Here’s some interesting news from Southern California: prosecutors in Los Angeles and Orange Counties have leveled their sights on protesters who engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience.
In Orange County, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has filed misdemeanor charges against 11 protesters who disrupted a speech at UC-Irvine last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, accusing them of engaging in a conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting. Rackauckas filed charges after taking the highly unusual step of convening a grand jury to investigate the incident.
In Los Angeles, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has been filing criminal misdemeanor charges against people arrested for offenses such as disorderly conduct and failure to disperse.
This is a dramatic departure from his predecessor Rocky Delgadillo’s policy of allowing protesters arrested for minor offenses to plead guilty and pay a fine. Here’s Trutanich’s rationale for deciding to prosecute such individuals, as told to the Los Angeles Times:
“My whole deal is predictability,” he said. “In order for us to have a civilized society, there has to be a predictable result when you break the law. I want to make sure that they don’t do it again.”
The new policy, he added, was designed with an eye on what he called “professional” protesters who demonstrate repeatedly — sometimes for pay, he said — and never seem to be punished for their illegal activities.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way” to protest, Trutanich said. “When you break the law, it’s a not a mainstream 1st Amendment activity. You have the right to protest; you don’t have the right to break the law.”
It’s difficult to imagine such a situation arising in the Bay Area. Last November, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley declined to file misdemeanor charges for failure to disperse against more than 150 people arrested during protests on the day ex-BART officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison for the shooting death of Oscar Grant.
However, the actions of Trutanich and Rackauckas raise questions about how authorities deal with public exercises of the First Amendment. Is this a justified means of dealing with disruptive demonstrations? Or is this another symptom of post-9/11 intolerance of free speech? We want to hear your thoughts.