Four Las Vegas residents face up to a year in jail for writing anti-police brutality messages in chalk near a local police building. The arrests are the latest in a rash of crackdowns against protesters who have exercised their First Amendment rights with chalk nationwide.
The Vegas protesters are aligned with Nevada Cop Block, a group critical of police brutality. So far in 2013, Las Vegas officers have shot nine people. Among the messages the protesters wrote in chalk:
The defendants, Kelly Patterson, Hailee Jewell, Catalino de la Cruz Dazo Jr. and Brian Ballentine, were cited with misdemeanors initially, then leveled with larger “defacing property” charges after writing additional chalk messages. Two of the individuals also received counts of “conspiracy to commit a non-felony crime.”
“This is not a kid drawing with a piece of chalk on the sidewalk,” Steve Wolfson, the county district attorney argued. “These are adults who used chalk to draw profanity.” Surely, the oft-described City of Sin overlooks worse than the F-word on a daily basis.
Larry Hadfield, a Las Vegas police spokesman refused to comment on the case. “We are not interested in this being tried in the media,” he said. Indeed, the court of public opinion might not look so favorably at such trumped up charges.
One person who is talking is Robert Langford, the lawyer representing the four defendants pro bono. “They were engaged in constitutionally protected First Amendment activity,” he said. “They have the right to engage in that type of protest. This was something that was harmless.”
Langford also suggests that by employing a power washer that cost $1,500, the police purposefully chose an excessively expensive way of cleaning the political messages in order to bump the charges up from misdemeanors to gross misdemeanors.
“The bullies at the Las Vegas police department wanted to hurt people who wanted to criticize them,” Langford said. “That’s what this case is about.” If true, count this case among the emerging trend of police forces lashing out against those who protest police brutality.
Similarly, the Vegas foursome is hardly alone in being arrested for using water soluble chalk. In recent times, more than 50 people have been arrested for writing with chalk. In perhaps the most ludicrous incident, LA riot police fired rubber bullets into a crowd after attempting to stop people from drawing pictures and political messages with chalk during a community art event.
With any luck, a jury will acquit the Vegas chalk artists on all charges as it did with San Diego resident Jeffrey Olson last month. After Olsen used chalk to scrawl anti-bank slogans outside of Bank of Americas, bank reps urged the city attorney to prosecute Olson on 13 misdemeanor charges of vandalism.
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