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July 23, 2014

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Protesters take to the streets, chalk in hand, after arrests of activists

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Bethany Barnes

Protesters gather Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, outside Metro Police headquarters in response to the arrests of four activists who had written messages in colored chalk outside the building.

Chalk Protest

Protesters gather Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, outside Metro Police headquarters in response to the arrests of four activists who had written messages in colored chalk outside the building. Launch slideshow »

Armed with dollar-store brooms and children’s chalk, Las Vegas activists gathered Saturday outside of Metro Police headquarters to prove a point: It doesn’t have to cost $1,550 to clean up sidewalk chalk.

The protest was a response to the arrests of four Las Vegas activists who had been protesting Metro by writing messages in colored chalk outside the headquarters for months.

Brian Ballentine, 31, Kelly Wayne Patterson, 44, Hailee Jewell, 18, and Catalino de la Cruz Dazo Jr., 20 face multiple gross misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to place graffiti and defacing property.

Each count carries the threat of a year in jail because of the cost of the damage. Metro police reports estimate the damage to be around $1,550 because a graffiti abatement team and a power washer were necessary to remove the chalk.

According to police reports, the power washer strips away a sealant on the sidewalk and dramatically reduces its longevity.

Event organizer Jen Harney, a mother of three, kicked off the event by writing in hot-pink chalk, “Expletive anyone who steps on my right to free speech.” Harney encouraged people to imagine their favorite swear word in place of the word "expletive."

Seasoned activists and families followed Harney’s lead by writing that chalk isn’t a crime. Then the group picked up plastic jugs of water and washed away their messages in less than a minute as passing cars honked in support.

No one was arrested at the event, but police could serve warrants at a later date.

After Ballentine and Patterson were arrested, their attorneys discovered police had warrants out for other activists.

Officers started showing up at people’s homes in pairs, said Maggie McLetchie, who said her firm had been monitoring the activists’ citations for chalking. She said she didn’t think the District Attorney’s Office would be “stupid enough” to prosecute anyone.

McLetchie compared how Metro was tracking the activists to how the government tracks terrorists.

“I never expected to be arrested for using sidewalk chalk,” Ballentine said. “They don’t seem that concerned with cleaning up neighborhoods.”

Ballentine said his neighborhood is littered with offensive, racist graffiti.

Police said officers had been monitoring the activists, who are associated with Nevada CopBlock and Sunset Activist Collective, and determined they were “ideological taggers.”

Heath Spaniol, 35, who brought her 8-year-old niece and 1-year-old nephew to teach them about what was going on, said she was surprised that Metro seemed to suddenly care about an activity the protesters had been doing for months.

Chalk cases have been cropping up nationwide, with rulings in favor and against people wielding chalk.

McLetchie is firm that the chalk isn’t graffiti because it washes away.

Nevada’s legal definition of graffiti doesn’t specify whether something needs to last, although the term "affixed" raises questions about permanence.

According to the statue, “'graffiti' means any unauthorized inscription, word, figure or design that is marked, etched, scratched, drawn, painted on or affixed to the public or private property, real or personal, of another, which defaces the property.”

A preliminary hearing has been set for Dec. 9 in Las Vegas Township Justice Court in front of Judge Cynthia Cruz.

The chalk protesters’ attorneys plan to fight the charges on First Amendment grounds, a move that was barred in a recent San Diego chalking case.

Jeff Olson, who was protesting banks, was acquitted after five hours of jury deliberation.

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