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Illegal Strip Searches and the Crackdown on Dissent in California

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We speak with Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin who recently won the largest settlement in the history of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department over strip-search violations at the county jail. He is prepared to file another suit targeting a controversial parade ordinance in Sacramento that restricts what protesters can wear and carry. [includes rush transcript]

We go from New York to California where I am in Sacramento as part of our 100 city “Exception to the Rulers” book and media tour.

A controversial parade ordinance in Sacramento is coming under heavy criticism from activists and civil rights lawyers. The emergency ordinance restricting what parade participants could wear and carry was adopted by the City Council in June 2003, as officials braced for the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

But the scope and severity of the ordinance were soon called into question, including bans on carrying signs with 4-inch posts, possessing any glass container and even wearing bandannas.

Civil rights attorney Mark Merin says a class-action lawsuit targeting the ordinance could be on the horizon. Merin recently won the largest settlement in the history of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department over strip-search violations at the county jail. He has filed similar suits in other counties in California as well as in Miami where protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas where held last November.

  • Mark Merin, civil rights lawyer in Sacramento, California.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Mark Merin, who is an attorney, who has been involved in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the treatment of detainees. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MARK MERIN: Excellent to be here, Amy, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It is great to have you with us. Can you talk about the suit and what has come of it?

MARK MERIN: Yes. Well, just recently, we got preliminary approval of a settlement for $15 million to be shared among 16,000 people, who over the last four years have been arrested in Sacramento for minor crimes and then subjected to humiliating complete visual body cavity searches in groups in the Sacramento County main jail. And this had been going on for years until a group of activists who arrested in a demonstration in March of 2000 stood up to the jail administration and said, we are not going to cooperate in this dehumanizing practice that you seem to think is routine. Then they came to me, and we discovered that it wasn’t just activity reserved for the activists, but it was mistreatment that was very common, and in fact once we started peeling back the layers of secrecy involved in this practice, we discovered that there were 16,000 people who were illegally strip searched.

AMY GOODMAN: Give me an example?

MARK MERIN: An example of the strip search? A group of women who didn’t know each other, could be 18 years old to 78, would be brought into a room, six or eight at a time, in a room that was no longer–no larger than six by eight feet with footprints painted on the floor. Then were totally naked. They had been disrobed before they entered the room. Then they had to in groups bend over, expose their body cavities, spread their genitalia for visual inspection with someone with a flashlight looking in, harassing them, ordering them at times to jump, to dance. People — Mormons who wear a religious garment so they can enter the temple were ordered to rip it off, or to remove it or it would be ripped off. Women who were menstruating without any sanitary napkins were required to remove tampons and stand there bleeding in other people’s blood. I mean, absolutely unbelievable. And it was videotaped. All of these were archived. These videotapes were archived so that they–they thought they could actually use these to show that perhaps there was some kind of security need that they had to inspect people’s crevices in order to insure that things wouldn’t be smuggled in.

AMY GOODMAN: Over how long a period did this take place?

MARK MERIN: Well, we know that it took place at least from 2000 up to the present day, because we got discovery, but we believe that it went back until 1984. Interestingly enough, that was the year in which Sacramento–I mean, the State of California passed an act prohibiting strip searches in county jails. And what’s really fascinating is that because this did get some publicity, we discovered that in San Francisco, a very similar and even in some ways more egregious practice has been going on, and that is that they is have been requiring people to sign consents to being illegally strip searched. People who could not be strip searched. And in one year 4000 people were required to sign these consents. People who refused to sign consents, such as, again, activists who contacted our office, were then illegally forcibly strip searched in rooms which were essentially isolation rooms where they were then held naked for 12 or 24 hours at a time as kind of punishment for having resisted the direction to consent.

AMY GOODMAN: That was in San Francisco?

MARK MERIN: That’s in San Francisco. We recently have had a court certify that to move forward as a class action. The County of San Francisco has asked us to mediate that dispute. It looks like we’re looking at thousands of plaintiffs in that case, and these are people who were just picked up for drunk driving, for loitering, for being under the influence. Anything.

AMY GOODMAN: I heard about a case in Sacramento of a woman who was taken out of — was it a city council meeting?

MARK MERIN: You may be talking about Mary Bull, who–a fantastic activist who runs the Stop the Gap Campaign and Save the Redwoods. She was at a Board of Forestry meeting together with six, seven others, and they protested the planned timber harvest of old growth redwoods. They were removed and then taken to the county jail and strip-searched. It was she who initiated this challenge to this widespread practice. And I said that we discovered it in San Francisco. We also have a suit pending in Miami Dade, Florida, because following the FTAA convention or activities there, the demonstrations, demonstrators were picked up and segregated, women and men, and the women were strip-searched. So, we are attacking that practice. It seems that it’s very current with the Abu Ghraib disclosures to discover that nudity, forced nudity and group nudity and activities in the nude is a way that the administration in these facilities oppress and dehumanize the jail population.

AMY GOODMAN: When you heard about what happened at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities in Iraq, your thoughts?

MARK MERIN: I realized that the people who were sent over there from the United States to run those prisons were just extending the experience that they had here in our prison system. It seems that it was just a further step that they were taking to use nudity to control and dehumanize and humiliate. And I–of course, I was shocked, but I have been shocked every time I learn about new abuses here in Marin County or San Mateo, where we have other suits pending.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see suits as the effective way to stop this kind of behavior?

MARK MERIN: Some of this is so abhorrent that once it’s exposed and the general population realizes that this is going on and that they themselves and their daughters and their friends could be subjected to similar dehumanizing treatment does result in a call to stop the abuses. So, we have experienced some support from local media, who have editorialized in opposition to jail practices.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, moving from what’s happened in the jails to the right to protest, you have challenged a controversial parade ordinance here in Sacramento. Can you talk about this? In our next segment, we are going to be talking with anarchists in New York about the targeting of particular activists. But can you share your experience here?

MARK MERIN: Yes. Right before the agricultural ministerial that was held here two years ago in Sacramento, the city council passed an emergency ordinance, just drastically restricting the rights of people to protest, to parade, to use the public parks here in Sacramento. For instance, they could not carry anything that could not be thrown. If you think about it, anything in your pockets could be thrown. Your cell phone can be thrown. Your camera, your keys. They vastly limited, severely limited things that could be used to display a message. For instance, signs. The dimensions of the sign, the thicknesses of the wood. It was so restrictive that almost anytime someone stepped off the curb to join a march, they could be arrested for violating the ordinance. While it was passed as an emergency measure, it remains on the books. It’s interesting that Sacramentoans of all types who regularly parade, including the girl scouts, are outraged at the severity of the restrictions and have come forward. The city council is now reconsidering, because they acknowledge that parts of the ordinance is illegal. So, they are reconsidering the ordinance, and on September 7th, I believe there will be another city council meeting to reconsider the advisability of such restrictive language in an ordinance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. That’s also the date, just having come from Eureka, Arcada where the pepper spray activists–the trial will take place once again. This is the case of the police who applied pepper spray using q-tips to eyes of the protesters who were protesting the clear cutting of old growth redwoods.


AMY GOODMAN: Mark Merin, I want to thank you for being with us, attorney here in Sacramento.

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