I attended the weekly protest gathering in front of Rep. Darrell Issa’s office in Vista on Oct. 17. As I believe you would agree, this type of activity exemplifies the nature of citizen involvement in a democracy, encompassing both the majority at the gathering who have significant concerns about the current presidential administration and our congressional representative, and those across the street who dedicate their time at this location to support the president and the congressman.
I have been attending these protest activities now for approximately four months. I would characterize them as extremely well organized, self-policing, and generally respectful of all who might be affected by them, including building occupants, counter-protesters, neighborhood residents, and the police.
The actions I witnessed at the event raise very serious questions regarding your department’s understanding of its role in the context of citizens’ exercise of their First Amendment rights. There were approximately 325 individuals present. All of us witnessed members of your department engaging in a systematic process of examining parked cars in search of violations such as expired tags or missing front license plates. A number of tickets were written for these types of violations. As I was leaving the event a woman who was driving by honked her car horn in support of the protesters. A deputy driving behind her immediately pulled her over, and, as it turns out, cited her for honking her horn for a non-traffic related purpose.
I saw an officer standing near the honking violator’s car, and posed some questions to him. I asked him to explain the purpose of the anti-honking law, and he explained that honking for a non-traffic related purpose was a citable offense. I told him that I had been attending these gatherings on and off for four months, that I had never seen a targeted effort to cite legally parked cars, and that I had never (in my life) seen a driver cited for honking in the context of supporting a gathering.
I asked him why there was this sudden push to proactively cite drivers for minor violations. He stated that, unlike myself, he came every Tuesday to assess the situation, and had determined that the protest was creating a dangerous situation related to distracting drivers.
I told him that most reasonable people, observing the department’s actions, would assume that some individual with the power to order the use of deputies had decided to use the department to create a situation of harassment and intimidation to punish participants, and dissuade their continued participation in the protests. He stated that this was not true, that he had assessed the situation, and the actions taken were a direct result of his own assessment and orders.
Sheriff Gore, I have to ask how the ticketing of parked cars addresses the issue of public safety that your officer stated as the purpose for your department’s actions? It seemed to most of us that stopping the woman who honked her horn, and keeping her parked for 15 minutes in the middle of the lane while writing up a citation, was the most dangerous traffic-related moment of the day.
It seems impossible to explain what we witnessed in any context other than that of harassment and intimidation, and truly, a small blow to the rights of all citizens to lawfully assemble and express their opinions. There are many Americans who feel great anxiety at this moment in our history, people who believe that they are watching the desecration of the basic tenets of our society, including freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary and the right to self-expression.
I am not concerned about some movie-plot dictatorial takeover of our society. I think the far greater danger comes in the insidious nature of individuals, groups and entities finding license in the current climate to bend the law in favor of their own interests and/or beliefs. I don’t know if that is what happened with your department and members therein last week. I think it is important to determine what happened, and make an honest public declaration that clarifies why this happened, and whether it is the department’s intent to pursue such actions in the future.
This was not, as far as I am concerned, a good day either for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, or for democracy.
Joshua Lazerson is an Encinitas resident