Since Colin Kaepernick began his now-famous protest against police brutality by refusing to stand during “The Star Spangled Banner,” I have been thinking more broadly about ways people express discontent with the status quo.
Protests are never easy, rarely popular and protesters are too often mocked or dismissed.
The 49ers backup quarterback is on the cover of the Oct. 3 issue of Time magazine because his taking a knee during the national anthem increasingly has become viewed as a righteous act. More police shootings resulting in the deaths of African Americans – this time in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C. – profoundly underscore Kaepernick’s point that deadly force tactics must face scrutiny.
With all this stated, it would be foolish to compare Kaepernick’s demonstrations to the young man who chose to protest homeless conditions by ramming a pie in the face of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. That incident happened on Wednesday while the mayor was attending a charity dinner at Sacramento Charter School in Oak Park.
The protester, Sean Thompson, 32, may be as fully committed to his cause as Kaepernick is to his. But Thompson wasn’t fielding media questions in his orange jumpsuit at the Sacramento County Main Jail on Thursday because his actions had brought concerns about homelessness to the fore.
The story has been less about Thompson’s cause and more about him expressing his frustration via a coconut cream pie. But even more than that, the story has been about Johnson’s reaction to Thompson. The mayor popped his pie-wielding attacker in the face with at least one punch that opened a gash under Thompson’s eye.
That “don’t mess with the mayor” narrative was crystallized when Thompson’s arrest photo was released. There it was for all the world to see: Thompson’s youthful, slightly mischievous gaze marred by a black eye and stitches.
So was Johnson justified in punching Thompson or not?
In legal terms, Thompson may have committed battery when he came up from behind Johnson, grabbed the mayor and shoved the pie in Johnson’s face hard enough to knock off his glasses.
“It’s pretty clear on this one,” said Mike Vitiello, a distinguished professor of law at McGeorge Law School. “Hitting the mayor in the face with a pie can be treated as an assault. … It’s assaultive behavior. It’s probably simple battery, and it entitles a person to use comparable force in self-defense.”
Vitiello said that if Johnson had given Thompson consent to hit him with a pie as part of way to entertain an audience, then what he did to Johnson would be legal. But Johnson had no expectation of being attacked at a fundraiser for St. Hope Academy, the educational nonprofit that Johnson founded.
“There is no way in the world the mayor would be charged in this case,” Vitiello said. “People can’t go around thinking they can batter public officials.”
Hitting people in the face with pies has a relatively long history in our culture. One objective of the action is to humiliate the target and bring him – or her – down to size.
“It brings a sense of humor into the political debate, and as a political statement it creates immediate impact, deflates the victim’s ego,” said Aron Kay, who began throwing pies at famous people during the Vietnam War, in an interview with the International Times.
Because a pie is involved, some people think such attacks are funny. And sometimes there’s humor to be had, depending on the target and one’s tolerance for these types of shenanigans. But for me, the only pie throwing I find to be truly hilarious involves guys named Moe, Larry and Curly.
Thompson said hitting Johnson with a pie “was the least violent action I could take” when protesting what he views as Johnson’s inaction in addressing the needs of the homeless. That raises an obvious question: Why get violent at all?
Kaepernick’s silent gesture of kneeling during the national anthem has become powerful, in part, because it’s peaceful and even respectful. It’s hard to imagine a pie to someone’s face gaining similar traction because, in the end, it’s about hitting someone. It’s about trying to humiliate someone.
People’s reactions to Johnson striking back – like most issues concerning the mayor – seem to depend largely on what they thought of him before he got creamed.
For those who hold negative views of Johnson – public school teachers still seething that he made Sac High a nonunion charter school; opponents of the downtown arena; opponents of his strong-mayor initiative; people who call him a sexual predator – Johnson’s punching Thompson is just another example of reprehensible behavior.
Those who take a more agnostic view of Johnson and see him mainly as a consequential – if flawed and polarizing – political figure might have a different opinion. In an online Bee poll, 70 percent of respondents believed Johnson was justified in striking the protester who hit him in the face with a pie.
The event during which Thompson staged his protest was meant to benefit underserved youths, many of them African American and Latino kids. To some, the sight of a white man cramming a pie into the face of the first African American mayor in Sacramento history was a jarring one.
It’s also worth pointing out that Johnson helped to establish Sacramento Steps Forward, the county agency coordinating homeless services. That agency has made real inroads in helping to get homeless veterans and young people off the streets.
With winter approaching, people need safe, dry places to sleep, and there is not enough housing to go around. What some homeless advocates want is for the city to repeal its anti-camping ordinance. If that ordinance were repealed, homeless camping would become legal and that wouldn’t do anyone – least of all the homeless – any good. Along with stable shelter, people need mental health services and drug treatment, not just a place to sleep outside.
None of these issues were served by what Thompson did. He simply became a prop in his own protest, his caused trumped by his target and eclipsed by the very spectacle he created. Someone needs to tell him: Affecting change in Sacramento is not accomplished by assaulting someone.
Thompson did nothing for the homeless. He just broke the law.