All good things must end. Turns out free speech at Oakland Airport is not as free as it seemed.
Sasha, Sarah, Josie and I showed up this evening and confidently strode to the free speech table. Josie and I set up the literature, while Sasha and Sarah changed into prisoner outfits. No problem. They came back, I blindfolded them and tied their hands. Before I was finished doing that, a security guard was there asking, “Do you have authorization to do this? Who gave it to you?”
I started to explain that we had called for the permit, but not been able to reach anyone. He called a woman from Landside Operations – which turns out to be a division of the airport – who seemed to take an instant dislike to us, unless she just dislikes everyone. I asked her name and she said “Patricia.” She said, “You have to leave, you don’t have authorization.” I again went into my spiel about how we tried to get a permit, but she was not impressed in the least. “You don’t have it. You have to leave.”
I asked who was in charge, and she said she was. But I had overheard her talking about a manager, so I suggested that I’d like to talk to that person. Before too long a big man with a soft voice showed up, so I went into my rap again. His ID said “Operations Supervisor.” He was nicer and mellower than his colleague, but no more yielding on the issue of the permit.
Sarah and Sasha took off their blindfolds so they could participate in the argument, but I mentioned to them that usually it’s better if one person negotiates while the others go on with the action. They agreed. Josie ignored all of us and kept handing out fliers to the passersby, who incidentally got much more interested as soon as the confrontation started.
I kept insisting that we were there for an hour and a half on Saturday and had no problem and made no problem. The security guard said that was impossible, because as soon as he saw us, he called them. I said I had witnesses, that if he asked around I was sure someone would admit to having seen us. They were unimpressed. They kept demanding to know exactly who at Landside Operations I had talked to, what number I called. I kept reiterating that I and another member of the group had left messages at Landside but they were not returned. They basically all kept calling me a liar, saying that Landside Ops answers their phone 24/7. Which turned out not to be true when they themselves called the number and got no answer.
“But what’s the problem?” I asked. “We are not bothering anyone, just trying to give out literature.”
“The problem is that you don’t have authorization,” the woman snapped. “I told you that six times. Why do I have to keep telling you the same thing?”
I admit, I was starting to feel like I was back in the West Bank, arguing with some border police at a checkpoint.
I asked if they couldn’t give us the authorization right then. They all shook their heads.
“There’s a procedure and you didn’t follow it, so you have to go.”
“But I tried to follow it. How can I follow it if no one will tell me what it is?”
“It’s not enough that you called. You can’t just show up because they didn’t call you back,” the big guy said.
I pointed to the sign warning people that the people at the booth aren’t with the airport. “Clearly, this is an area meant for people to do this,” I objected. “And no one is using it Why can’t we?”
“Because you don’t have authorization,” they chorused.
I heard Darrell, the Ops Sup calling for the police. I went over to him and asked if we couldn’t compromise, that they could give us half an hour more and we would promise to leave then. He refused. Of course, if he had agreed, we would have ended up leaving sooner than we did.
Three cops came and stood a little ways away, doing nothing. The woman kept trying to reach her manager, to no avail. Every couple minutes, one of the civilian authorities would come and tell us we had to leave, and I would try to get them to tell me what was wrong with what we were doing, and the whole thing would start again.
Eventually, Sgt. X from the Oakland Police Department came over, introduced himself, and told me that we were being asked to leave by the Port Authority and if we didn’t, we’d be arrested. I pointed again to the free speech sign and said, “Well the law guarantees us the right to engage in free speech here.”
“Well, I’m not really sure what the law says,” he began. Then he seemed to realize that wasn’t a great tack, so he tried another – “Actually, it only guarantees freedom for religious people.”
No, I insisted, I had read the case and it covers other speech too.
“Well we have people here all the time, people from nonprofits, people expressing political opinions, lots of people.”
“Yes, that’s what we’re doing.”
“But they have a permit,” he said.
“Well we asked some of them and they told us they didn’t, that they just show up.”
“Well you’re being asked to leave, so you have to leave or you’ll be arrested.”
“But the law guarantees us the right.”
“Well, that’s the law, but if you want to enforce that law, you are going to have to get an attorney,” he said suddenly. “You aren’t an attorney and neither am I, so frankly, neither of us knows the first thing about what we are talking about.”
It was pretty hard for me not to burst out laughing at that point. It was a refreshing conversation. He was being so nice and reasonable, and you never hear cops say that they have no idea what the law is.
“How do you know I’m not an attorney?” I asked. He didn’t seem to think that was even worth dignifying with an answer, but hey – why is it so obvious I’m not an attorney? I think I look just as respectable as any of my friends who are attorneys.
We started again discussing about the permit. I explained again that I had tried and tried to get an answer, and not gotten one, and he kept saying, well, that means you don’t have permission.
“But if you can’t get permission, then that’s not free speech.”
“Well that’s something you will have to establish in court.”
“But this has already been litigated.”
“No, another case was litigated. This case, right here, you’ll have to take that one to court.”
“But I don’t want to go to court. I just want to exercise my right to free speech.”
He nearly said, well, you can forget it. Perhaps he sensed that the Landside Operations personnel standing next to us are going to make damn sure we never get the permit. Because suddenly he said, “Well, you have to keep trying, but I have to tell you, when you finally get through to someone, I think you are going to hit the same wall.”
I was astounded. Cops never tell you that the system doesn’t work. I started to argue again, but you’re virtually saying that they are breaking the law.
“Okay, look,” he said. “I am not here to debate with you. This isn’t a discussion, it’s an arrest. You either leave or you’re going to get arrested. I’ll put handcuffs on you and take you out the back – there won’t be any media, and you’ll be driven to Santa Rita and you’ll have to figure out how to get home from there.”
He knew which buttons to push. Santa Rita is a bit less the middle of nowhere than it used to be, back when we were doing actions at Livermore Nuclear Weapons Lab and getting taken there, which was before BART went to Dublin. But he was right - I didn’t want to end up out there, BART or no BART. I smiled and said that certainly wouldn’t be necessary, we didn’t want to get arrested.
He said he didn’t want to make an arrest, and unfortunately for Ms. Patricia I could tell that. I said I needed a couple minutes to consult with my friends. He didn’t want to give it, but then he relented and said okay, 2 minutes. I said fine.
We all quickly agreed that we didn’t want to get arrested. But, Sgt. X had offered to write his phone number down for me, and to call and try to find out how we apply for the permit. So I went to ask him to do that, and to ask some more questions about where we are allowed to stand outside. He kept making the analogy of the police department, which people are allowed to demonstrate outside of, but not inside.
“This is private property,” he said. “It’s private property that is available for public use.”
“Really? I thought it was owned by the City.”
“If it were, they wouldn’t charge the police department rent to be here.”
“You’re paying rent to be here?”
He nodded. Maybe that is why he seemed more sympathetic to us than Landside Operations or the Port, which at one point he called “this weird other kind of thing,” as opposed to a shopping mall, which is private, or a police department, which is public.
By the time I had gotten all this information, and gathered up our stuff, we had been there more than the half hour I had asked for, and Josie had given out every flier we had left anyway. Sasha took off her jumpsuit and turned into a guard, leading the blindfolded Sarah through the terminal, while Josie and I followed with all the stuff, and the airport people – Darrell and Patricia – following us. When I would see people staring, I would go and hand them little information cards. Darrell was really upset about that, and I heard him saying into his radio, “They already got an extra half hour with all their arguing.”
I went to hand someone a card and all the cards flew out of my hands, so I had to stop and gather them up, which infuriated him. He was sure I had done it on purpose, which I really hadn’t. He started talking into his radio about “They want to get arrested,” so I thought I would not try to hand out any more, but when I saw people gaping at Sasha and Sarah, I just couldn’t help it. I gave out most of the cards we had on the way to the parking lot. When we finally arrived at the crosswalk that takes you to the lot, Darrell and Patricia seemed to decide we were gone enough, and they stood across the street and watched us make our way to where our car was.
The others were almost doubled over laughing. They hadn't seen me play the stalling game before. I am so used to doing it, I don't even think of it as any particular skill, but Sasha mentioned, "A lot of people assume that when a police officer tells you to do something, you have to do it right away."
I never made that assumption. Of course, I'm in the class of people who can more easily get away with not doing it, but most of the people who have that privilege are the least likely to try to use it. It's another example of what these airport actions are all about, to remind people to question what they are told, and what they believe about what they are told and the people who are telling them.
I don’t know how good our chances of getting a permit are now, but I’m sure gonna find out.