A controversy has erupted after activist and blogger Jonas Phillips, a West Asheville resident, was arrested last Wednesday morning on charges of obstructing a sidewalk after he displayed a 5-by-1-foot sign reading "IMPEACH BUSH/ CHENEY" on the Haywood Road overpass.
"I had been out there freeway blogging with my sign for about 10 minutes when I was approached by [Asheville Police Department] Officer Russell Crisp, [who] asked how long I was going to stay there," Philips said. "I told him just a few minutes because I had to go to work. He asked for my I.D. 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."
Freeway blogging involves protestors standing (in Phillips case) or hanging a sign on an overpass so it may be read by passing traffic.
Sgt. Randall Riddle then arrived with a copy of a city ordinance in his hand, and told Phillips that 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," Phillips said. "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."
The police are now considering changing the charge to endangering motorists.
"The issue wasn't the message on the sign, it was the danger posed to motorists," Capt. Daryl Fisher said. "By displaying a sign like that, it can slow traffic down as people try to read it."
However, by this afternoon, the new charge, a misdemeanor, had not been formally pressed. Fisher said that "we're consulting our attorneys on the best course of action here."
He added that all further questions in the matter needed to be direct to APD Chief Bill Hogan, who has not yet returned Xpress' requests for comment.
According to Phillips' account, after he was handcuffed and disagreed with the charge, Riddle shouted "You were obstructing the sidewalk!" before adding "I am so sick of this s**t" and "here's your 15 minutes of fame." When Phillips then looked at Riddle's nametag, he said that Riddle shouted "that's Sgt. Riddle, get it right!" before taking Phillips to be charged.
"They took me downtown, took photos of me, my tatoos. 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," Phillips said. "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."
The arrest came as a particular surprise, he said, because about two weeks prior he and his wife, Kindra, had been doing the same thing, were approached by a police officer and briefly questioned, but told they were doing nothing wrong.
The arrest has hit a variety of blogs and media outlets, including Daily Kos and Mother Jones. The political blog Scholars and Rogues has even posted an open letter to Mayor Terry Bellamy.
Last Thursday, Barry Summers, co-host of WPVM 103.5's "News for Change," accompanied the Phillips back out to the same overpass, where they carried a similar sign and were met by local radio personality Virato.
According to a statement later released by Virato, five police cars passed by, but no officers came out to stop or arrest them.
— David Forbes, staff writer
For Immediate Release
Aug. 20, 2007
Asheville Police Department
Contact: Police Chief Bill Hogan
Phone: 259-5901, or 552-1900
APD responds to concerns about charges against West Asheville man
ASHEVILLE – The Asheville Police Department has received several inquiries about the Aug. 15 arrest of an Asheville man who was holding a sign on the Haywood Road Bridge over Interstate 240, and was subsequently charged with impeding the flow of traffic.
A review of the incident including interviews with the officers discloses the following:
Shortly before 8 a.m., during rush hour on Aug. 15, a person flagged down APD Officer Russell Crisp, who was in his police car on Haywood Road, to inform him that a man was standing on the I-240 overpass and obstructing traffic.
The department had received multiple complaints over a two-week period last month about individuals holding up signs at that same spot.
Officer Russell Crisp arrived to find Jonas Phillips, 35, was holding his sign over the I-240 overpass. When Officer Crisp arrived at the location, Mr. Phillips walked across three lanes of traffic on the bridge, thereby impeding the flow of traffic on Haywood Road.
After Officer Crisp caught up with Mr. Phillips, he asked Mr. Phillips how long he intended to be there. Mr. Phillips replied that he would be there until he had to go to work.
At this point, Officer Crisp called his superior, Sgt. Randy Riddle, who came to the overpass and informed Mr. Phillips that he was in violation of Sec. 16-2 of the city's municipal code pertaining to “Obstruction of streets, sidewalks by persons prohibited.”
Sec. 16-2 reads in part:
It shall be unlawful for any person, singly or in a group, to:
(1) Obstruct or cause to be obstructed vehicular or pedestrian traffic on the streets or sidewalks or in parks or other public areas within the corporate limits of the city.
Mr. Phillips was charged and arrested for being in violation of that code, and the department is also examining whether he may also be charged for violating an N.C. Department of Transportation law that prohibits hanging signs on an overpasses, which poses dangers for motorists passing below.
The officers can attest that as Mr. Phillips held his sign over the edge of the bridge, drivers on the interstate were slowing down and honking their horns, which also created a traffic hazard and impeded the flow of traffic. Interstate 240 on the west side of the city is often congested, especially at rush hour, and this congestion heightens the potential for accidents.
“This city and this police department pride ourselves on protecting people's right to free speech, as long as they don't infringe on the rights, safety and freedoms of others,” Police Chief Bill Hogan said. “It was not the content of the sign, but the risks posed to drivers that precipitated our actions.”
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