Court sets protest guidelines

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 18, 1999

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / October 18, 1999

VACHERIE – Despite a victory in federal court on Tuesday, the Concerned Citizens Committee of St. James Parish did lose one thing. There are nomore shady trees for them to sit under during their long hours of protesting.

Since August, the people who owned the land next to St. James High Schoolhave allowed the protestors to sit and relax under the oak trees. Now, thelady who lives in the trailer says she wants her privacy, and the landlord has told the protestors to leave.

Even so, sitting on the levee under a warm morning sun, the parents were in a good mood, and they had every right to be happy. On Tuesday, federalJudge Morey Sear ruled the Concerned Citizens Committee of St. JamesParish had the right to picket, but he said they must picket in a certain area.

The ruling came about after St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin arrested20 of the protestors and charged them with obstructing an educational institute and causing a safety hazard.

Almost immediately, Nelson Taylor, the parents’ lawyer, filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that Martin violated the protestors’ constitutional right to protest.

The Concerned Citizens Committee of St. James has been protesting thetransfer of former St. James High principal Ridgely Mitchell since theopening day of school on Aug. 18. The parents also kept over 1,700 oftheir children home from school as part of the protest. Though the boycottof students is over, the parents continued to march and protest in front of the school.

Martin said the parents caused a safety hazard to the students and to cars going in and out of the school. He claimed he didn’t want to stop anybody’sright to protest, but he sid the parents were obstructing the view of drivers trying to get on and off Louisiana Highway 18, also known as River Road.

Taylor dismisses Martin’s reasoning.

“For him to suggest a safety issue after he told the picketers where to walk is ridiculous,” declared Taylor. “He ordered them to walk there.”Judge Sear said the parents do have the constitutional right to protest, however, he ordered several changes to be made as to where they can march.

They include: If they want to march in front of the school, the picket line must remain 8 feet away from both the school’s driveways. The sheriff and thepicketers will both mark the area with stakes.

Only 10 marchers at a time can walk the picket line in front of the school. If the parents want to march on the other side of La. 18, on thelevee, then any number of people can be in that picket line.

The picketers can not interfere with students, faculty, parents, buses or any vehicle entering or leaving school grounds. However, the picketers cancome on the school grounds, and they can go to football games on campus, even hang signs on the fence around the stadium.

The biggest victory of all, according to the parents, is that Martin can’t arrest them anymore.

The Rev. Charles Geason, one of the picketers arrested last week, smiled.”I’m not worried about being arrested anymore,” he said.

While the protestors see the judge’s ruling as a victory for their side, Martin sees it another way.

“I don’t see how they can call it a victory,” Martin said. “The judge put inwriting what I wanted them to do in the first place. The ruling justreaffirms my actions on handling the protest.”Geason sees Martin’s actions as a betrayal.

“Willy used to be my friend, ” he said of the sheriff. “He even showed mewhere we could march, and then he arrests us for marching there.”Geason, head of Mount Bethel Baptist Church, shakes his head. “We’re theones that need protection. The picketers should be guarded by the sheriff.”One of the protest organizers, Jackie Levy, said she thinks that since the sheriff cannot arrest anyone anymore, the parish is intimidating her with other actions. According to Levy, her daughter is being “excessivelypunished” for getting into a fight on a school bus.

“My daughter has been put out of school in retaliation for being in the boycott,” Levy claimed.

She said the school system let her daughter back in, but she has been put on one-year probation and received a summons to juvenile court.

“We just want a better school system,” Levy said. “We don’t wantretaliation on our children.”Sear’s ruling is not the end of the issue. The Concerned CitizensCommittee is still going to court to sue Martin and the parish for illegally arresting the protestors. They are suing for an undisclosed sum of money. The lawsuit will go before U.S. District Judge Brown Clement, and a datehas not been set for the trial.

Martin doesn’t see how the parents can sue him for false arrest.

“We didn’t arrest people for nothing,” he said. “We know we did it properlyand we did not mistreat anybody.”Taylor countered, “We have tapes of the arrests, and we have evidence of talks between the sheriff and his deputies showing they wanted to oppress the parents. This is not the end by any means.”Levy agreed. “We are taking them to court for big damages.”

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