News & Politics

Acquitted! Activist Who Faced 13 Years in Prison for Chalking Anti-Bank Slogans Gets Off Free

Occupy-inspired protester Jeff Olson faced 13 years in jail for drawing chalk slogans outside Bank of America branches in California.

Occupy Wall Street targets BofA with a rally and march in 2012.

A San Diego protester who faced over a decade in jail for drawing anti-bank slogans in chalk was acquitted yesterday by a jury. The victory for 40-year-old Jeff Olson, who was inspired by Occupy Wall Street, came despite the prosecutor’s zeal for imposing a heavy jail sentence on him for the misdemeanor charges.

He was prosecuted for drawing chalk slogans outside Bank of America locations from April to August 2012 that read, “Shame on B of A” and “No thanks big banks.” He also drew a picture of an octopus reaching for dollar bills.

Bank of America had contacted the city’s attorney to urge the prosecution.

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Olson faced 13 years in jail for drawing the chalk slogan, and also faced the possibility of a $13,000 fine--an unusually harsh punishment for graffiti. But the jury was convinced of Olson’s innocence--and agreed with the San Diego mayor, who called the prosecution “stupid.” Olson was acquitted despite the fact that his lawyers were hamstrung by the judge’s decision not to allow them to argue that Olson’s actions were constitutionally protected.

Olson was pleased with the outcome and noted that it brought his views more attention than ever before.

“I couldn't have done better if I rented an airplane with a banner and put billboards up all over town,” said Olson.

At one point in the trial, San Diego attorney Jan Goldsmith offered to reduce the charges to an infraction if Olson agreed to do community service. But Olson refused.

Goldsmith’s office insisted that graffiti was a crime that needed to be prosecuted. “Under the law, there is no First Amendment right to deface property, even if the writing is easily removed, whether the message is aimed at banks or any other person or group,” the attorney’s office stated.

But Mayor Bob Filner strongly disagreed with the case. Filner has frequently clashed with Goldsmith. “It's washable chalk, it's political slogans,” the mayor said. “I think it's a stupid case. It's costing us money.”


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.