The Aug. 15 arrest of Jonas Phillips on charges of obstructing a sidewalk has local activists up in arms. Phillips was taken into custody after displaying a 5-by-1-foot sign reading “IMPEACH BUSH/CHENEY” on the Haywood Road/Interstate 240 overpass.
“I had been out there freeway-blogging with my sign for about 10 minutes when I was approached by Officer Russell Crisp, [who] asked how long I was going to stay there,” said Philips, an activist and blogger who lives in West Asheville. “I told him just a few minutes, because I had to go to work. He asked for my ID; I provided it and asked if I’d done anything wrong. He said he was going to wait for his sergeant, so I went back to holding my sign.”
After that, Sgt. Randall Riddle of the Asheville Police Department arrived, holding a copy of the city ordinance, and he told Phillips he was under arrest for blocking the sidewalk.
“I thought he was joking at first, as Officer Crisp had just seen someone walk by me, so it was clear I wasn’t obstructing the sidewalk,” said Phillips. “I’m aware of that ordinance. The sidewalk was 5 feet wide; I was taking care to obey the law. At that point they cuffed me, and I said that I hadn’t been blocking the sidewalk.”
At press time, the police were considering adding a charge of endangering motorists.
“The issue wasn’t the message on the sign—it was the danger posed to motorists,” Capt. Daryl Fisher explained later. “By displaying a sign like that, it can slow traffic down as people try to read it.”
Asked about the matter, Chief Bill Hogan said: “We’ll deal with that as this goes forward through the judicial process. We’re still consulting with the district attorney on the matter.”
After Phillips had voiced his disagreement with the charge, he says Riddle shouted, “You were obstructing the sidewalk!” adding, “I am so sick of this s**t” and “Here’s your 15 minutes of fame.” And when Phillips looked at Riddle’s nametag, he says the officer shouted, “That’s Sgt. Riddle: Get it right!” before taking Phillips in to be charged.
“They took me downtown, took photos of me, my tattoos. They asked me if I was involved with groups like the Veterans for Peace or the Southeastern Convergence for Climate Action, who did that Bank of America protest,” said Phillips. “They took my sign, and I haven’t seen it since. I was never warned, I was never read my rights, and Sgt. Riddle was extremely harassing and belligerent.”
Hogan, however, paints a different picture. There was no interrogation or harassment, he asserted, adding that while Riddle did ask Phillips about his possible affiliations, “It was just casual conversation as they got in the police car—it didn’t mean a thing.”
In response, Phillips simply called Hogan’s account “inaccurate” and declined to comment further, on the advice of his lawyer. “I can just say that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was aware of the law, and I wasn’t breaking it—and I hope to clear these charges,” he told Xpress. The protester also mentioned that the American Civil Liberties Union had declined to take the case, and that money for his defense is being raised through his blog, gaiastears.blogspot.com.
The arrest was particularly surprising, notes Phillips, because he and his wife, Kindra, had been doing the same thing about two weeks earlier on the same overpass. He says they were approached by a police officer, who questioned them briefly and then said they were doing nothing wrong.
Hogan, however, maintains that the police had received “a number of complaints over two or three weeks about [freeway blogging], to the point where the department was being criticized for not doing anything. I’ve talked to Sgt. Riddle, and he felt this had to be nipped in the bud. It was during rush hour, people were stopping and honking their horns. It was an impediment to traffic.”
Over the edge?
The two accounts also differ over where Phillips placed his sign. He says he simply held it, and it never dangled over the edge of the overpass, which is legal. In the police report, however, Riddle stated, “Mr. Phillips held his sign over the edge of the bridge,” thus breaking the law (and putting motorists in danger if the sign dropped).
Asked why the police haven’t cracked down on other similarly displayed signs and banners publicizing local events, Hogan said, “We’ve cut those down on multiple occasions,” adding that the department tries to act whenever it gets complaints.
The chief also sharply disagreed with criticisms that his department had infringed on Phillips’ rights. “We deal with more protests than any city in the region, and most of the time there’s no problems at all—we believe in free speech, and we’re sworn to uphold the Constitution,” said Hogan. “All we ask is that people are cooperative and stay within the bounds of the law. If they want to protest, we invite them to ask us, and we’ll help them find a way to do it safely and legally.”
The arrest has hit a variety of blogs and other prominent media outlets, including Daily Kos, Mother Jones and Michael Moore’s Web site. The political blog Scholars & Rogues has even posted an open letter to Mayor Terry Bellamy criticizing the police action.
The day after the arrest (Aug. 16), Barry Summers, co-host of WPVM’s News for Change, accompanied the Phillipses back out to the same overpass, where the couple displayed a similar sign. Local radio personality Virato was already there. According to a statement Virato released later, five police cars passed by, but no officers came out to stop or arrest them.