RSA thinks as little of the First Amendment as they do of the Fourth Amendment

RSA thinks as little of the First Amendment as they do of the Fourth Amendment

by Martin MacKerel


On Tuesday, February 25th, 2014, I biked down to Moscone Center in San Francisco to participate in a small action to protest RSA’s taking of $10 million from the NSA to weaken security in their own product. There was an RSA conference in the center at the time. I stood on the sidewalk, and handed out badge ribbons to attendees. “Did you know RSA took $10 million from the NSA? We’ve got stickers for your badges.” A few people were dismissive, many ignored us or said no, but quite a few took the stickers (we handed out almost 2000 in one day). Some people asked for more to give out at sessions they were going to.

We had two types of ribbons. One said “RSA sold us out” and the other said “I support the 4th” (as in Amendment to the Constitution). I would have thought that the first, being a more aggressive message, would be less popular, but no, actually it was more popular! Perhaps this is because of the large number of foreigners at the conference – Europeans seem particularly riled up about NSA spying – with whom talk of the US Constitution doesn’t resonate.

I was warned by others that the conference staff wouldn’t “let” us hand them out on the sidewalk right outside Moscone center. I decided I would do it anyway, and for a long time was not harassed by any conference staff. I moved around a bit, though, around the different corners of 4th St and Howard, trying to find which one had the best flow of foot traffic.

At some point, when I was standing on the corner right outside Moscone Center (the west corner of the intersection of 4th and Howard), a staff member did tell me to stop, and I said I wouldn’t. He said he would get the cop from inside, and I told him to go ahead.

Soon a cop who reminded me strongly of the character of “Doakes” from the show “Dexter” appeared. He was immediately incredibly belligerent, getting right in my personal space and refusing to answer my questions. When I said that the sidewalk was public, not private, property, he said that it was city property and that the conference had a permit for the sidewalk as well as the conference center itself. When I objected that there was no bronze placard in the sidewalk or other overt indication that it was not public property, he just told me to move across the street. When I asked, he identified himself as Officer Shavers, badge number 38 (SFPD). I asked to see the permit, and he refused. He said he would arrest me if staff asked for a CA (a citizen’s arrest), and then immediately turned to the staff member standing a few feet away and asked him if he wanted to make a citizen’s arrest. I was pissed off that he wouldn’t engage me in conversation about this, and asked if he would walk with me across the street to talk about the situation. He wouldn’t, and told me again to cross the street to the south corner. At that point I said I would cross when the light changed, and I did.

Rather than being a neutral arbiter of the law and of the permitting situation, he was clearly siding with the staff and trying to get me to leave without listening to me. I should emphasize that I was engaged in the mildest of First Amendment activity – talking to one or a handful of people at a time and passing out material. I didn’t have a bullhorn, nor was I engaging people for more than a few seconds if they were not interested.

Later I crossed over to the east corner of the intersection – kitty-corner from where the officer had confronted me. To my surprise, he came up to me and resumed his belligerent and threatening behaviour. When I expressed incredulity that even that corner was covered by the permit, he told me that if I wanted to be on that block that I had to cross to the east side of 3rd St (a full block away). The only option nearby, it seemed, was the south corner of 4th and Howard by the Oasis Grill. I asked again to see the permit. He told me that he knew the permit was valid and good, and I didn’t need to see it. He brought his handcuffs out from his belt and flashed them menacingly at me. I retreated to the south corner, but first I asked to talk with his supervisor. He said his commanding officer was Sergeant Miller, and that he would come by.

Shortly thereafter, he crossed to the south corner and said “you asked me to speak with you?” and I said, “well, yes, I did when we first talked, on the west corner”. I said I wanted to wait to speak with the sergeant.

About ten minutes later, a couple more cops showed up on the west corner. They were soon all in discussion with conference staff, and were poring over some papers – presumably the permit. I waited about 15 minutes for the sergeant to come over and talk to me, but he never did. Eventually, I walked over and DM came with me to record the interaction. Sergeant Miller had a very reasonable tone of voice, and said that the staff had been confused, and that we were allowed to be on the sidewalk.

He didn’t apologize, but I was okay with the outcome. I decided not to make a fuss about Officer Shavers’s behaviour, and walked across to the north corner to resume handing out badge ribbons.

I was going to leave it at that – it seemed like an honest (if aggressive and bull-headed) mistake on the part of the original officer.

But later I found out that during a separate action earlier in the day, both Shavers and Sergeant Miller had been on the scene when another “confusion” about the permit occurred. You can see Miller (gray-haired buzz cut) and conference staff looking over the permit here:

This to me raises this incident from a one-off mistake to an abuse of power. The staff had already conveniently over-interpreted their permit, and the police had already looked over the permit. Shavers abused his power as a police officer to bully me off the corner with credible threats of arrest, despite the fact that I had every right to be on the sidewalk, which is public property. Moreover, the conference staff used this on-duty police officer to push away free speech that they didn’t like.

I’m not sure if I will pursue some kind of recourse or official complaint against the behaviour of the SFPD in this case. But I am considering it.

And my opinion of RSA has actually been lowered. No mean feat. I don’t expect them to embrace criticism, but to use the police to squelch basic First Amendment rights – that’s beyond the pale.

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