'Political theater' leads to arrests over sign hanging
For two Wheatland brothers, it was "political theater."
For the Yuba County Sheriff's Department, it was two misdemeanors committed by masked men.
Benjamin and Russell Bartholomew were arrested Wednesday afternoon after hanging a 20-foot-long sign with an anti-tax message from an overpass on Highway 70 south of Marysville.
The brothers, sons of Cory and Johnna Bartholomew, publishers of The Wheatland Citizen newspaper, were booked at the Yuba County Sheriff's Department and released on their own recognizance.
Charges are expected to include affixing a sign to state property and wearing masks to escape recognition while committing a public offense. The brothers are scheduled to appear May 24 in Yuba County Superior Court. Benjamin, 26, said Thursday that the sign — large black letters on pieces of white poster board roped together — was up only about five minutes before patrol cars arrived at the Erle Road overpass. The sign was tied to a chain-link fence, he acknowledged.
The message was "Taxes=Theft."
Some of the fast-moving drivers below honked, apparently in approval. But others, authorities said, were calling 911 to report a distraction, according to Benjamin. He said he wants to see records of the calls.
Deputies, along with a California Highway Patrol officer and a Caltrans supervisor, told the Bartholmews it's illegal to hang or attach anything to a Caltrans overpass, said Yuba County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Melanie Oakes.
"The two men refused to remove their masks or identify themselves, although they were given ample opportunity," Oakes said.
"They removed their masks after being told they were going to be cited for affixing a sign on state property. They did not give us their names until they were brought to the office," she said.
Benjamin said the masks were not to conceal their identities.
"It was purely political theater" aimed at getting drivers to read the sign, he said. He admitted he and his brother carried no ID — and never do unless they're driving, he said.
The masked men may have looked familiar to some drivers. In January, they stood in the median on E Street in Marysville to protest the city's red light cameras. That time they weren't arrested. Nor were they arrested for doing red light camera protests in other counties, Benjamin said.
They didn't expect to be arrested this time, either, he said.
"Not at all," he said, calling the sign-posting "a dry run" for other planned events. He did not elaborate.
The sign was no more of a distraction than billboards along the highway, he said.
The brothers won't take a plea deal from prosecutors and will ask for a jury trial if necessary, he said.
"This was not vandalism. We didn't hurt anyone," Benjamin said.
"They can claim a crime anytime," such as disorderly conduct, he said.
Officers did not mistreat them but "hassled us" by taking a video recorder and two cell phones that were recording the encounter. But the cell phones were streaming video, which is now on Facebook, he said. The video is also on YouTube.
He acknowledged he and Russell are part of the Free State Project, the goal of which is getting 20,000 like-minded people to move to New Hampshire, where the state motto is, "Live Free or Die."
A year ago, Benjamin got attention from the Appeal-Democrat by testing California's open carry law. He showed up at a tea party rally at a Marysville park carrying an unconcealed, unloaded handgun. He was questioned by police but not arrested. He said he's not a Tea Party member but shares some of their views.
While others hope for change and wait for others to act, Benjamin said, he and his younger brother "get out there and do something for something we believe in."
The brothers' own motto was at the end of an e-mail sent to the Appeal-Democrat: "We Watch The Watchers & Are Intent To Set Brush Fires of Liberty In The Minds Of Others."