Savannah, March 16--Today, 15 Savannah Metropolitan Police officers swarmed a dozen leafleting labor union leaders in historic Johnson Square. According to Mike Satterfield of the Stagehands Union, the cops threaten to throw the peaceful protesters into a waiting black maria if they did not disperse or keep moving. The unionists were informed that somebody in City Hall, a block away from the protest site, had called them in. This was, acording Satterfield, after the City Manager had been informed of the labor action and had given the okay.
The unionists, among them Central Labor Council President Brett Hulme, insisted on their right to peaceful protest. The cops eventually backed down and dispersed, and the action continued without further interference from the police.
Today's labor action was a deliberate test of Savannah's new parade and public assembly ordinance which all but outlaws marches and rallies of any type without a permit from the city.
The patently unconstitutional new law, passed on February 19th, 2004, states :
"Section 3-6002. Permit Required.
It shall be unlawful to engage or conduct any parade or public assembly without first receiving a permit from the City Manager after application made according to the requirements set out hereinafter.
Section 3-6003. Exceptions.
This ordinance shall not apply to the following :
(i) Funeral procession ; (j) Students going to and from school classes or participating in educational activities, provided that such conduct is under the immediate direction and supervision of the proper school authorities ;
(k) City of Savannah sponsored events ;
(1) Casual park use that does not normally attract a crowd of onlookers ; and,
(m) A governmental agency acting within the scope of its functions."
The city government is given the right to decide what constitutes a parade or assembly. For example, two anti-racist activists waving signs on a sidewalk could be subject to immediate arrest for failure to get a permit to conduct free speech activities. Meanwhile, 500 Southern Baptists conducting an un-permitted anti-abortion procession could just as easily be left alone by the police. The judgement of who needs a permit and who does not is at the sole descretion of the Savannah City Manager. The city council may hear an appeal of a permit denial, but is unlikely to overturn the decision of the city manager.
"We are going to sue the socks off the City of Savannah," declared Kellie Gasink, chairperson of the June 8 Organizing Committee, the principle group organizing counter-G8 Summit actions in Coastal Georgia. Gasink joined the labor action today after an invitation from CLC President Hulme.
"This an orchestrated attack on our civil liberties in general and local activist leaders in particular, authored by the law enforcement lackeys of the Bush regime," Gasink charged. "We know this because the city council in Brunswick (80 Km south of Savannah) passed almost the same ordinance. We know that the City of Savannah is being politically extorted by the federal government. The Mayor of Savannah is an outspoken champion of the First Amendment, so we know that this sillyness didn't come from Dr. Otis Johnson, who is also, in fact, a veteran peace and civil rights activist. No, it came from the Bush Whitehouse."
When Mayor Johnson was contacted by the June 8 Organizing Committee and warned that a major lawsuit was looming against the city, he despondently replied, "I did what I had to do. You have to do what you have to do."
"What Dr. Johnson had to do was kiss the ass of the feds who are swarming this city, in anticipation of anti-G8 action here," explained William Pleasant, a popular local newspaper publisher and June 8 Committee member. "Mayor Johnson knows better, given the history around the government's supression of dissent in Georgia. But he had no choice but to kow-tow because if he didn't, then the federal government would continue to withold the $9 million it owes the city. It is political extortion, plain and simple."
At this moment, officials of the Georgia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are drawing up a lawsuit to force both Savannah and Brunswick to strike their new parade and assembly ordinances.
Added, Gasink, a New York State activist attorney,"I feel sorry for Mayor Johnson and the city council. This law was forced on them. But we are going to punch back. There will be constitutionally-protected free speech in Savannah. And the June 8 Organizing Committee, along with thousands of visitors from around the globe, will make that point quite emphatic June 8 through June 10, 2004."
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