Harrisburg activists say treatment was unfair

With Harrisburg activists crying foul over the way police treated them Wednesday when they picketed in upscale Forrest Hills, Sheriff Ronnie Strength says it's time Augusta had a protest ordinance to lay some ground rules.

The city hasn't had one since 2004, when an 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled the old ordinance unconstitutional after National Council of Women's Organizations leader Martha Burk was forbidden to demonstrate outside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club.

Now questions of fairness and parameters are coming up again with the "concerned citizens of Harrisburg" staging landlord protests in neighborhoods and along Wheeler Road. On Wednesday they held their third demonstration, this time in front of Eve Street rental property owner John B. Weigle Jr.'s home on Lake Forest Drive. A deputy arrived, conferred with his supervisors, then ordered the group to move.

"We can't get crack houses out of Harrisburg," organizer Lori Davis said Thursday, "but they can get us off the Hill quickly."

Sheriff Strength said he stands by the actions of Deputy Jesse Jackson, who told the protestors they were creating a traffic hazard. The stretch of Lake Forest has no sidewalk, and the narrow street was made even tighter by three cars parked legally in front of the Weigle house.

"We could not allow anyone to picket in a street, because of a safety issue," the sheriff said. "We're charged with safety. Picketing we don't mind. That's their constitutional right."

At issue is balancing the two -- safety and free speech. Harrisburg activists were questioning Thursday why they were allowed to march through the streets of their own neighborhood on July 4 but couldn't stand on the curb or in the gutter along Lake Forest Drive.

"You go to a neighborhood like that, and it's a double standard," Mrs. Davis said, "and that's what people are upset about."

Sheriff Strength said there's no double standard, and he doesn't want to be accused of applying one. Though he's been calling for a new ordinance since 2004, because of the Harrisburg situation, he'll ask the city's Law Department to draw one up. Hopefully the Augusta Commission will approve it, he said.

"They should have done it years ago," Sheriff Strength said.

The Court of Appeals ruling said the old ordinance -- amended in 2003 just days before the Masters Tournament -- improperly targeted only political protests and gave too much power to the sheriff and the city attorney.

Since then there's been no requirement for a protest permit. The Harrisburg group hasn't had to seek permission for their demonstrations, which target owners of what they say are the worst "nuisance" properties.

Still, activist and Augusta Commission District 1 candidate James "Butch" Palmer let the department know beforehand about the Fourth of July march. Sheriff Strength said he "probably bent the law" by allowing them to walk in the streets.

"I did send extra deputies to Harrisburg for them," he said. "Probably I should not have allowed them to do that, but I did."

His reasons for not wanting the Harrisburg group to stage on Lake Forest Drive are much like his reasons for not allowing Ms. Burk to protest along Washington or Berckmans roads in 2003, when she was decrying the Augusta National's lack of a female member. What if a drunk or distracted driver had come along, the sheriff asked, striking and killing one of the "concerned citizens?"

Sheriff Strength said he wanted the protestors to set up in one of two city-owned traffic triangles on both ends of the street, one about 85 yards from Mr. Weigle's front door, the other about a third of a mile away. Just as Ms. Burk said of the field in front of Savannah West Apartments where she was ultimately placed, Mrs. Davis said the triangles wouldn't have been acceptable.

Deputy Jackson said Wednesday that the activists told the sheriff's office ahead of time that they would keep to the city property, then didn't. But both Mrs. Davis and Mr. Palmer said they didn't confer with police.

Sheriff Strength said someone called and agreed to that before the first planned Weigle protest, which was originally scheduled on Aug. 8, then put on hold. Mr. Palmer said he doesn't recall that, but he doesn't dispute it.

"I would take that as valid, because he wouldn't make that up," Mr. Palmer said. "Apparently, if he told us, it didn't register this time."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

PROTEST ORDINANCE HISTORY

City revises protest law ahead of Masters

Votes fail to change city's law

Committee reviews protest law

Protest law will stay put

City law muddles protest decision

Burk seeks permission to protest at Masters front gate

Burk files suit over city ordinance

Membership protesters dispute location ruling

Augusta triumphs in protest lawsuit

U.S. Court of Appeals denies Burk's request

No protesters file for permit

Court: Protest illegally hampered at Masters golf tournament last year

Protest ordinance struck down

City will appeal protest ruling

Decision on appeal emerges from ether

Law on protest gets no hearing

Augusta settles in Burk suit