Well, that was a pretty pointless expenditure of tax money. Even some potential jurors said so.
The 12 people who did wind up on a San Diego jury deliberated for five hours before they acquitted a man who chalked anti-bank messages on sidewalks in front of the banks.
I hope deliberations lasted all of five hours because they were getting a free lunch.
Jeff Olson was on trial on 13 misdemeanor counts of vandalism, which could have brought, at the absurd and unlikely extreme, 13 separate one-year jail sentences for the 13 occasions Olson chalked the sidewalk with messages such as “No Thanks, Big Banks” and “Shame on Bank of America.” Once or twice, he drew a tentacle octopus grabbing dollar bills.
By modern measures of protest and graffiti, these slogans could have been written by Emily Post.
Prosecutors sternly called it a “standard graffiti case,” but this wasn’t some gang menacingly marking its territory. And after all, it was, as San Diego Mayor Bob Filner said with asperity, chalk.
One BofA branch reportedly claimed that it spent $6,000 cleaning up the chalked messages. $6,000? Who was out there cleaning the sidewalk, the CEO? With a toothbrush?
(I just threw that out there, but looking around, it turns out that BofA CEO Brian Moynihan got paid $12 million last year. That’s a million a month, $50,000 a day for a 20-day work month, and let’s say a 10-hour workday, which works out to $5,000 an hour. So, a little over an hour’s work cleaning chalk -- sure, why not? I’ll acknowledge the $6,000 cost -- if it really was Moynihan out there mopping up.)
I’m sure that what galled BofA wasn’t the mess but the message.
Olson hoped his chalked slogans would prompt the public to consider switching accounts from BofA to local nonprofit credit unions.
His case was making headlines at the same time that former BofA employees were accusing BofA of rewarding employees with cash bonuses and gift cards if they lied and denied, delayed and obfuscated, and ultimately were able to boot out of their houses and foreclose on families who were paying their house payments and desperately trying to hold onto their homes.
If BofA had my mortgage and I’d been chalking those messages, I wouldn’t have been so !@#$@% polite.
Were these public sidewalks? And is free speech different when you’re moving or walking -- like carrying a sign or calling out protests -- than if you’re writing your message, even in a transitory medium like chalk?
The judge told Olson’s lawyer that he couldn’t use a 1st Amendment defense because free speech can’t excuse vandalism. But in Florida last year, a federal judge found otherwise in the case of a man who had chalked messages on a public plaza, and he went free.
The necessary element in the San Diego vandalism law was “malice,” and jurors evidently decided that Olson was not motivated by malice when he put out his anti-bank messages in Easter egg pastels.
Did either of the lawyers bring up that renowned legal precedent, City of London vs. Bert? Surely the city fathers of Edwardian London looked unkindly on the sidewalk chalk drawings made by that notorious chalk scofflaw Bert, the chimney sweep/screever in “Mary Poppins.”
Bert chalked pictures of faraway and exotic places on public sidewalks, and then imagined himself -- a scruffy sweep -- sweeping a mere nanny away from their hidebound, class-ridden jobs and into a world where she was a lady and he was a toff.
Now that -- that’s seditious.