By Mark David Blum, Esq.
Once again the New York State Police have shown their true colors at the New York State Fair. By poking a finger in the eye of the First Amendment, the State Troopers have abdicated the high ground and put all of our civil freedoms at risk. For no other reason than “because we want to”, I personally witnessed the State Troopers violate a citizen’s free speech rights. You would think that after last year’s fiasco with Ed Kinane, that the State Police would have learned that their duty is to “protect and defend” the constitution of the State of New York and of the United States.
Let us reminisce: Last year, in protest against America’s behaviors at Guantanamo Bay and the War in Iraq, local perennial protester Ed Kinane wore an orange jumpsuit and shackles to the New York State Fair. There, he set up next to the U.S. Army demonstration and recruiting booth and stood in silent protest. Along came New York State Police oblivious to the rights of free expression who then summarily arrested Kinane for refusing to follow a lawful order of a police officer. That lawful order refused was that State Troopers demanded Kinane remove the shackles and orange jumpsuit. Charges against Kinane were dismissed. But it was too late as he had been forcibly removed from the Fair and his protest went unheard.
Last night while I was seated on a wall and honestly and truly just minding my own business, slowly nursing a 10 ounce cup of New York’s finer wines and watching the foot traffic headed into the Kid Rock concert, I became an eye and ear witness to what I consider a repeat of the Kinane experience and violation of a citizen’s right to be heard. This time, it was all about colors.
Two men and three women were seated quietly nearby talking amongst themselves. Out of nowhere, a gaggle of State Troopers arrived; nearing eight in number and surrounded the group. They made the men get up and Troopers walked the men over to the wall about five feet away from where I was seated. It was quickly clear why police had made their approach and stop. One of the men was wearing a leather vest with the words, “Hells Angels” on it. There was also a “New York” patch, and an “mc” patch. But as was repeatedly made clear, it was the words “Hells Angels” that drew the troopers attention and for which this otherwise non intrusive fairgoer was stopped, searched, and force marched out of the fairgrounds. The only thing the other guy was wearing of any note was a pink bandana on his head.
As close as they were, I still had to struggle over the din and chaos of the Fair to hear the conversation. While some of the troopers talked to the women and kept them away from the two men and about five troopers surrounded the two men, one trooper did all the talking at first. I did not hear everything said but I did hear a few choice comments. The trooper’s obvious main objection was, “we don’t allow people to wear colors at the Fair.” “Colors” refers to identifiers that tell publicly what ‘gang’ a person belongs to. Apparently wearing a “Hells Angels” leather vest is considered “colors” by the troopers. Clearly they haven’t spent much time down on the midway where there are plenty of red, blue, and black bandanas being worn as people flag up and dress down for the evening’s enjoyment. I speak the truth when I tell you the trooper’s stated objection was, “this is the Great New York State Fair and not a grocery store and we do not allow people to wear colors here”. Grey and purple are colors too, are they not?
As the conversation continued and the man repeatedly made clear his peaceful intentions, the lead trooper said, “I am not worried about you doing something, but I do worry that because you are wearing your colors that someone else may try and start something.” What a lame excuse for police to use as a justification to stop and interrogate and search a citizen. If we lived in a society that allow police to approach and search you just because of what someone else “may” do to you, then we have given up and lost all our civil liberties. Another trooper piped up and said that the colors were a threat to him and he was going home that night.
The lead trooper then took the guy’s identification with him and walked off to chat with two undercover buddies standing nearby. While that was happening, another trooper was talking with the pink bandana guy and trying to explain to him that Harley Davidson is no longer an American corporation by having sold out an interest to the Japanese. Troopers then looked all over the guy with the vest, checking out his tattoos. During a lull in the conversation while everyone was just standing around, I handed my business card to the leather vest dude and didn’t say a word. He thanked me for witnessing what was happening. No trooper said a word.
At first, trooper demanded that if the guy with the vest would take off his colors, he could stay at the Fair. That was their main demand. I couldn’t hear all the conversation but saw that the man was being peaceful and calm; probably far more than would I had been under similar circumstances. In the end however, troopers forced the two men and three women to leave the Fair and the last I saw of them, they were all walking toward the exit.
The ends do not justify the means under any circumstances. But this rule of common decency and fundamental aspect of our constitution apparently means nothing to the State Police. In their books, if you don’t like what they are doing you can complain and litigate the issue at a later point. By then however, police have won because they removed you from the Fair and by the time you get a chance to defend yourself or take action, the Fair is long over.
I am not so stupid as to not recognize the long and sordid history of the Hells Angels and I know damn well you don’t wear those colors unless you earned them. At some level, I am sure this person was not always a calm and peaceful soul. But at the Fair and from everything I saw both before and during the stop and interrogation, this man was not doing anything but waiting for the start of the Kid Rock concert. It does great violence to our free nation to stop and detain someone for their beliefs, with whom they choose to associate, or for commentaries or content of the writings on their clothes. Seriously if you want to arrest someone for what is written on their shirts, there were plenty of opportunities.
Dan O’Hara and the New York State Police crossed the line this time. People have the right to peaceably assemble and to wear clothing that says anything you want. This is especially so when going to a concert where leather, outrageous presentation, and ‘colors’ are everywhere. There was simply no legal basis to stop and detain those two men. Shame on the police for embarrassing themselves and committing a social injustice. Our constitutional right to free speech took a punch last night and of all people, it was the New York State Police that gave it a black eye.
“Colors” mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But so far as I know, it is neither a crime nor civil offense to wear the colors of a gang. If that were the case, then everybody wearing red should be stopped and searched because ‘red’ is the color of the Bloods gang. People wearing blue should be stopped because blue is the color of Crips and someone may do something that starts something that results in trouble. The bottom line is unless they want us to start seeing Grey and Purple as being gang colors, the State Police have got to start respecting the law and the constitution. Failing to do so makes them no better than the other criminal colors that are found at the Fair.