TACOMA, Wash. — The humble backpack, that ubiquitous carrier of school books and hiking supplies, was the focus of a heated argument Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma over the U.S. Bill of Rights.
On one side was Robert Mahler, a civil rights attorney representing six people arrested during 2007 protests at the Port of Tacoma over U.S. involvement in the Iraq War.
Mahler argued to a federal jury that a decision by Tacoma police to forbid people from carrying backpacks into designated “protest zones” amounted to an assault on the First Amendment and “chilled” his clients’ ability to free expression.
The subsequent arrests of his clients for violating that rule breached their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable arrest, he said.
“We believe that walking on a public sidewalk or in a public street with a backpack is not a crime,” Mahler argued.
On the other side was attorney Jean Homan, who is representing the city.
Homan told jurors the backpack restriction was applied in an appropriate and reasonable manner, given the information police had at the time, and had no real effect on protesters’ ability to protest.
“They could be present. They could exchange ideas with other protesters. They could chant. They could sing,” she argued. “You don’t need your backpack to protest.”
Thomas McCarthy, Phan Nguyen, Elizabeth Rivera Goldstein, Patrick Edelbacher, Leah Coakley and Charles Bevis are seeking monetary damages for what they contend were violations of their constitutional rights. The trial began Jan. 7.
Mahler told the jury of six women and two men during closing arguments that a sanction against the city of $20,000 to $25,000 might be an appropriate punishment.
“What are constitutional rights worth?” he asked.
Homan told the jury the plaintiffs deserve nothing, and she accused them of “making a mockery” of the Constitution by picking this fight with the city.
The port was the setting of 12 days of protests in March 2007 by people who opposed using the port to ship military equipment to Iraq. More than 30 people were arrested, including the plaintiffs.
Police instituted a no-bag rule early on after they discovered a backpack full of chains and locks in one of the designated protest zones.
Mahler said the rule was an overreaction with only one goal: to dissuade protesters from coming out by denying them ready access to food, drink and medical supplies. The protest zone was about a mile away from where protesters parked their cars, he said.
Mahler cited several internal police memorandums and communications to bolster that point, including one where a police officer reporting from the scene said, “We only have a handful of protesters here. The no-bag rule is stopping them.”
Homan countered that protesters still could carry food, water and medicine, just not in backpacks.
“And even I can go four hours without eating,” she said.
She also said the police did an admirable job of balancing public safety with the protesters’ rights to express themselves.
“It doesn’t have to be a perfect plan,” Homan said. “It has to be a reasonable one.”