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Where All the Words Have a Stage

State Capitol has been the backdrop for protests and rallies for more than a century.

August 23, 2004|Gabrielle Banks | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Four-year-old Sergio Garcia made his political debut on the Capitol steps this month with a plea for his father.

"Please let my dad have a license so he can take me to school," the Berkeley preschooler told the crowd of demonstrators.

Sergio had been picketing and listening to speeches all morning with hundreds of activists from around the state who were supporting a bill to extend driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. After the rally, the boy with a thick bowl haircut raced for the empty podium and made his impromptu request.

Sergio's mother, astonished by this bravery, said it was their first demonstration but promised, "We'll be back."

Sergio thus joined the ranks of activists who come to the Capitol hoping to grab the attention of legislators, state workers and anyone else who might wander by. Most weeks, you can count on finding somebody on the steps chanting slogans over a bullhorn.

In addition to the driver's license event, recent rallies and news conferences have featured the Gray Panthers, prison reformers, Californians Against Deceptive Gambling, the Sierra Club, and a Republican staff appreciation day.

The statehouse has served as the backdrop to marches, rallies and sit-ins for more than a century. After Gov. Henry Markham vetoed a suffrage bill in 1893, women flooded the halls demanding the right to vote.

Government is the main industry in River City. In a state known to set national policy trends, direct action is a serious and ever-enticing endeavor.

"Sacramento is where the action is in politics," said David Meyer, a professor at UC Irvine who studies social movements.

The high season for demonstrations -- during state budget talks in late spring and early summer -- has ended, but the culture of protest endures.

This year the Capitol is on track to beat the record of 1,250 events on its grounds, set in 2003. About a third of them are nonpolitical -- weddings and photo shoots -- and the rest span the political spectrum.

Protest becomes so routine, some veteran lawmakers admit, that a crowd waving placards usually blends into the background. Activists have become media-savvy, but it's difficult to measure whether they actually have an impact.

Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), a nine-year veteran of the Legislature, said he is not easily moved. "People can demonstrate on whatever they want. I'm hard to offend. But I haven't seen anything up here that would affect my opinion."

Richard Moss, the California Highway Patrol officer who handles the event permits available 362 days a year for the Capitol grounds, said, "Half the time, I don't really listen to what all they say; we just make sure everything's running smoothly."

Frequent demonstrators learn to refine their tactics. "It's a well-known fact that you're staging something, and it only takes a small number to get it out to the media," said Murray Lewis, who participates in yearly vigils -- with giant posters of aborted fetuses -- on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The statehouse has regular solo acts as well. Imogene Cole is an 80-year-old activist who circles the Capitol in an electric wheelchair. Cole wants prostitution legalized. Her full-throated rallying cry: "Wake up, sucker taxpayers!"

As a lone crusader, Cole belongs to a tradition that includes Robert Simpson, who wore crudely worded sandwich-board signs blasting Gov. Ronald Reagan's performance, and animal rights activist Gladys Sargent, who testified at so many state hearings in the 1980s that the Legislature dedicated a bench in her memory.

Many activists take creative approaches, such as the opponents of genetic engineering who last summer dressed as carrots and ears of corn.

During Gov. George Deukmejian's tenure, Earth First! activists rappelled from the Capitol rooftop and chained themselves to the statue of Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus in the building's ornate rotunda.

In the judgment of Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), the most effective demonstrators this year were the developmentally disabled activists -- some in wheelchairs and using feeding tubes -- who flooded the hallways and the Capitol lawn to protest possible reductions in services. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger subsequently retracted his call for the cuts.

Two movements made their national debuts in Sacramento in the mid-1960s.

In 1966, Cesar Chavez led farm workers on a 340-mile pilgrimage -- from the grape fields of Delano to an Easter rally at the Capitol -- to raise consciousness about poor working conditions.

On May 2, 1967, while Reagan picnicked on the lawn with visiting eighth-graders, members of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party walked in with rifles and bandoliers over their shoulders to protest police brutality and a bill that would have made it illegal to own weapons for self-defense. They wandered into the Assembly chamber almost by accident, witnesses recall. The incident ended without violence or arrests.

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