Free Speech Zone: farmer’s market is a hotbed of political activity

“You must be here to Barack our world,” says a vendor named John as woman comes up to check out the Barack Obama-themed merchandise he’s selling.

John’s pretty chipper before 9 a.m. on a Sunday, the morning chill just starting to give way to what will soon be a bright sunny Indian Summer day. We’re at the huge farmers’ market that takes place every Sunday near Broadway Avenue and Southside Park in Sacramento. Cars rumble on the multi-lane elevated highway above our heads.

Election day itself is less than two weeks off, but the scene here in the “Free Speech Zone,” or “Free Speech Row” as some call it, has been going on for months. At one table, Ulf Carlsson and Connie Valentine try to drum up support for a campaign to replace Superior Court Judge Peter McBrien with write-in candidate Matt Smith.

At the next table, Jennifer Fearing promotes Prop. 2, the Farm Animal Protection Act. She said a few weeks ago a veterinary student from the University of California Davis tried to debate, thinking he was taking on a “well-meaning” volunteer, rather than the chief economist of the Humane Society of the United States.

“You never know who’s behind the tables down there,” Fearing said. “It is Sacramento, after all.”

The main event most Sundays is probably the weekly face-off between supporters of the two Democrats facing off to be mayor of Sacramento, incumbent Heather Fargo and challenger Kevin Johnson. Both sides say the other intentionally tries to sabotage them.
Kenny Alvarado, a former mayor’s office intern now working on the Fargo campaign, said it’s “kind of fishy” when the Johnson volunteers loiter in front of the Fargo table, keeping voters away. He said a group of Johnson supporters tried to “intimidate” some Fargo backers at the Obama rally at the Capitol the previous day. But in things have generally stayed low-key during his three months of Sundays at the farmers market—with one exception.

“The only confrontation we have is when Maviglio is here,” Alvarado said, referring to Johnson campaign chairman Steve Maviglio. “He kind of overreacts and takes pictures and gets on his Blackberry.”

“I don’t even know how to use the camera on my cell phone. I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Maviglio said when asked about Alvarado’s comments. He said Alvarado has been making anonymous comments on blogs as part of smear campaign against Johnson.

David Edwards, a Johnson volunteer who also said he’d been manning Johnson’s table here for the last three months, said Fargo volunteers frequently come up, not wearing Fargo t-shirts, and try to “waste my time.” While Johnson himself has been coming for months—something he did, briefly, this morning—Fargo herself has only been coming for a couple weeks, said Edwards. He identified himself as a city employee who thinks “we need a change.”

But many say the real bad blood is between the folks selling Obama gear. According to people at several tables, John and another man selling Obama merchandise got into a physical scuffle the previous month. Six police showed up, and both men were cited.
John, who only gave his first name, said the other vendor—who wouldn’t speak on the record—harassing his suppliers and “following me everywhere.” John said the other guy has a nice car and a house, while he’s a “basically homeless” musician and painter who makes only about $1,000 a month.

“He can go anywhere,” John said. “If I had a vehicle, I’d be in the Bay Area today. Yesterday I would have been at the rally in Reno.”
The situation came to a head when both men tried to set up in a same spot on Free Speech Row. John said he weighs only about 145 pounds and was assaulted by the other man, who he claimed is nearly twice his size. Some people at the other tables said the other vendor was the aggressor, others say it was more mutual, and Obama volunteer Ruth Foote said she tried to ignore the whole thing. Neither one is connected to the campaign, she said, and both are trying to make a buck on Obama’s growing popularity.

“Once he started winning, he became a sales item,” Foote said.

“People are very determined,” said Obama volunteer Bernadette Zuniga. “It’s ‘I’ve had this spot forever.’”

Zuniga’s been coming for six weeks. She said there was a difference between the guys selling unofficial Obama merchandise and herself and the woman at a pair of other tables, who are actually affiliated with the campaign. Obama “knock-offs” have a became a nationwide phenomena—including large numbers of vendors outside the Obama rally she attended in Reno the day before.

Zuniga herself was selling some locally-made merchandise—Obama shirts embroidered by local artist Wendy Walker—but that they’ve signed the standard merchandizing deal, with half their profits to the campaign. But one thing neither she nor any of the other Obama people appear to be stocking anymore is lawn signs. This, she said, is a direct result of how bitter this campaign season has gotten on all sides.

“A lot of people are ripping off lawn signs,” Zuniga said. “I’ve seen more things done in this election that I ever have in my life.”
As bad as it may get between Obama supporters sometimes, most have probably got nothing on the treatment received by Jay Colbe. Of course, Colbe admits that probably comes with the territory when you’re running the Jews Against Zionism table.

“The finger is very popular,” Colbe said. “You’d be surprised how many little old ladies will give you the finger.”

In fact, the farmer’s market is the only place he knows that will let him have a table. He’s been here almost every Sunday for three years, after being kicked out of a spot by the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op due to complaints.

His table is off a little bit from the rest. It’s covered with burned DVDs like “Money Masters,” an expose on how the Rothschild’s and other “European bankers” still run the Federal Reserve. He also has some films by Alex Jones, who is probably the best known documentary filmmaker trying to promote the idea that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Bush Administration. People often go through many emotions at his table, sometimes moving from yelling at him to crying.

“Eventually they give up,” Colbe said. “You can’t argue with the truth.”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: