OLMSTED FALLS, Ohio Governments that wish to deter citizens from exercising their right to assemble have their choice of tactics. They could go with tear gas or pepper spray, rubber bullets or mass arrests. They could intimidate demonstrators by deploying the National Guard.
But in Olmsted Falls, a predominantly white suburb on Clevelands West Side, city officials have chosen a more subtle approach to maintaining a complacent community: Hanging the citys cost of patrolling a peaceful protest over the heads of organizers.
Like many Americans, Ash Clark and Jamie Bridle, both 19 and lifelong Olmsted Falls residents, were enraged by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The young activists decided to organize a protest outside the Olmsted Falls Police Department last Saturday under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement.
They contacted City Councilwoman at-large Jennifer Jansen, who offered her support. And they spoke with Police Chief Odis Rogers to discuss their plan and logistics. Clark and Bridle said Rogers was professional and encouraging. He let them know they wouldnt need a permit for the protest, provided the group agreed not to march in the street.
But about a half hour after that conversation, Clark said she received a call from Olmsted Falls Law Director Andrew Bemer. He told her that the city would have to deploy additional police to patrol the demonstration, and he wanted her to understand how much that costs up to $300 per additional officer on the streets. Clark said Bemer implied that the organizers and Jansen might end up receiving a $5,000 bill.
After I got off the phone with him, I called Jamie and we freaked out, Clark said. We didnt know what to do. Even though the cause is important, I knew we couldnt afford that at all.
Clark and Bridle did some research to find out if billing for police presence during a protest is legal in this nation where the right to peaceably assemble is memorialized in the very first amendment to the Constitution. Surprisingly, to me at least, the answer is a little complicated.
According to the ACLU of Ohio, if a city does charge a fee, it must be uniformly applied, without discriminating against certain groups or causes. However, even if city officials can legally attempt to recoup the costs, they must make exceptions for grassroots organizers who cant afford to pay.
Clark and Bridle decided to move ahead with the demonstration, despite the citys attempt at intimidation. About 180 people attended the two-hour event, they said. They peacefully carried signs and chanted. At the top of each hour, they silently took a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Floyd suffered.
Meanwhile, the group was surrounded by law enforcement officers from Olmsted Falls and neighboring cities, SWAT team members, a K-9 unit, sheriffs deputies and members of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
In a Facebook post this week, Mayor James Graven said he was relieved that the protest was peaceful, in contrast to a demonstration that devolved into riots the weekend before in downtown Cleveland. He said nothing of the righteous cause underlying the protest, nor did he align himself with its message, condemning police violence. Instead, his post focused on the potential threat of outside agitators and the large monetary cost involved in keeping everyone safe.
I appreciate the intentions of the protest organizers, who were two young adults living in our city, he wrote. However, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, this protest cost our already cash strapped city considerable expense.
Olmsted Falls residents were incensed. Hundreds responded on Facebook, excoriating the mayor for completely missing the point of the demonstration. They argued that Graven seems to care more about money than black lives and is attempting to suppress free speech by shaming the demonstrators about the cost.
In an interview this week, Graven said he never intended for his message to be taken that way. He acknowledged Clarks and Bridles right to organize a demonstration, and he said the increased police presence was meant to keep the protesters safe from threats they were receiving on social media. He added that he would never try to send the protesters a bill or deter them from exercising their rights.
But Councilwoman Jansen disputes Gravens explanation and said intimidation was his goal. The day before the protest, she said, she was called to a meeting with the mayor, police chief and Council President Paul Stibich to talk about the event. She took fellow Councilwoman Lori Jones with her. Jansen said the meeting became hostile when Graven accused her of helping to organize the protest and failing her fiscal responsibility to the city.
Jansen said she left after Graven refused to let her record the conversation. But as she walked out the door, she said, Graven yelled, Youll be getting the bill!
Jones, who remained in the meeting, said Graven then announced he would have Law Director Bemer call the organizers and let them know that they, too, might have to pay.
Bemer acknowledges that he called Clark and told her the event would require additional police resources that could be expensive. But he denies using the cost in an attempt to bully her into canceling the protest.
I never said, Were going to send you a bill, Bemer told me. I only said, Theres a cost involved here. Whos going to pay for that?
Whether the threat was overt remains in dispute. But whats clear is that city officials did not want the demonstration to take place. Council President Stibich told me this week that he wishes the citizens could find another way to express themselves. He suggested writing letters to the editor or speaking at a City Council meeting.
Fine ideas, but not nearly as powerful as filling a public space with sign-wielding protesters, forcing every passerby to confront their own biases and the status quo especially as we see, for the first time, the message of the Black Lives Matter movement permeating insulated white communities. There isnt a more noble use of taxpayer dollars than protecting our right to assemble. Its stunning that Olmsted Falls officials would consider it a waste of money.
During my conversation with Graven, the mayor defended his controversial Facebook post and its focus on the cost of the protest by invoking the phrase, Freedom isnt free. The idiom traditionally is used to express gratitude for military sacrifices in the name of our Constitutional freedoms. What it doesnt mean is that your freedom to protest police brutality in America is contingent upon whether you can afford the bill.
You can reach columnist Leila Atassi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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