Breach of the peace
Local activists find out there ain’t no power like the power of the police
On Saturday afternoon, May 13, Kansas City, Missouri, police officers descended on Volker Park on special assignment. Officers in at least three unmarked police cars staked out the park. An unmarked van followed two subjects, videotaping. A police helicopter circled overhead. A major from Special Operations and a captain from the Metro Patrol Tactical Response Team stood by.
Subject #2 was the first to leave Volker Park at 4 p.m., followed by the unmarked cars. At 41st and Gillham, uniformed officers piled out of the cars and surrounded Subject #2. They arrested her, handcuffed her, and took her to the city jail.
Then, Subject #1 left the park. The officers got their man at 51st and Troost. He met the same fate as his accomplice.
No, it wasn’t a drug bust. Subject #1 and Subject #2 didn’t have criminal records. Neither Mike McCormack, 24, nor Sarah Viets, 23, had ever even seen the inside of a jail cell before. They get mostly A’s at Penn Valley Community College. They recycle, and they eat vegan food to help curb world hunger.
Their crime? Charges against them range from “loitering, loafing, wandering, or standing … in such a manner so as to obstruct a public street” to “acting in a disorderly manner with intent to provoke a breach of the peace” to “walking through an intersection against a traffic control signal” and “conducting a parade with more than three people without a permit.” The charges stem from events during The People’s Rally, a political rally and march that McCormack and Viets organized.
The two alleged lawbreakers sit in a café one weekday afternoon, talking about their arrests. McCormack has four charges against him, and Viets has three. Their court date is Aug. 10. They both still seem a bit shaken up. McCormack gestures passionately with slim hands and keeps drifting back to his favorite topics — poverty, police brutality, the death penalty, prison labor. A pierced lip and a tongue stud add an edge to his sensitive yet ebullient demeanor. Viets fidgets with her coffee mug a lot. Her waifish blond braids and pointed chin are offset by the controlled fire in her voice.
“It was ridiculous,” Viets says. “It was nonsense. If we did something wrong that day, then they should have stopped the whole entire march when all of us were in the street, and they should have arrested us all. But to stop two people at the end of a march … obviously there must be another reason why they’re targeting us.”
But McCormack points out that negative attention is better than no attention.
“When the authorities start to take notice, when people in general start to take notice, is when you know you’re doing something right.” McCormack pauses earnestly. “Not to say that we’re antiauthority or crazed anarchist lunatics, though, ’cause we’re not.”
Their lawyer, Fred Slough, a member of the National Lawyers Guild and a proponent of social justice issues, can’t help but laugh when he reads one of the charges against the two: “yelling and screaming and causing a large crowd to gather.”
“Those are pretty weird charges,” he says.
Slough leans back in his creaky chair by an antique wooden desk. A mustachioed man in a tweed jacket, he sits under a framed ink drawing of a distorted man under a starry sky with a quote from beat writer Allen Ginsberg: Recent history is the record of a vast conspiracy to impose one level of mechanical consciousness on mankind and exterminate all manifestations of that unique part of human sentience in all man which the individual shares with his creator.
The attorney shakes his head.
“I mean, all these people came there just to do that. They came there together just to do that very thing…. The crowd was there because they wanted to be there to begin with. So those are very strange charges. It looks to me like they just charged them with everything they could think of.”
McCormack and Viets saw The People’s Rally as a way to increase awareness about social justice issues in an area that isn’t exactly a hotbed of activism. Some locals say the last Kansas City protest that drew hundreds took place during the Vietnam War. As two of the founders of a local group called Solidarity and Unity Now (SUN), McCormack and Viets wanted to energize and educate young people and to link them up with older, more experienced activists.
Born and raised in Kansas City, McCormack moved back home four months ago after spending three years working a 9 to 5 job as a shipping manager at Crate & Barrel in San Francisco. He had moved west to be in a city where “more was going on — musically, culturally, politically, intellectually.” What he got was a lesson in the political issues of the day.
McCormack learned the statistics that spur many people to action: One in four U.S. children live in poverty after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act; the United States has the highest rates of infant mortality, malnutrition, poverty, and illiteracy of any industrialized nation; more than 2 million people in the country are incarcerated — more than in any other country in the world; and 50 percent of the U.S. prison population is African-American.
“There’s a movement that’s getting bigger every day on the (West) Coast. I mean, it’s really huge…. And it’s not just a bunch of kids in the streets marching. I was marching with people that could have been my dad or my grandma, I marched with little kids, I marched with people from around the country that were international workers in sweatshops, I marched with all the Teamsters, AFL-CIO, environmentalists — all these movements are sharing a common ground. It’s not just a marginal group of people opposing the system, it’s a mass movement of people questioning what’s going on and talking about democracy.”
McCormack’s activist friends in San Francisco, though, encouraged him to move back to Kansas City, use his knowledge of the area, and get local people politically organized. Viets, his girlfriend and a native of California, decided to move with him.
The first thing McCormack did in Kansas City was get together with a few old friends, help form SUN, and start planning The People’s Rally. The rally was set to coincide with the International Day of Support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death row inmate in Pennsylvania who was convicted of the 1981 murder of a police officer. Abu-Jamal’s many supporters — who include Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, and an assortment of Hollywood celebrities — demand a new trial, claiming that Abu-Jamal, a journalist, was targeted for political reasons.
“People don’t have a huge consciousness about Mumia’s case here … just because it’s not a mainstream media event. So we wanted to do something in solidarity with the International Day of Support but kind of wanted to tap into the other injustices that are happening around the world,” McCormack says.
SUN members began planning the rally several months in advance, with weekly meetings in Kansas City and Lawrence. They sent out press releases and handed out fliers depicting a cop in full riot gear with oversize boots stepping on a bedraggled, prostrate Statue of Liberty. As the cartoon implies, a central theme of the rally was disillusionment with law enforcement agencies and the penal system.
Organizers made signs for protesters to carry during the march. Some were white circles with the words “End Police Brutality Now,” and others proclaimed, “R.I.P. 80 Lives Taken By Police, 1990-1998,” or the local version, “R.I.P. 6 Lives Taken by Police in KS/MO, 1990-1998.” Some signs demanded, “Free Mumia.” Anticonsumerism messages were prominent too, as in “People Before Profit” and “We Will Not Be the Pawn$ of the Corporations.”
Plans for the rally were progressing, but there was a major glitch. Not having planned a rally before, McCormack was surprised at the hefty fees attached to the city’s permit applications.
Two permits ostensibly would be required, one from the Parks and Recreation Department for the use of Volker Park for the rally, and another from the Public Works Street and Traffic Division for the march. Both departments require proof of a $1 million insurance policy, which would cost more than $1,000 each. To close off streets for the march, Public Works requires police protection. The Board of Police Commissioners, in turn, would charge SUN $1,300 for the protection. Not sure what to do, and lacking the required $3,000-plus, McCormack found Slough through the National Lawyers Guild and gave him a call.
Slough, who did not charge SUN for his services, called the Parks and Recreation Department and immediately resolved the permit problem for the rally. The Parks and Recreation Department assured Slough verbally that it would forgo the permit altogether.
“They told us, ‘If you just go ahead and use this space, we’re not gonna run you out.’ So that … really wasn’t a problem. But we still thought we should have the right to know that we get to use this particular space and no one else can just show up there that day and say, ‘Hey, this space is ours,’ and that not having $1 million in insurance shouldn’t be able to keep us from being able to do that … ideally. But practically speaking, it wasn’t an issue.”
So the rally was set. Then Slough had to convince the Public Works Department to waive the insurance requirements and to get the Board of Police Commissioners (who are independent of the city) to provide free police protection. Slough calls the city’s ordinance on parades “a bad ordinance” because there is no provision for the city to pay for police protection for indigent groups. Convinced that the ordinance impedes free speech, Slough and his colleague, Doug Bonney, filed suit in federal district court May 10 on behalf of SUN and McCormack, asking the judge to declare Kansas City’s parade permit system unconstitutional. That lawsuit is pending.
In the meantime, Slough and Bonney needed to take action to get a permit before the rally date. SUN negotiated with police on the route and made changes to the planned route, although Slough says the city ordinance does not give police the authority to alter parade routes.
The next step was to get the free police protection. According to a written policy on parades and processions from the Board of Police Commissioners, “If any person or organization suggests that they may be indigent under applicable law, they should be instructed that they may request appropriate consideration before the Board of Police Commissioners.”
In court, the Board of Police Commissioners requested proof of SUN’s indigence. Slough and Bonney collected and presented to the board affidavits and documents showing that the group has no funding. Then Board of Police Commissioners President Jeffrey Simon sent Slough and Bonney a letter denying the request, but not based on SUN’s financial situation.
“I have concluded it would be inappropriate to expend tax funds for this purpose,” Simon wrote. “I base this on the fact that your clients have alternate channels of communication on the same date, at the same time, in the same area, and under almost identical conditions.”
Slough says, however, that the board’s function was simply to determine whether SUN was indigent.
“They (the board) exercised discretion they didn’t even have,” Slough says. “In this particular case they didn’t even consider our indigence even though their own rule says that they’re supposed to look at our indigence and decide whether or not they’re going to give us free police protection. What they did instead is they just vetoed it.”
SUN then requested that the judge grant a preliminary injunction ordering the city to provide a permit. The judge denied the request.
That left SUN with only one option for the march, and that was to keep everyone on the sidewalks. Legally, protesters had a right to march as long as they didn’t spill out onto the streets.
McCormack and the lawyers left the courtroom the Friday before the rally, having been warned by Dale Close, the legal adviser for the police department, that if the group marched in the streets, arrests should be expected. Close also promised, in open court, that police would be there to help the marchers through the intersections.
The organizers of The People’s Rally had no idea what to expect, but they would be happy if 50 people turned out. The rally, though, drew hundreds to Volker Park. About 15 organizations had informational tables, including Amnesty International and the Western Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A hip-hop group and a punk band performed in the park’s amphitheater.
The march was set to begin at 1 p.m., but the police did not arrive to escort the group through intersections. The group decided to proceed anyway, after a warning from Slough.
“We had Fred, the lawyer, stand up and inform everybody … that we had protection for the sidewalks and to stay on the sidewalks because if you don’t, then you will be committing civil disobedience and there could be ramifications that come from that, which are tickets or a fine or, at worst, jail time,” McCormack says.
The group set off toward Mill Creek Park, chanting “Together, united, we’ll never be divided,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the death penalty has got to go,” “Human need, not corporate greed,” and “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
A guy with long hair and a beard waved an upside-down American flag. Another guy wearing a blue bandanna on his head walked with a guitar case and a brown dog. A woman with short, jet-black hair and glasses held a sign urging: “Resist.” Viets pushed a shopping cart that contained a huge papier-mâché replica of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s head — dreadlocks and all.
“The energy was amazing,” Viets says. “People were joining as the march went on. It just got bigger — people got out of their cars and came over…. It was really neat.”
The group stayed on the sidewalk for more than half of the march, but when they reached the Plaza, people started going into the streets. According to a police report signed by Officer Chris Majors, “The #1 Subject (McCormack) encouraged more of the group to walk in the street as they approached Westport and Pennsylvania.”
Slough, who was watching from across the street, doesn’t buy that. “You’d have to show me that on video,” he says.
According to the police report, the group blocked traffic at several locations before arriving back at Volker Park. Rally organizers then began cleaning up and helping the bands load equipment into their vehicles. Viets decided to slip away to use the restroom at a friend’s house. In her rearview mirror, she saw several dark Ford Crown Victorias and a motorcycle tailing her.
“As soon as I parked, like, seven undercover cops piled out and asked me for ID,” Viets says. “I got arrested, and I said, ‘What’s going on? Why are you arresting me?’ and they didn’t say much. Then they handcuffed me. It was so weird. I mean, how did they know when I left the park? How did they know who I was? How did they know that I went to the bathroom at a friend’s house and to bring seven cops with them?”
A friend ran to the park to inform McCormack that Viets had been arrested. As he drove toward the site of her arrest, he was pulled over and arrested in the same manner. “I didn’t even bother talking,” he says.
The two spent a few hours in jail before they were bailed out. Viets’ bail was set at $500, because officers had accused her of driving with a suspended license, even though her California driver’s license was current and valid. McCormack’s bail was $250.
The two are scheduled to appear in municipal court on Aug. 10. Slough does not plan to represent them, for personal reasons, and is looking for another lawyer to do so. He says he does not expect jail time, even though each charge carries a maximum sentence of six months.
One charge in particular rankles him, though. He says police wrongfully charged McCormack and Viets with intent to provoke a breach of the peace.
“Now, a breach of the peace means violence. It’s important to know that. And they (police) know that. They know that the only kind of words that can be considered a breach of the peace are words intended to incite violence. And that did not happen,” Slough says.
The local activist community is similarly incensed.
The owner of Kansas City record store Recycled Sounds, Anne Winter, enlisted the help of former Dead Kennedy Jello Biafro, who plans to come to Kansas City to perform at a benefit to raise money for their legal defense. Winter and Biafro have not set a date for the benefit.
“It was a peaceful protest,” says Winter, who took her children to the rally. “That’s the American way. You’re supposed to be able to voice your opinion.”
McCormack says he has received e-mails from people across the country who are “outraged” at the arrests and want to be kept up to date on any new developments.
Kansas City police are tight-lipped about the situation. Arresting officer Chris Majors refused to comment, and other officers who were at the scene did not return phone calls from PitchWeekly. Close, when contacted, first said that he did not have time to talk, then said he does not speak to the media at all. He referred the call to the KCPD Media Relations Department. One member of the media relations department promised to look into the matter, then left the office for a week of training. PitchWeekly finally was able to talk with spokesman Steve Young.
“From our angle, I imagine we were anticipating a large crowd and possibly a problem,” Young says. “We don’t make a practice of using the helicopters for intimidation purposes or anything. (The helicopter) really isn’t a big deal — they just go by, check things out and make sure everything looks okay.”
Young confirmed that Close did say in court that officers would show up to escort the group through intersections, and he could not explain why said officers did not show. Young also said he did not know why McCormack and Viets were subsequently charged with crossing intersections against the traffic signals.
Slough wonders whether the support for Abu-Jamal angered police, but McCormack says any controversial message can ruffle authorities. “What we’re talking about is questioning the status quo, and I think for some people, that may not be in their interest,” says McCormack.
Police were just doing their job, Slough says, though, and he faults an ordinance that forces people like McCormack and Viets to break the law in order to be heard.
“I think they are trying to help build a larger movement for social justice and to have young people who care about that; it’s a breath of fresh air. I don’t see them as a threat to anything — except to a lot of injustice.”