is non-violent, non-destructive, and a way for people to exercise their right to free speech.”
Olson and Tosdal, as well as Hazard and other attorneys for the City, will meet on Tuesday morning before a Superior Court Judge.
Update: On June 20, Bob Filner sent a memo to Council President Todd Gloria and Jan Goldsmith asking Gloria to docket the item for the next closed session meeting. The memo reads:
"This young man is being persecuted for thirteen counts of vandalism stemming from an expression of political protest that involved washable children's chalk on a City sidewalk. It is alleged that he has no previous criminal record. If these assertions are correct, I believe this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money. It could also be characterized as an abuse of power that infringes on First Amendment particularly when it is arbitrarily applied to some, but not all, similar speech."
Olson and his story will be featured in an upcoming cover story in the Reader.