Coming soon to a criminal courtroom near you: the trial of a man who crammed a pie in the face of former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson last fall.
It’s preposterous that this case is going to trial at all, but we’re only days away from it because the accused pie guy – activist for the homeless Sean Thompson – wants his day in court and ostensibly a few more moments in the spotlight.
Thompson’s lawyer, Claire White, has sought an outright dismissal of the charges facing her client, which include felony assault on a public official and misdemeanor assault on school grounds. Sacramento County prosecutors likely would OK a deal in which Thompson pleaded to a lesser charge. That would make this all go away in a hurry, but Thompson doesn’t appear interested in pleading out, apologizing or backing off from an act he said was meant to call attention to Johnson’s not doing enough to help Sacramento’s homeless population.
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“I would hope that (prosecutors) would come to their senses and be reasonable,” said White, who has offered pro bono legal services to homeless people for years in Sacramento. “This doesn’t rise to the level of felonious conduct.”
It probably doesn’t, but Thompson’s refusal to admit he did anything wrong is why we are here.
Prosecutors are not going to let Thompson dictate terms to them, and they are not going to simply let Thompson walk for what he did. So they are going to court on Thursday knowing they are facing a defendant who wants to put on a show, a sequel to his performance on Sept. 21, when he tagged Johnson with a coconut cream pie at a fundraiser on the Sacramento Charter High School campus.
This incident was, at the very least, a case of battery. And no one is denying what happened, least of all Thompson, who admits to slamming a pie in Johnson’s face after surprising him from behind.
To be clear, this was not a case of “pie throwing.” That description conjures up something farcical. It creates an impression that Thompson lobbed a creamy confection at Johnson from a distance, as if the two were engaged in some slapstick comedy bit. That’s not what happened. And what did happen wasn’t funny. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t lawful. It wasn’t righteous.
It wasn’t anything but a misguided man carrying out a misguided act for misguided reasons while scaring a bunch of high school kids and assembled guests on hand to raise money for programs that promote food literacy for inner city students.
Thompson had been part of the Occupy Sacramento movement for some time before he went after Johnson. He had been a fixture at City Council meetings, where advocates for the homeless have been attempting to convince the city to drop its anti-camping ordinance so that it would be legal for anyone to pitch a tent and sleep anywhere in town.
Advocates also have been lobbying for the city to fund sanctioned homeless camps. Like elected officials in many cities, Sacramento council members have been opposed to these measures for health, safety and sanitary reasons (with Allen Warren having become a recent exception).
What’s ironic, though, is that the one council member who probably was most open to a sanctioned homeless camp at the time of the pie incident was none other than Johnson. During his tenure as mayor, Johnson also championed Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit that oversees homeless services across the county and is responsible for helping people get assistance meant to lead to permanent housing.
Why not throw pies at all the council members who were against legalized camping in town? Why not target the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, which controls millions of dollars allocated to homeless services? Because Thompson wanted to make a statement, and Johnson had a much higher profile than any other politician in town.
Johnson was the face of the campaign to keep the Kings from relocating to Seattle by building Golden 1 Center, the downtown arena that cost more than $500 million to construct. In the minds of some, Golden 1 Center symbolizes a city with misplaced civic priorities. But the city didn’t stop funding homeless services because it wanted to revive its downtown and the keep the Kings from moving.
Moreover, Johnson was one of many supporting a downtown revitalization. At every critical turn there were seven votes out of nine on the City Council to build Golden 1 Center. Yet it was Johnson alone who was targeted by Thompson.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg has gone on record as saying he too is philosophically opposed to legalized homeless camps, though he’s still willing to let the city study erecting one in North Sacramento. Johnson was no less willing, but he’s thought of in a different light on this issue.
White, Thompson’s lawyer, said that when the trial starts she will try to question Johnson about past legal cases in which he was accused of wrongdoing. After being hit with the pie, Johnson tackled Thompson and punched him, according to witnesses, and White is seeking police reports linking Johnson to any alleged assaults. For weeks, she has tried and failed to serve Johnson with a subpoena to testify at the trial, but he is nowhere to be found in Sacramento.
His testimony could potentially press the replay button on some less desirable aspects of Johnson’s eight years as mayor, a time that seemed long gone until this court case moved forward. It remains to be seen whether a judge would allow Johnson to be put on the witness stand for getting a pie in the face.
“Pieing” as political theater has been around for decades, and the targets are usually those seen as high, mighty and deserving of a comeuppance. In 1999, three homeless protesters from San Francisco were sentenced to six months in jail for hitting then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown with pies.
If Thompson wants to go to jail, God bless him. But his behavior and refusal to back down is emblematic of the current political climate.
When neo-Nazis showed up to protest at the state Capitol last summer, anti-fascists were armed and ready. No one would take a step back, and a lot of people got hurt. The clash between Trump supporters and counter protesters that occurred in Berkeley last weekend ended with similar results.
Thompson is acting out yet another version of our rigid and strident politics. He only believes what he believes, even if the factual scaffolding of his beliefs is shaky. And now he and others are headed to court when simple acknowledgment of wrongdoing likely would suffice.
Again, it’s all about the show.