Monday, September 7, 2009
Adventures in Activism: A True Story of Protest, Arrest, and Release
[Mug shot photo courtesy of the Greenville Police Department, by way of Channel 7 News]
The following is a chronicle of the events preceding, during, and after the downtown protest I organized against the “emergency” curfew ordinance – events which led to my arrest for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."
On Friday, 9/4, I read an article in The Greenville News announcing an “emergency” curfew ordinance enacted by Greenville City Council. Disgusted with the oft used justification to restrict the liberty of the responsible majority in response to the lawlessness of a deviant minority, frustrated with the lack of attention given to proper support of local law enforcement, and reminiscent about happy memories of enriching cultural experiences in Greenville’s nightlife as a minor, I resolved to write an editorial about the ordinance articulating my disapproval.
In the process of writing the editorial, I realized that the “emergency” curfew ordinance presented a unique opportunity to uphold 1st Amendment Rights while demonstrating to all the folly of the Nanny State mentality. I began to consider organizing a protest, something I’d never done before.
My first call was to City Hall. A gentleman in the Special Events Department referred me to Major Gary McLaughlin at the Greenville Police Department. I left a message on Mr. McLaughlin’s voice mail describing my intentions, then continued working on the editorial and hand bill I planned to distribute at the event. I realized that I needed to act fast in choosing a venue for the protest, but I did not want to proceed without first consulting with Law Enforcement. I called Greenville PD’s general dispatch number, and was put in contact with a member of the Communications Division there. This gentleman offered preliminary advice for how to execute the protest peacefully, but he told me that I would want to speak to someone else about it, and that I could expect a return call.
Major Gary McLaughlin, also referred to (by me) as “Gentleman Good Cop,” returned my call a short time later. Mr. McLaughlin was courteous, knowledgeable, and professional – a true credit to his rank and uniform. He assured me that his department intended to protect any expression of 1st Amendment Rights. He advised me on appropriate options for venues, emailed me a copy of the City’s ordinances on picketing, and offered sound advice for ways to make the protest safe, legal, and effective. I emailed to him copies of the editorial I had written, the hand bill I intended to pass out at the protest, and the letter I had written to inform media and political outlets about the event. I sincerely thanked Major McLaughlin for all his help, on the phone and in email. Making his acquaintance was one of the highlights of my experience. Notably, he made no mention of any potential for me to be arrested for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."
I spent the rest of my day Friday making copies of the editorial and hand bill, purchasing poster board and markers, and emailing media and political outlets about the event. I woke up the following morning excited about the prospects of the day. I looked forward to promoting: individual rights, a more significant police presence in downtown, and the numerous cultural benefits of the downtown Greenville nightlife.
In the early afternoon, I received an email reply to my media announcement from Mr. Richard Walton, a journalist for The Greenville News who later contributed to an article covering the event. In the email, Mr. Walton requested that I call him to discus my plans for that evening, which I did. During the course of this conversation, I found that he was polite, respectful, and seemingly sincerely interested in my point of view. In response to his questions, I related to him some of the arguments presented in my editorial on the issue, which he had received as part of my media announcement. He said that he would be downtown Saturday night reporting on the curfew ordinance, and that he would look for me there. He did eventually find me just before 10pm in front of City Hall. Details of that encounter are described later in this chronicle.
I arrived downtown at about 7:30pm, and began to distribute hand bills as I made my way to the front of City Hall, the venue I had chosen for the protest. When I got there, I saw concrete lamp fixtures that seemed ideal for posting announcements about the event. I began to tape hand bills, editorials, and a poster to the concrete lamp fixtures adjacent to City Hall. Just as I was affixing the last of the hand bills, I heard a voice that I’ve grown deeply to despise over the past 24 hours – that of Mr. [name omitted pending further consideration], a bicycle cop who’s unprofessional and unconscionable actions would lead to my arrest some hours later. To Mr. [omitted], a near perfect foil for Gentleman Good Cop McLaughlin, I have assigned the moniker “Bicycle Bad Cop.”
Bicycle Bad Cop’s sharply-toned introductory comments boomed over my shoulder: “I’m going to watch you take every single one of these down and throw them in the trash. Right now!” I turned to see a threatening grimace flaming from an animated middle-aged figure. This, I thought, was a man who relished in intimidating civilians. He seemed almost disappointed when I told him I didn’t know that this kind of posting was illegal, and immediately began taking everything down. This I did in short order, occasionally enduring Bad Cop’s rambling lectures about “doing his job” intermixed with overt threats to burden me with a citation. Any attempt to discuss the matter was perceived as “back talk,” quickly interrupted with said threats and lectures.
After removing and disposing of all the items I had posted, I proceeded to the West End of Greenville, distributing hand bills and engaging in debate along the way. In distributing protest materials, I did not discriminate based on age, sex, or race. I handed them out to everyone, and found that opinions on the issue pro and con were roughly a 50/50 spread. As I reached the entrance to Reedy River Park, the younger demographic became more prominent. Many youths, above and below the age of consent, expressed concerted agreement, and some said they intended to attend the demonstration.
The police presence in the West End was impressive – I saw no less than 10 officers in the vicinity of Reedy River Park, many of whose vehicles were parked in the middle of the road on the Main St. bridge over the Reedy. This, I thought, is the appropriate magnitude of rights-protecting civil servants to control the specter of civil disorder that necessarily must accompany explosive commercial growth, the sort of which the West End has been a prime example in recent years.
In the course of distributing information and debating with West End patrons, I had the opportunity to discuss the issue with a few police officers who were manning the fort. One officer in particular – an Asian gentleman with a confident voice and professional demeanor – offered his views on the subject, which were contrary to my own. While I disagreed with his conclusions, I greatly appreciated his efforts to articulate his position in a firm, respectful, and thoughtful manner.
Other of Greenville’s finest listened on, but none came to the forefront to concur with my views. In several discrete (read “unofficial”) conversations with police officers over the past few days, I’ve discovered that a significant number, perhaps a majority, agree with my position – that the answer to this “emergency” is more and better funded cops, not more laws. I made this point in my editorial, but it bears emphasis: if the City had kept police funding on par with the explosive growth of the West End, this issue would likely never have become an “emergency.”
I suddenly ran out of hand bills, and walked briskly back to my car to get more. As I passed City Hall (whether on the way to my car, or on the way back, I do not recall), I was approached by Bicycle Bad Cop and another officer who I believe was his immediate superior (Bad Cop Boss?). This new officer indicated his intent to allow the protest to take place, given that City picketing ordinances were obeyed. I assured him that I had reviewed the ordinances provided by Major McLaughlin and fully intended to comply. Our discussion was amicable until he asked me if I planned to instruct any minors to leave the protest at 10pm. “No,” I said, “In all honesty I planned this as an act of civil disobedience. I will inform any minors present of the content of the curfew ordinance, and if they ask my opinion I would advise them to stay.”
Bad Cop Boss then became agitated, informing me that if I proceeded as planned, I would put myself and any minors in attendance at risk of detention or arrest. He asked if I was willing to go to jail for this cause. “Yes,” was my firm reply, though I indicated that I didn’t expect it would come to that, as the protest was planned with the knowledge and advisement of the Greenville PD and was intended to be extraordinarily docile by any modern standard of protest intensity. (This exchange constitutes, in my mind, the entire body of evidence which could be used to “prove” my guilt. Neither of these officers, nor anyone else, ever observed me actively advising the course of civil disobedience to anyone.) But Boss’s words resonated in my mind, and I was forced to reconsider.
For the next several minutes, as I walked back along the Main St. drag towards Reedy River Park, I did not speak to anyone or distribute any hand bills. For a few seconds, I considered abandoning the entire project and simply standing by at the protest site to inform attendants that it was canceled. But I had already distributed so many pamphlets, and had invested so much of my heart and soul into this, that I decided instead to alter my approach in announcing the protest to young-appearing individuals.
From that point on, whenever I spoke to people about the protest, I warned them that there might be trouble if they were minors and stayed there after 10pm. I explained the letter of the curfew ordinance, based on the information supplied by the City Council’s website. My understanding of the ordinance, which I communicated to all listeners, was this: minors are not allowed to be in downtown after 10pm without supervision of a legal guardian. Young-appearing individuals may be subject to police inquiry and asked to provide proof of age. If no identification is available, or if an individual readily admits that he is underage, then the police will ask him to leave the area and give him the opportunity to do so. If the individual refuses to leave or comes back, then he may be subject to detention at City Hall until his guardian[s] arrive to pick him up.
I advised any young-appearing potential protesters that they would likely be questioned by police in reference to the curfew ordinance. When questioned by police, I told them, they should have the opportunity to make a decision: either leave immediately without consequence, or stay and risk detainment. I made no suggestion as to which alternative was preferable for any particular individual. In one or two cases, in response to direct questions, I confessed that if I were a minor present at the protest, I would consider “sitting-in” as a form of civil disobedience, and risk detainment. But I did not actively recommend this course of action to anyone at any time. I implored those present to use their own judgment, and to take into consideration the wishes and wisdom of their parents.
As I walked back to City Hall, my confidence began to mount. I believed that this protest could be executed peacefully and to positive effect. The wind in my sails waned significantly, however, when by 9:40pm rain had begun to fall and no other protesters had showed up. As I continued to make my protest signs, I resolved to take heart in my efforts no matter the result. Even in the worst case scenario I could then imagine: that I would stand alone in the rain with a sign in each arm, a seeming raving lunatic in a sea of Greenville patrons – I would still take pride in what I had attempted to accomplish.
A few minutes later, my spirits rose again as a few passersby offered to help make signs. They were on their way to a previous appointment and couldn’t stay, but I greatly appreciated their help and moral support. A few minutes after that, a pair of young gentlemen walked by who expressed excitement at what I was planning. I had already made at least ten signs, and I told them to feel free to hold them up proudly, or to write any message they chose (barring profanity) on blank poster-boards with the permanent Sharpie markers I had brought along. They each opted for a pre-made sign and held them high for the viewing of auto and pedestrian traffic (while being careful not to obstruct such traffic, per my request). One of the young men commented that he had never before exercised his 1st Amendment Rights, and told me through grinning teeth that doing so “[felt] really good.” If nothing else positive ever comes out of the events of this past Saturday night, I consider this one sentiment to be well-worth my night in jail.
By about 9:55pm, at least a dozen individuals had stopped to pick up signs or make their own. We had a burgeoning protest on our hands. This is when I first saw Mr. Richard Walton of The Greenville News. Or rather, he saw me and asked if I was Dan Edge the protest organizer. I pled guilty as charged, and he began to interview me in a manner similar to our previous phone conversation. Consequently, I gave similar answers, along with extrapolations and clarifications gleaned from the evening’s experiences.
At one point, I noticed a pair of police officers approach the protesters nearest me and advise them to stay within a certain area, so as not to obstruct pedestrian traffic. I paused my interview with Mr. Walton to ask the officers to repeat their instructions, so I could make sure that I fully understood their efforts to maintain order. I felt that it was, in large part, my personal responsibility to ensure that the protest proceeded within the bounds of City law. When hecklers in a passing car elicited a profane reply from one of the protesters, I made it clear to the young man that any use of profanity would be counter-productive to the cause. I joked that any lawlessness would elicit a response from the 6’ tall, bald redneck that planned the event. Though my comments were purely in jest, as I had complete confidence that the cops could and would prevent any outbreak of civil unrest, I was more than willing to help prevent and contain any lawlessness myself, in the extraordinarily unlikely event that such was necessary.
At about 10:15pm, I walked with Mr. Walton over to another group of protesters who had taken station in the area adjacent to the Poinsett Hotel. I recognized one of the non-protester onlookers as a gentleman who had expressed contrary views to mine during my previous romp around the city. I jokingly suggested that Mr. Walton interview this “counter-protester” for an alternative view. The gentleman responded that my position was “too stupid” to warrant debate, and that the “kids” sitting near him were too young and ignorant to offer any worthwhile opinion on the matter. At this point I addressed the group of young men, two of whom were destined to be detained by Bicycle Bad Cop, saying: “In my experience, if someone criticizes your beliefs, not by making a reasoned argument, but by claiming that you are too stupid or ignorant to wager an opinion,” at this point I spoke a little louder to drown out the “counter-protester” turned heckler’s derogatory comments, “then the best course of action is to ignore his words, as if nothing has been said.” Which, indeed, nothing has – nothing worthy of reply, anyway.
I continued to talk with Mr. Walton, the clock now reaching critical mass, approaching 10:25pm. This is when the proverbial dung hit the draft. Bicycle Bad Cop, seeing his opportunity to engage in a tour-de-force of rampaging rights-trampling, burst onto the scene. In fact, many police officers had arrived in short order, and they began to make inquiries of the youthful-looking men and women regarding their age. Several admitted that they were minors, were asked to leave, and did so immediately and peacefully. The two young men who were first to pick up posters in protest, in my view learning a valuable lesson in 1st Amendment expression, were the first to leave. The smiles thrown my way as they departed, posters still in hand, were to me another highlight of the evening’s events.
But then things started to turn ugly. Bicycle Bad Cop roared toward the stage where three young men sat holding signs and demanded that they submit to immediate police inquiry…”NOW!” I quickly found that “YOU!” and “NOW!” were Bad Cop’s two favorite words, especially when bellowed at high volume along with a withering, threatening gaze. Over the next 60 seconds, one could easily characterize Bad Cop’s seething string of commands as a generic, cartoon-inspired cacophony of malevolence: “YOU! [Yabba Dabba Do It!] NOW!” And he found ample opportunity to indulge in his belligerent manner of issuing intimidating commandments. Since the next few moments are critical to the outcome of the evening, I will chronicle them as accurately and specifically as I can. After confirming the guilt implicit in their age, Bad Cop addressed the three young men:
Bicycle Bad Cop (BBC): “YOU! Get out of here! NOW! YOU! [Addressing other bystanders] Get Back! NOW!”
Frightened Young Men: “OK, OK…We’re leaving.”
This next serious of events is particularly crucial to understanding how the evening unfolded as it did. The three young men rose to leave, but one of them found himself temporarily blocked in. His two friends had identified creases at their flanks and escaped, but other police responded to Bad Cop’s bellowing and began to close in. The remaining youth, eyeing an opening in the melee, rose to leave with haste. Literally less than 10 seconds had passed in the interim. But then he made a critical mistake, at least in the eyes of the BBC: he turned to face me, said “Thanks,” handed me back the poster I had given him earlier, then whirled around to make good his escape. Apparently, this was all the provocation needed to effect his detainment. The proceeding moments went by with confusing rapidity, filled with more “YOUs” and “NOWs” than I care to count, but I remember them well enough for an accurate telling of the events. Here is a transcript from memory following the unfortunate youth’s unforgivable sin of offering his thanks before departing:
Future Detainee #1: Thanks. [Hands protest poster to me and turns to leave.]
Bicycle Bad Cop (BBC): YOU! You are now being detained! I told you to leave! You are being detained!
Now Detainee #1: Are you serious? Sir, I was just trying to leave, really! Are you serious? I wasn’t…
BBC: Shut your mouth! You are being detained!
Dan Edge: Hey! He was just trying to leave. He was just saying “thanks” and handing me the pos…
BBC: YOU! [Addressing me] Step away, right NOW! I said right NOW! YOU! [Now addressing Mr. Walton] Back away, right NOW! YOU! [Addressing other random passersby] step back NOW!
Detainee #1: [Continues to express shocked disbelief, declaring his innocence and his intent to comply with BBC’s threatening commands. His “back talk” was met with more intimidating verbal assaults from BBC until he was seemingly cowed.]
Future Detainee #2: [Arrives back on the scene less than a minute later, having noted that his friend was not in tow.] Hey, what happened? We were just leaving…
BBC: YOU! You were told to leave! You are now being detained!
Now Detainee #2: What? But I was just…
BBC: Shut your mouth! You were told to leave and refused! You are being detained! Step over there, NOW!
Dan Edge: [To Mr. Walton] Can you believe this? That kid was just trying to leave! All he did was say “thanks” and give me the poster…
BBC: [Now addressing me] YOU! Shut your mouth! NOW! Stand right there! Don’t move! I’ll deal with YOU in a minute!
Dan Edge: By what right are you detaining me here? By what right do you order me not to speak? What am I being charged with?
BBC: We’ll figure that out in a minute. I’m going to go deal with these minors, who are now under detention, then I’ll talk to my superior and we’ll figure out what you’re being charged with. But right now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll sit right there and keep your mouth shut. Earlier, you said you respected my uniform and my need to do my job. I’m just doing my job. Just sit down right there! NOW!
Dan Edge: Listen, this guy [referring to Mr. Walton] is a journalist. Are you saying I’m not allowed to speak to the press?
BBC: You are now in my custody. You can either sit right there and keep your mouth shut, or I will put you in hand cuffs and throw you in a squad car right now. Is that what you want?
Dan Edge: Hmmm… [Considering the inevitability of arrest] I’ll have to think about that…
BBC: There’s nothing to think about! I’ve taken you into my custody! Now I’m going to deal with those detainees, and I’ll be back to deal with YOU in a minute. Sit right there!
Mr. Walton: [Stands idly by, complying with the order to step back a few feet, a seeming look of shocked disbelief on his face.]
Other of Greenville’s Finest: [Some, especially younger officers, share the look of shocked disbelief, but quickly come to the aid of their colleague Bicycle Bad Cop, and do their duty to maintain order in the chaos and confusion.]
Adjacent Officer: [Addressing Mr. Walton and a camera crew setting up nearby] I’m gonna have to ask you folks to step back a bit. [Continues to give firm but polite instructions.]
After this, I was escorted to a squad car, hand-cuffed, and hauled off to jail, where I spent most of the next 17 hours in a detainment cell drunk tank. My experiences there are potentially relevant, but not critical to the essence of the story outlined above. I may continue this chronicle in the near future, and tell the rest of the tale up until my release from jail Sunday afternoon.
I challenge any of those present – including police officers, journalists, the detained youths, or uninvolved bystanders – to dispute the accuracy of this version of the events. I may not have remembered everything perfectly (it would be impossible for me to recall every single word said in unfailing detail), but this is what happened. I assert that this telling of Saturday night’s unfortunate events is the most sincere, most accurate, most detailed account that will ever be presented – which is why I felt so strongly the need to disclose the truth.
I have more to say on this matter, including the lessons learned from these past few days’ experiences. I acknowledge some errors of judgment on my part in planning this protest; in particular I wish I had had the forethought to schedule it a few hours earlier so that minors could attend without risk of being detained. I will be posting another article within the next few days, outlining my preliminary evaluations of the police’s response to what happened (it is my contention that the vast majority of Greenville’s finest acted most honorably, with a distinction proper to their uniforms), the media reports, particularly of those who were present at the incident (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt at present, but it seems to me that some crucially relevant facts about what happened were conspicuously absent from news reports), and the media and public responses I have witnessed thus far.
Thanks for reading!