Protesters in favor of a cease-fire in Gaza block the westbound lanes of the Bay Bridge, Nov. 16, 2023. (Photo/Brooke Anderson-Courtesy AROC)
Protesters in favor of a cease-fire in Gaza block the westbound lanes of the Bay Bridge, Nov. 16, 2023. (Photo/Brooke Anderson-Courtesy AROC)

DA to charge 80 pro-Palestinian activists who shut down the Bay Bridge

San Francisco prosecutors have begun formally charging 80 pro-Palestinian protesters accused of blocking traffic on the Bay Bridge during rush hour in mid-November.

On Monday, 17 of the 80 people made their first appearances in state Superior Court in San Francisco, while supporters held a press conference on the courthouse steps. All 80 are expected to appear in court by week’s end. None entered pleas on Monday.

The Office of San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said Friday it would charge each of them with five misdemeanors related to the protest, which blocked all lanes of westbound traffic into San Francisco for more than four hours on Nov. 16, as President Joe Biden and other world leaders visited the region for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The protesters called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel to “stop funding genocide.” The S.F-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) and Berkeley-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), both anti-Zionist groups, co-organized the bridge protest.

Since then, blocking bridges has become a strategy of cease-fire activists hoping to call attention to their cause. On Dec. 14, ahead of the eighth night of Hanukkah, JVP protested on eight bridges in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., among other cities.

Jenkins — who is unpopular among some pro-Palestinian activists for criticizing as “pro-Hamas” an Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian rally that included violent graffiti spray-painted in downtown San Francisco — did not announce the charges against the Bay Bridge protesters in a public press release, as she often does with cases that have attracted public attention. Instead, her office emailed a statement to reporters on Friday.

“While we must protect avenues for free speech, the exercise of free speech can not compromise public safety,” the statement said. “The demonstration on the Bay Bridge that snarled traffic for hours had a tremendous impact on those who were stuck on the bridge for hours and required tremendous public resources to resolve. I would like to commend the California Highway Patrol and San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for their work to peacefully resolve this incident.”

The Nov. 16 demonstration started around 7:40 a.m. and resulted in an hours-long traffic jam as more than two dozen protesters parked their cars across the bridge lanes and tossed their keys into the San Francisco Bay. About 250 police officers across various agencies, including California state police, were deployed, many in riot gear, CHP commander Ezery Beauchamp said in a press conference that day. Protesters used the “sleeping dragon” method of binding their wrists together inside PVC pipes, which required special tools to dismantle, Beauchamp said. In all, 29 vehicles were towed, CHP told J. on Monday.

Westbound lanes reopened around noon, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Meanwhile, a jarring report surfaced that multiple human organs designated for transplants to and from UC San Francisco hospitals were delayed by the protest, putting recipients at risk of complications.

All of the demonstrators are charged in a single criminal complaint. Jenkins’ office said the five misdemeanors they face are false imprisonment; refusing to comply with a peace officer; unlawful public assembly; refusing to disperse; and obstruction of street, sidewalk or other place open to the public.

If convicted, the charges could come with hefty fines or even jail sentences. But the defendants will probably pursue “diversion” programs, which, if successful, will result in the charges being dropped, according to Rebecca Feigelson, an Oakland criminal defense attorney who has worked on “failure to comply” and “false imprisonment” cases.

While we must protect avenues for free speech, the exercise of free speech can not compromise public safety.

“These cases are most likely going to go to judicial diversion” over the objections of prosecutors, Feigelson said. Judicial diversion programs often require a defendant to perform community service, write a reflective essay to the judge or both.

“I would suspect most do not have a criminal history,” Feigelson said of the protesters. “And arguably they are participating in civil disobedience, trying to effectuate, in their minds, positive change.”

Meanwhile, the groups that organized the Bay Bridge protest are campaigning to put public pressure on Jenkins.

“Drop the charges against the Bay Bridge 78!” reads a banner atop an “action toolkit” with guidance for the public. (While the DA’s office said it is charging 80 demonstrators, activist groups said the number is 78.) The document includes scripts to use when calling the district attorney’s office, sample emails and suggested social media posts.

Activists are framing the defendants with language that brings to mind the Chicago 7, a group of people charged with conspiracy for protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s who are now considered champions of the anti-war movement.

On Monday, scores of demonstrators gathered on the steps of the courthouse, many wearing kaffiyehs, waving Palestinian flags and signs and chanting: “End the occupation now,” “Cease-fire now” and “Stop bombing Gaza.”

“While @POTUS was in SF last month, 100s shut down the Bay Bridge to demand an end to the genocide in Gaza,” an AROC social media post on Monday stated. “[Brooke Jenkins] can stand on the right side of history + drop the charges against all protestors.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area criticized the Bay Bridge protest at the time, saying that it undermined efforts that civic leaders undertook to present San Francisco in a positive light during the global summit. JCRC CEO Tye Gregory also criticized the protests for language that he said calls for the dismantling of the State of Israel or denies Israel’s right to exist.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.