San Bernardino’s Price for Free Speech? $17,000

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Posted October 5, 2007 in News

 You’ve got to admire San Bernardino City Hall. How many other American cities do you know that can take an issue as tense, ugly, and full of political grandstanding as illegal immigration, and in one day make it a lot worse?

That day was March 17, when about 1,000 primarily Latino IE residents staged a political rally at the city’s La Placita Park. Organized by Dr. Armando Navarro, chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department at UCR and head of the National Alliance For Human Rights (a network of Latino rights groups formed in 2000), the event was billed as an “Antiwar/Pro-immigration Rally.” My wife and I attended, and as the rally gathered steam, we kept commenting to each other on the festive atmosphere of the event. A mariachi band played songs of love, boys and girls danced joyously on the green grass, mothers doled out tortillas and rice and beans to their giggling children. Latino community leaders made passionate speeches from the central gazebo, to the cheers and applause of the attendees. It was, it seemed, less a political protest than a celebration.

Throughout it all, about 60 uniformed San Bernardino police officers—roughly one cop for every 16 celebrants—eyeballed the happy crowd from strategic locations around the park. We felt very safe. While it would be easy to accuse police officials of overkill in assigning such a sizeable contingent, in fairness, they had expected a much larger crowd, and in even more fairness, the assigned officers seemed to be having as good a time as everyone else. With little to do except wait for someone to misbehave—and no one did—the officers leaned against their motorcycles and squad cars, folded their arms and chatted idly with one another and with members of the crowd. It was like down time, a break from all the stress and violent crimes for which San Bernardino is famous.

At about 12:30 p.m., the “protesters” packed up and commenced a one-and-a-half-mile trek to the San Bernardino Civic Center—your basic “march on City Hall.” It was a hot and humid day, but the spirit of cheeriness held—that is, until the marchers reached their destination and saw that about 50 members of the anti-immigration Minuteman Project had gathered across the street from City Hall to throw a welcome party for Navarro and his people. And it was only then that the smiles faded, the mood darkened and the cops stopped idly chatting and started fondling their batons—because here was when the morning-long festivities came face to face with a hate-filled mob spoiling for a fight.

His reputation on the line, Navarro had taken great pains to ensure the rally went off without a hitch. He applied for and received a city permit to hold the event. He advised city and police officials in advance about where the marchers would go and what they’d do once they got there. He assigned dozens of volunteers with crowd-control duties. He even took out a million-dollar liability policy just in case. All of which to say he had a vested interested in keeping his people in line.

The Minutemen had no such reservation. With no pesky permits or insurance polices or reputations to worry about, the anti-immigration protesters whipped out their megaphones and practically begged the marchers to come tangle with them. They shouted racial invectives, mocked the Spanish language and Latino culture, shouted “Treason!” and “Criminals!” and “Go back home to Mexico where you belong!” and waved signs accusing illegal immigrants of rape, murder and terrorism. All the while, they held video cameras at the ready in the breathless hope that someone might lose his or her cool, throw a punch or a bottle, and wind up a YouTube clip under a “Marauding Illegals” tagline.

To the marchers’ eternal credit, no one obliged, and the rally wrapped up without incident.

This sordid chapter in San Bernardino race relations should have ended there, but it didn’t. When Navarro got home from the rally, he found in his mailbox a bill from the city for $17,674.08—the cost of supplying him the services of the 60 officers he never asked for in the first place. Anyone want to guess how Navarro, a veteran political activist, reacted?

“As a political scientist and as an activist, I had a hard time believing the city would do something so unconstitutional,” Navarro told the Weekly. “That’s why we initially waited and gave the city time to take care of the matter before doing something. We wanted this handled without fanfare, but apparently it took the media getting involved to get them to finally move on this.”

On May 16, Navarro and several other activists (the San Bernardino Sun would later refer to them as “dissenters”) returned to the steps of San Bernardino City Hall, this time to hold a news conference in which they accused city leaders of political favoritism in billing Navarro (and not the Minuteman Project) and of violating the 1st Amendment guarantee of free speech in issuing the bill in the first place. Singled out for particular scorn was Police Chief Michael Billdt, who had asked that a bill be levied, and City Attorney Jim Penman, who had directed the bill to Navarro’s home.

Penman was at the news conference, and by way of explanation told the crowd that he was merely a messenger—that his hands were tied due to the language of the ordinance, that the Minutemen weren’t billed because they didn’t take out a permit, and that Navarro could simply ignore the bill because the City Council wasn’t likely to sue for payment.

Navarro wasn’t buying Penman’s explanations, probably because none of them made sense. If Navarro could just ignore the bill, why didn’t the city simply forgo sending him one and avoid the headache? If Penman is merely a messenger, why are San Bernardino taxpayers paying him so much money to keep city officials like Billdt from stepping on their constitutional dicks? If the language of the ordinance is so clear, how come the Weekly hasn’t been able to find a single previous instance in which it was applied to a political protest? And if the Minutemen weren’t billed because they didn’t bother to get a permit, why didn’t the city insist they get one or face arrest for unlawful assembly?

No, Navarro isn’t buying it, opting instead to believe that Penman billed him over the Minutemen for personal and political reasons. Penman is, after all, the same San Bernardino city attorney who in 2000 wrote a letter to resident Valente Duran, displaced along with all the other Latino residents from the Cypress Inn mobile home park when the city shut it down, stating that if Duran didn’t like the assistance the city was providing him, the city could “arrange and pay for transportation for you and your family, one way, to Mexico.”

And isn’t Penman the same city attorney who less than two years ago had law and order front and center in his bruising (and losing) mayoral battle against Pat Morris?

“(The National Alliance for Human Rights) became a political football between two competing powers of government—the mayor and the city attorney’s office,” Navarro says. “Unfortunately, we got caught in the middle. I think this was a strategic plus to Mr. Penman as a way to galvanize and politicize his power base because he’s up for reelection. This would be a good way to allow Penman to take the offensive and take the heat, and then come in and remedy the situation. We’re good copy. But that’s just speculation on my part.”

Speculation, yes—at press time, Penman hadn’t returned the Weekly’s calls, so we have no way of knowing what he was thinking. Billdt told the Weekly that “the city attorney’s office is going to take a look at the (extraordinary-law-enforcement) ordinance,” and, in light of the controversy, “the City Council is going to maybe modify it.”
Penman, who is up for reelection in November, wasted no time after Navarro’s press conference in pinning blame for the bill on the 1991 City Council. In comments to Riverside Press-Enterprise columnist Cassie MacDuff, which she published in her May 20 column, Penman said that he had advised council members back when they were considering the ordinance that it needed language excluding “political speech, marches, sit-ins, demonstrations.” The council ignored his advice, he said.
So, what exactly is Penman saying here? That on March 17, he applied an ordinance he knew to be unconstitutional in order to bill a citizen for engaging in constitutionally protected speech?
Well, that explains everything.
Asked whether he agreed with Navarro that Penman was playing politics with free speech, Mayor Morris played it coy.
“The city attorney can give you the explanation as to why he billed Navarro,” he says. “I believe this to be an embarrassment for the city. I’ve spent 30 years as a superior court judge, and it’s my considered opinion that sending a bill to persons involved in political demonstrations and involving protected free speech under the 1st Amendment is, indeed, unconstitutional, and we must correct that.”
Morris said he would instruct Penman to draft new language for the city ordinance. Given the city’s penchant for making a bad situation worse, let’s hope the new law doesn’t start by seceding from the Union. 

 

 


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