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Chalkers Fight to Regain Ground

City attorneys and cops are still wasting activist time and taxpayer money going after Becky Johnson for erasable chalked messages on Pacific Avenue.
Chalkers Fight to Regain Ground

"Commissioner Joseph has no love of the First Amendment."
-- Robert Norse

By Elaine Charkowski, Story for March 2003 Street Spirit newspaper February 23, 2003

Santa Cruz, Ca.-- As the City of Santa Cruz contemplates school closures, budget cuts, and belt-tightening, one area where no scrimping is occurring is the City Attorney's office of Santa Cruz who has already launched an estimated $10,000 in costs to prosecute local activists Tim Rinker and Becky Johnson for using sidewalk chalk on a sidewalk.

Attorney Ed Frey is appealing their September 27th coviction. Even the City has agreed that chalking with erasable chalk--sold across the street at Palace Arts Stationery as "sidewalk chalk" from where Johnson was arrested, does not constitute permanent damage. Not to be dissuaded, the City was back in the court of Commissioner Irwin Joseph on Friday, February 14th to prosecute Becky Johnson for two more incidences of using sidewalk chalk last summer.

Joseph dismissed one ticket when the "citizen" complainant, Mia Duquet, a Parks and Rec employee who filed the original charge, failed to show up for court the day of trial. Nor did the arresting officer, the supervising Sargent., or the witness interviewed in the police report. In that incident, Johnson was arrested, handcuffed, booked into county jail, thrown in the drunk tank, and assigned a $1000 bail. Her misdemeanor "vandalism" charges were without explanation reduced to an infraction"defacing the sidewalk" denying her both a jury trial or a public defender.

The City in September called seven city employees to the stand (all on the taxpayer's dollar) to testify that sidewalk chalk is a menace to the City of Santa Cruz and must be stopped, no matter WHAT the price. As a war is looming against Iraq, 26 homeless people died in Santa Cruz County this past year, and the Citizens Police Review Board has been eliminated due to budget restraints, justice against sidewalk chalkers will prevail!!!

"I was ticketed on July 21st," defendant Becky Johnson explained. "when the second reading of the anti-homeless downtown ordinances was only two days away. These ordinances vastly limit where people can play music, set up a political table, sit, beg, or perform and I was merely chalking the edges of the "safe zones" so that the public could see how small the areas were going to be."

City Officials acknowledge that the official maps provided by the City showing the safe zones were innacurate. Rinker and Johnson both claim that using sidewalk chalk to write political messages is a First Amendment activity, does no damage to the sidewalk and is easily removed.

The "defacing" ordinance in question makes no mention of sidewalk chalk as a prohibited activity.

"Redevelopment Agency analyst, Julie Hendee testified at my first trial," said Johnson. "She basically said that chalking leads to lawlessness, leads to vandalism, leads to the decline of sales in businesses and leads to loss
of revenue for the City. I think that's a pretty big stretch. That's like saying drinking mother's milk in childhood leads to heroin addiction.

"Basically what we have is an ordinance which has been on the books unchanged since 1964, but only in the last two or three years have the police begun using this ordinance against sidewalk chalkers and then, only against activists and homeless people."

After massive public testimony in public hearings in October, The Citizens Police Review Board asked City Council to halt any SCPD selective enforcement. Three months later the City Council abruptly eliminated the board as a "budget move" and buried their "End Selective Enforcement" resolution instead of putting it on the City Council agenda as required by City Commission procedure 5.14.

In Johnson's SEPTEMBER 27TH conviction, Commissioner Joseph dismissed Johnson's concerns that she was targeted as a political activist. He ruled for the first time that erasable chalking on the sidewalk was not a constitutionally protected activity. All such chalking apparently now constitutes "defacement" from hopscotch patterns to peace symbols. Police, however, have been ignoring chalkers at peace protests --- such as that attended by Mayor Reilly herself on February 15th.

"I've been attempting to get discovery on this for my chalking case since November 15th. I asked for the list of prosecutions against chalkers from 1964 to January 2000. In early January, I was assured that while they did not have records that go back to 1964, they do have records that go back the previous ten years. But then Joanne Hopkins of the SCPD called me back and said, "Our computers don't go back that far." She was only able to give me data for one month,
January 2000.

Furthermore, B. Shepardson, the SCPD Records Supervisor in a memo dated February 13, 2002 said, " . . . our new Record's Management System was implemented on January 1, 2000. In addition, the purge criteria for citations for the City of Santa Cruz is two years, therefore all citations prior to January 2001 have been destroyed."

Johnson's misdeanor vandalism arrest was for writing in the gutter "Are we so mean-spirited that we would deny a homeless person the right to sleep at night, to beg for food with a sign after dark, to sit, or to cover up with a blanket?" The citation for July 21st has been continued to March 14th at 10:00AM because Officer Phelps revealed that there was both a police report and an audio tape that had not been provided to the defense.

"And since then, the City Council has passed a "move along" ordinance making political tables subject to ticketing, arrest, and jail should they fail to "move along" after one hour," said Johnson. "Its $162 for a citation, and up to $1000 fine and up to six months in jail if you do it twice."

Becky Johnson goes to trial March 14th, 10:00 AM in Dept. 1 for chalking on the sidewalk.

Photos of the chalkcrime arrest of Becky Johnson can be viewed at For more information, call HUFF at 831-423-HUFF. Becky Johnson can be reached at 831-429-8529.

Attorney Ed Frey, who filed Becky Johnson and Tim Rinker's appeal can be reached at 831-479-8911.


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