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Monday, August 20, 2007

District Attorney's Office Continues to Press Charges for Sodexho Food Service Protesters

Last week, a group of 24 protesters from the original May 1, 2007 protest had their day in court. This group of individuals who we covered at the May Day rally, sat down and blocked the Anderson and Russell intersection in Davis. Now they are seeking to have the charges thrown out.

At a press conference following the hearing, John Viola, with the National Lawyers Guild in San Francisco argued that the complaints were defective since the protesters were exercising their free speech rights and not involved therefore in illegal conduct.

According to Katie Davalos, one of the students involved, herself a third year UC Davis student:
"Basically, we asked for a demur, claiming the charges were faulty, but it was denied. From here on out, we are each individually being represented by public defenders, and are going to continue to fight the charges. We have not made a plea yet, but our next court appearance is August 29th at 10:00am."
The charges stemming from the May 1 rally, violation of Code 409 failure to disperse will now go forward against the students who engaged in civil disobedience at the rally.

Said Ms. Davalos:
"We feel that the DA is trying to set precedent against protesters, as there has been no such procedure in the area yet. We are all willing to see this through to the end, whatever that may be, so that we can set precedent in our favor."
The District Attorney's office, represented by Deputy District Attorney Rob Gorman claims that the protesters maintain the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, but that where such exercise occurs it is restricted. Protesting in the middle of the street and blocking an intersection, in his opinion, is against the law. If they were to have done it on campus or in any other public place, it would have been fine, he said.

Steven Ordiano, a UCD alumnus and former Sodexho worker on campus, was one of the protesters arrested May 1.

He told me:
"I am not a lawyer and nor do I fully understand the way the legal system works in these situations. All I know is that we are being met with much opposition from the courts."
Furthermore he wanted the emphasis to remain on the issue at hand--"UC employment for all workers working at UC Davis."
"As of today, we have not heard from either Lois Wolk or anyone from the UC administration to discuss UC employment. We will continue to hold them accountable for their blatant disregard for the workers of our community."
Along the same lines, Katie Davalos said:
"It's important to remember that we're doing all of this for the workers, and we are hoping to make change for the betterment of our community. We are willing to do what it takes to see that change occur, and the court's reluctance to understand our motives is further proof that such change is necessary. We are all hopeful that the charges will either be dropped soon, or that we will be found not guilty so that we can return to the workers with good news."

The Davis Enterprise in their coverage of this last week emphasized university claims that it would cost an additional $3.2 million for the university to add the Sodexho Food workers as full university employees. That would cost students--the university claims around $600 additional dollars per year.

On the other hand, the organizers would point to the low wages and costly and poor health benefits that Food Service Workers earn under their Sodexho Contract. Becoming full time university employees would mean wages up to $12 per hour and better health care benefits. Currently workers who make only about $1200 per month at most are having to pay up to $400 per month for their health insurance.

The question at this point for me is quite simple--this is an act of civil disobedience. This is a simple failure to disperse. Why is the District Attorney's office wasting taxpayer money, court time, and resources on such a small scale incident?

Some will suggest that a few weeks ago I suggested that the law is the law and it must be adhered to. I do not disagree at all. The law is also flexible in terms of what remedies should be taken in order to rectify a situation. In situations where there is no threat to public safety, I would argue that the District Attorney's office has higher priorities than to pursue failure to disperse charges. I would also suggest that if it deems further punishment beyond arrest and dispersement as a necessity, it considers community service as an option.

That said, I really do not see the compelling public need. The students who were arrested engaged in a peaceful sit down. Yes it disrupted traffic. Yes it disrupted the bus service. But at the end of the day, it was well organized and steps were taken to avoid confrontation between the police and the protesters. I do not see what interest is served by expending further resources in an effort to gain some sort of conviction here.

As we shall see later this week, the District Attorney's office seems to have rather strange priorities. They come down hard some things and then they allow more dangerous individuals to walk.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting