It was broiling hot in front of the Metro headquarters Saturday, but the water in gallon plastic containers wasn’t for the 30 or so people gathered on the sidewalk. The dozens of water jugs were to demonstrate that Metro’s $1,500-plus price tag for cleaning chalk off the sidewalk, which the police department has applied to at least five people protesting police use of force and policies with messages written in chalk, was ridiculous.
Jennifer Harney, one of the organizers of the regular protests that, thanks to Metro and the District Attorney’s actions and statements, have now become front-page stories, chalked up the sidewalk. Unlike last week in front of the Metro offices, when two people were arrested, or later in the week in front of the Regional Justice Center downtown, when two more were arrested, nobody went to jail.
The sidewalk Saturday held many of the same statements, although with fewer expletives, apparently, than earlier protests - incendiary slogans such as “Stop Police Brutality.”
A few minutes later, Harney and friends held a mock auction to find someone in the small crowd who could erase the chalky provocations for less than the $1,500 that District Attorney Steve Wolfson and Metro claim is needed to remove the offending graffiti.
The ultimate bid was for zero dollars. A moment later, protesters poured water directly onto the colorful chalk statements, which immediately, mostly, dissolved. A few swipes of some brooms, a moment to dry out in the sun, and they were gone, except for a ghostly, barely visible dust of blue and pink and orange.
The grime and splotches of old chewing gum were really the only things visible on the sidewalk after the half-hearted “cleaning” provided by the protesters.
Police ignored the provocations Saturday, but the charges against not four, but five, “conspirators” remain. Robert Langford and Maggie McLetchy, civil rights lawyers representing three of those arrested, said they were at the scene as observers.
McLetchy said she doubted that police would be “so stupid as to continue arresting people.”
McLetchy said one other juvenile has been arrested in the conspiracy to chalk, bringing the total to five so far. Those charged could do a year in jail.
Law enforcement is on the losing side of this issue because there is an implicit understanding in local and state law that graffiti is permanent, unlike the chalk, McLetchy said. The impermanence of the substance was easily demonstrated Saturday.
“I am a mom. I use chalk regularly outside with my kids on the sidewalk,” Harney said, thumbing her nose at official scrutiny of potential hopscotch enforcement. “I’m going to show you – a little bit of water…”
Brian Ballentine, one of those arrested last weekend, showed up again for Saturday’s protest.
“I think it’s backfiring on them, honestly,” he said, referring to police. Ballentine said the goal of the chalk protests was to let police, and the community, know that people are concerned about existing policy.
“The job of the police officer is necessary but they should be doing it differently,” he said. “This isn’t about Ballentine. This is about police brutality.”
Ballentine said that while police were very concerned about criticism chalked in front of their offices, swastikas painted into the sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard south of Charleston have gone without official erasure for some time.