Mayor Kevin Johnson draws cheers, criticism after slugging pie assailant

Jailhouse interview with man who threw pie at Mayor Kevin Johnson

Sean Thompson, 32, explains why he threw a pie at Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
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Sean Thompson, 32, explains why he threw a pie at Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Sean Thompson, a former Occupy protester who had been arrested multiple times in recent years, walked into a charity dinner outside Sacramento Charter High School in Oak Park on Wednesday carrying a brown paper bag. He found his target – Mayor Kevin Johnson – approached him from behind and revealed his alleged weapon: a coconut cream pie.

Thompson then allegedly grabbed Johnson by the arm and struck the mayor in the face with the pie, knocking the glasses from Johnson’s face, according to a witness. Johnson, standing a few feet from his wife, paused for a second and then took Thompson to the ground. During a brief melee, the mayor hit Thompson at least once, sending the 32-year-old man to a hospital before Thompson was booked into jail.

“I don’t think that was an appropriate response to a pie to the face,” Thompson said during a jailhouse interview Thursday, his face bruised.

Thompson was arrested on a felony charge of assaulting a public official and a misdemeanor charge of battery on school property. In a booking photo released by the Sacramento Police Department, Thompson appeared to have two sets of stitches around his bruised left eye.

The bizarre incident on the campus of Johnson’s alma mater sparked widespread debate on social media over whether the mayor acted appropriately. Some argued that Johnson overreacted to a form of political theater used against public figures around the world, while others applauded the mayor for defending himself and his family in swift fashion.

Johnson’s chief of staff, Crystal Strait, said, “Let me be clear, the mayor was assaulted.” The Police Department said it was unlikely Johnson would face charges.

Thompson said he told Johnson in the second before he threw the pie that the mayor “has to do better to represent the people.” He argued Johnson has spent too much time over the past eight years focused on a new downtown sports arena and strengthening the powers of the mayor’s office.

“He’s had a lot of opportunities to help a lot of people and he’s ignored every one of them,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that he has been an activist for four years, has been arrested multiple times and had always remained peaceful. But he said he felt like he hasn’t accomplished much.

Asked why he resorted to physical confrontation, Thompson replied: “Pie throwing was the least violent action I could take.” And he said he would do it again if given the chance.

Erika Bjork said she was sitting at a table at the Seeds of HOPE Harvest Dinner as Johnson and his wife, Michelle Rhee, approached to greet guests seated near her. She said Johnson was talking to a couple across the table from her and was about to pose for a photograph when he was struck.

Johnson confronted Thompson and the pair “scuffled in the dirt,” said Bjork, a spokeswoman for Sacramento Republic FC who was attending the fundraiser on the club’s behalf. She said she saw Johnson swing his arm, but that “there was not a bunch of punches thrown. He struck back in some way. This was not like some bloody punch-fest.”

Strait confirmed that Johnson hit Thompson; she also said on Facebook that he “brought the guy down until the police could detain him.”

The mayor’s security guard, a Sacramento police officer, and others jumped into the scuffle. Thompson was handcuffed by the security guard and restrained for a few minutes until more police officers and a firetruck arrived, Bjork said.

Strait said a member of the mayor’s staff also intervened and received a minor injury.

Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, a Sacramento police spokesman, said Johnson was questioned by police officers at the scene. He said the full report – including Johnson’s statement and witness accounts – will be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office.

Heinlein said he does not expect Johnson to be charged “based on witness statements and the totality of the circumstances.” He said the mayor was “taken by surprise by the assault.”

Strait said Johnson didn’t realize he was being hit with a pie. “The mayor just felt he was being punched in the face,” she said.

Bjork said many of the roughly 200 guests at the event were not aware of what happened until several minutes later.

Johnson was given a sweatshirt to change into. After the mayor and Rhee spoke with police, Johnson addressed the audience. UFC fighter Urijah Faber was in attendance, and Bjork said Johnson jokingly asked Faber, “Where were you, man?” A smiling Johnson then posed for a group photograph with many of the students and chefs who attended the event.

Johnson isn’t the first public official to be targeted by a pie.

In 1998, then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was struck by cherry, pumpkin and tofu pies while giving a speech. Three pie-throwers from the Biotic Baking Brigade were arrested and later sentenced to six months in jail for committing misdemeanor battery. The protesters said they were opposed to police sweeps of the homeless in downtown San Francisco. In that incident, Brown sprained an ankle while tackling one of the pie-throwers.

In 2011, a comedian attempted to shove a shaving-cream pie in the face of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch as Murdoch testified before British Parliament. Murdoch’s wife at the time, Wendi Deng, famously interceded and threw a punch at the protester, winning praise from members of Parliament soon after. The protester, Jonathan May-Bowles, received a reduced four-week sentence, according to BBC News.

The alleged attack on Johnson unfolded around 6:45 p.m. at Sacramento Charter High School, which Johnson attended when it was a traditional school and later helped transform into an independent charter school last decade.

The Seeds of HOPE Harvest Dinner, a fundraiser in the high school’s garden, highlights local produce and involves students in preparing the meal. Chef Patrick Mulvaney, a leader in the city’s farm-to-fork movement, said he was at the dinner but didn’t see the altercation. Other notable chefs at the event included Billy Zoellin of Bacon and Butter and Kurt Spataro of Paragary’s.

Johnson was traveling Thursday to Washington, D.C., for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg, who was attending a news conference at the Crest Theatre on Thursday morning, said he doesn’t know what he would do if the same thing happened to him.

As a public official, “you sign up for a lot, but you don’t sign up for this,” Steinberg said. “It’s a pretty scary thing to see someone coming at you.”

In a Facebook post on Friday, a person who appears to be Thompson wrote: “Mayor Kevin Johnson is a retired basketball player, and all he’s done for our community is rub elbows with the upper class, and build an expensive arena on the taxpayers dime. Also, she (sic) has some questionable sexual exploits.”

In a video on the website of Sac City Express, the student newspaper at Sacramento City College, Thompson said he had been arrested three times as a member of the Occupy movement, a protest against social inequality that began about 2011. Jail records indicate that a charge of failure to disperse was dismissed against Thompson.

Thompson was among the first released from jail in October 2011 after Occupy arrests. “It was stupid, it was unnecessary,” he said of the arrests. “Was I treated well? Not at all.”

He also spoke about Johnson: “He spoke out about us twice, saying he supports police,” in enforcing a nighttime anti-camping ordinance for city parks, Thompson said.

Andrew Blaskovich, owner of the Drewski’s food truck, said he hired Thompson last year to draw a sidewalk panel at the annual Chalk It Up event in Fremont Park. Blaskovich’s dog, Rex, had been killed a few weeks earlier during a break-in at his home. Thompson drew a picture of the dog with the phrases: “RIP Rex” and “JusticeForRex.”

“He didn’t seem like he would hurt a fly,” Blaskovich said of Thompson. “When I told him my dog had been killed, he turned white and said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard. The guy was super cool, super chill. I didn’t think he would put a pie in the puss of our mayor.”

Bill Lindelof and Richard Chang contributed to this report. Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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