Seventeen people who style themselves as anarchists, sporting the A in a circle, black hoodies and Zapatista-style bandannas were arrested in a crowded Riverfront Park July 4 for disorderly conduct and trespass, according to police reports. One was arrested on a felony charge of second-degree assault, accused of choking a police officer.
The anarchist group, variously estimated at 40 to 50, had marched to the park from Peaceful Valley for the second year in a row protesting police brutality, citing two in-custody deaths in the last year and a half. Members say they were merely having a vegan picnic in the park at the end of their march and say their free speech and assembly rights were trampled when they refused a dispersal order and then were rushed by a police skirmish line.
Hundreds of people who'd gathered for the annual fireworks later that evening witnessed the rowdy chaos of the arrests, creating a round of discussion about constitutional rights and free speech.
Attorneys have lined up to represent the Spokane 17, as some are calling them, mostly free of charge. The Peace and Justice Action League organized a protest near police headquarters during the evening commute Monday protesting the treatment of the protesters who had been protesting on July 4.
A couple dozen of Monday's protesters marched down to City Hall and sat through a marathon City Council meeting to get a chance to ask the council for oversight of the police.
Also on Monday, Mayor Dennis Hession, along with Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, asked City Attorney Jim Craven to review the Independence Day arrests -- one of the key issues being who owns the public park when space has been rented by a vendor?
Which brings us back to the frightened karate kids.
Ronell Bracy of Clear Channel Media says the company rented Riverfront Park, as it has for a number of years, for Neighbor Days and rented stage time for a variety of entertainment during the run-up to the fireworks.
The anarchists, she says, "congregated right next to a little stage. The main issue is we were about to have a performance of small children from Elite Martial Arts on that stage and the teachers let us know the kids felt scared."
A vendor such as Clear Channel who is renting space in the park appears to have the authority to regulate who is in that space, Bracy and city officials say. This is the presumption likely to be tested during the mayor-ordered city review, and possibly in the various misdemeanor trespass court cases as well.
Bracy says she dealt with the same group of protesters in 2006 and says they were more stubborn this year when asked to move to the central meadows area away from the stage.
"We didn't want to bash their first amendment rights. ... Everybody has the right to say what they want but nobody has a right to infringe on other peoples' right to feel safe," Bracy says. "I tried to explain that all I needed was for them to move over to here because some kids were getting ready for a performance and felt scared. They said, "we're not intimidating' but to my eyes they were a little scary and to a 9- and 10-year old they'd be terrifying."
Bracy says she, park security and police gave the protesters a number of warnings that they were facing trespass charges and offered several chances for the group to move. Some in the group did, others formed a tight circle. Police moved to make arrests after a final order to disperse was ignored.
"We didn't want anything bad to happen. We didn't want a bunch of kids arrested," Bracy says.
Kirkpatrick on Monday says police were compelled to make arrests because crimes were being committed in their presence. She listed disorderly conduct, trespass and assault.
According to a police report, Ofc. Jay Kernkamp writes that a man came up to him and complained the protesters threatened "to kick the shit out of him" if they interfered with the protest.
Kernkamp also writes that Zachary St. John grabbed his throat, leading to the assault charge. St. John vigorously disputes this account, saying he never touched the officer but instead was knocked to the ground by three of them.
The trespass, Kirkpatrick says, came from Clear Channel requesting the group move away from the stage and again when the group refused the order to disperse.
She also cites that in all 17 arrests, judges have ruled that probable cause existed to make the arrests, "But the public is saying these people were just sitting around eating chicken. The public assigns meaning (in reference to free speech, etc). I'm saying: here are the facts. Facts lead to truth."
John Clark, an attorney representing six of the 17 defendants, says the arrests have started a debate about more than just the municipal code.
"It's amazing how many downtown (law) firms have taken an interest in working pro bono on this file. Even the business lawyers are willing to help," Clark says. "What's attracting lawyers is the issues this case brings to the table. It's where should the line be drawn in civil society with freedom as the underlying issue."
Even tattooed and pierced kids in tight black pants and hoodies with bandanas across their faces and bearing obnoxious or profane signs are protected, Clark says. "You can disagree with their message but there is still free speech in this country and we must vigorously protect it even on the fringes."
City Attorney Jim Craven says he will compile police reports, witness accounts and citizen concerns -- the city has received a number of letters, e-mails and voicemails on the issue, he says -- and determine if any changes are needed to municipal code or protocols about events in the park.
"This is a priority. When we have an event that has created controversy or different perceptions of the event, the most important question we can ask ourselves as a city government is: What can we learn from this? How can we do it better? That's really my focus on this," Craven says.