SAN DIEGO -- A jury Monday acquitted a 40-year-old man of all charges connected with writing protest messages in chalk on the sidewalk outside branches of the Bank of America.
The case has exacerbated the already tense relationship between Mayor Bob Filner, who called the case “stupid” and a “waste of money,” and City Atty. Jan Goldsmith, who defended it as a legitimate prosecution for graffiti vandalism.
Deliberating for only a few hours, the jury apparently agreed with Filner -- declaring Jeff Olson not guilty on all 13 misdemeanor counts filed by Goldsmith’s office.
Olson, who said he was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, never denied writing the slogans.
One slogan said, “No thanks, big banks.” Another, “Shame on Bank of America.” And in yet another, the bank was portrayed as an octopus grabbing at cash with its tentacles.
“It’s chalk,” Filner told reporters last week in an exasperated tone. “It’s water-soluble chalk. They were political slogans.”
But courts have held that graffiti remains illegal even if it can be easily washed off, Goldsmith said.
That the Bank of America contacted the city attorney’s office to reportedly urge prosecution has become part of the dispute.
“We prosecute vandalism and theft cases regardless of who the perpetrator or victim might be,” Goldsmith said. “We don’t decide, for example, based upon whether we like or dislike banks. That would be wrong under the law.”
Filner’s background may be instructive. He was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, arrested and jailed in Mississippi. He is often distrustful of entrenched authority and large corporations.
Earlier this year, Filner appeared as a defense witness in the city attorney’s prosecution of a pro-seal activist for removing a sign at the Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla. The activist pleaded guilty.
As the chalk case approached trial, Filner sent a memo to Goldsmith calling it “an abuse of power that infringes on [the] 1st Amendment.”
At trial, however, Judge Howard Shore said Olson’s lawyer could not invoke the 1st Amendment as a defense.
As the dispute flared between the Democratic mayor and Republican city attorney, Shore imposed a gag order on all parties. The mayor, however, would not be gagged.
“This is a nonsense prosecution and I will continue to say that,” Filner said Friday.