As many of you have undoubtedly heard, Raleigh, North Carolina—the “big city” in The Andy Griffith Show and my own home town—made national news last weekend for all the wrong reasons.
The episode in question involved Love Wins, a charity that has been providing free breakfasts for those in need downtown at Moore Square on weekend mornings for the last 6 years.
This post is about the city council’s public hearing held in response to its embarrassing national exposure. The upshot is that the city is wrong on the facts and the law, but nevertheless fully intends to advance its unconstitutional plan to rid Moore Square of the charity. The hearing speaks volumes about the tactics used by state and local governments all across the nation as they work against the very citizens who elect them.
Last Saturday, members of the Raleigh Police Department threatened Love Wins volunteers with arrest if they distributed sausage biscuits to the 70 people or so who wanted them.
One leader of Love Wins, Mennonite minister Hugh Hollowell, described the incident in a blog post that went viral over the next few days, generating a half million hits. The post, which went up Saturday afternoon, reveals some telling facts, for example:
- the police officers threatening arrest couldn’t identify the city ordinance that was supposedly being violated;
- neither the RPD nor the Mayor’s office, when queried, couldn’t identify the ordinance; and
- the RPD preemptively acted against the charity itself, not waiting for people who wanted to eat to litter and carry on in a way that would disturb other people or the Moore Square commons itself.
The rank inability of the city to immediately identify the ordinance that LW allegedly violated is telling, not because there’s no applicable ordinance (there is), but because it reveals that what happened at Moore Square has nothing to do with “the law” and everything to do with someone’s decision behind the scenes to squash food distribution for the hungry at a vital city center.
The RPD’s bully tactics blew up in its face, forcing the city to back pedal furiously while attempting to wipe several thousand omelets’ worth of eggs from its face. To this end, the city council held a hearing on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. E.D.T.
I attended the hearing to find out what prompted Raleigh to ape ugly municipal campaigns against charity workers distributing food in Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta. More on these other episodes in a minute.
Council Member Mary-Ann Baldwin opened the meeting with remarks that revealed the council’s agenda from the outset: the city wasn’t backing down; rather, the goal of the hearing was to “find a better way”—as if LW’s work in Moore Square had been adjudged to be illegal already and not open to discussion. Never mind that that’s not the case—nor, as a legal matter, could it be, as we shall see.
The city’s stated agenda—looking forward, not backward—echoes the chant of guilty governments everywhere as they seek to absolve themselves of legal depredations up to and including high crimes.
Another council member described the city ordinance at issue, just to assure everyone in attendance that the RPD has “the law” on its side. (It doesn’t; statutes and ordinances are merely presumed valid until shown to be unconstitutional or otherwise legally deficient in a court or law. See below.)
Even if the city had the law on its side (and it doesn’t), it still can’t explain why the 1999 city ordinance has gone unenforced for 6 years against Love Wins.
Baldwin then asked how many people wanted to speak. When more than 50 hands went up, Baldwin announced that each person would be allowed to speak for 3 minutes—a fair allowance given the circumstances, I thought.
Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown gave a PowerPoint presentation attempting to explain that the city’s spasm over free sausage biscuits is “nothing new” but rather just another itty-bitty little ole step in a natural progression of events that began on August 12, 2012. In a meeting on that date, according to Deck-Brown, police sat down with local residents concerned about trash, crimes, and misdemeanors such as people urinating in the park—a strong suggestion that alcohol and not breakfast biscuits lay at the root of the concerns cited.
The audience at this week’s hearing was then shown photos of overflowing garbage bins and scattered trash, and heard generalized recitations of complaints received by the RPD from episodes in Moore Square.
None of the evidence advanced by the city was particularized to Love Wins, but instead described issues at Moore Square only in the most general terms. Moore Square is a solid city-block sized park that’s not only surrounded by any number of bars and restaurants, but adjacent to the city bus depot. This alone is fatal to the city’s “case” against LW because it completely undercuts the city’s attempt to show any connection between whatever problems exist at Moore Square and Love Wins’ charity work there. By the accounts of all witnesses—without exception—Love Wins cleans up after itself and then some.
Police Chief Deck-Brown then talked about a meeting held by the RPD with parks and recreation personnel one day prior to the episode in question. Here, I thought, we’re going to get to the nut of all this. I was wrong. Instead, Deck-Brown stated that:
- the meeting was principally about a Salvation Army issue;
- Moore Square’s condition is improving, as part of a broader “reduction of crime trends”; and
- the RPD ordered officers not to make any arrests at Moore Square over the weekend.
At that point, interim City Manager Perry James spoke briefly, but like the police chief limited himself to generalized concerns about Moore Square. He speculated about the perils that might befall Raleigh as a result of LW’s sausage biscuit program, including lawsuits against the city, which must carry liability insurance.
(It’s always about scary scenarios—Financial Armageddon! Terrorist attack!—that will happen if we don’t go along with the ill-conceived plans of TPTB, no?)
City Manager James then uncorked an impressive flechette round of hollow-point jargon that no modern politician can seem to resist: the city council is going to “re-engage the team,” “prioritize agenda items” and “work within timelines,” “move the ball” to “dialogue” [verb] with “shareholders” [residents] of Raleigh, and “find solutions” in accordance with the “primary objective.”
The city’s plan, according to all council speakers, is to get those nefarious free sausage biscuits the heck out of Moore Square—where Love Wins’ effectiveness is highest—to galaxies far, far away (unless you drive a hybrid).
The floor then opened to Raleigh residents, who’d formed a line about 20 deep in the aisle close to the lectern.
The vast majority of comments were directed to the importance of food to the homeless, the struggles of homelessness, the fact that racism is an everyday problem despite the passage of 50 years (to the day and hour) of MLK’s “I have a dream speech,” and the importance of private charity in tough economic times.
Several members of Love Wins who were involved in the incident shared details.
When it became apparent that no one was going to address the city’s baseless smear of Love Wins, or why the episode happened in the first place, I got in line to speak and waited until it was my turn…
My name is John Titus, and [declining the council’s request that speakers provide their residence addresses] I take the 2 bus to Moore Square, where I transfer to the 4 bus.
We are nearly 2 hours into this hearing, and we still don’t know why what happened on Saturday actually happened.
The Raleigh Police Department showed photos of trash. Those photos were undated and didn’t implicate any charity, much less Love Wins. The RPD also talked about a meeting that was held over a year ago, which of course fails to explain what happened last weekend. And no sooner did the RPD mention a meeting on Friday, which could’ve provided an actual explanation, than it freely conceded that Moore Square has actually been improving recently, not getting worse.
So again, no one here still has any idea why what happened last weekend happened. The explanation we heard today just isn’t gonna cut it.
That brings me to the next issue, which is: who benefits? The city manager mentioned liability insurance.
Q. (Addressing Mr. James) Who provides the city’s liability insurance coverage?
A. (Mr. James) I don’t know.
Q. Hmmm. Interesting you wouldn’t know that. [Laughter from galley.]
Well, as to who benefits, one possible name that springs to mind is Fidelity Information Services, which provides financial services and manages every food stamps transaction in North Carolina, where 17 percent of the population uses food stamps. That situation is going to get worse when drastic cuts in food stamps are made in the next fiscal year right around the corner.
(See my companion piece this week—a video identifying the real welfare recipient of the food stamps program. Hint: it doesn’t eat sausage biscuits. And see this table for a complete listing of EBT/SNAP/food stamps transaction providers in all U.S. states and territories. Observe that only a handful of companies led by JP Morgan Chase control transactions for the entire 48-million-user food stamps network in the U.S.)
Now I don’t know whether each sausage biscuit that Love Wins gives away cuts into Fidelity’s action; I haven’t read their contract. But the point is that this incident didn’t occur out of the blue. Cops don’t just go around giving charities the boot heel for no reason. Someone benefited from this, and I think we’d all be better off if we knew who that someone was.
Q. In the interest of transparency in government, would everyone sitting here today (indicating council’s table) agree to disclose all documents from the last six months relating to financial contributions to the Raleigh Police Department—and to this council itself—that come from banks and financial institutions?
A. (Ms. Baldwin) Ummm, errrr…
Q. It’s a simple question. Would you agree to make those disclosures?
A. Well, we will, um, we’ll consider your request.
Q. Thank you.
(Litigator’s tip for activists: at the tail end of any surprise or emergency hearing, ask the judge or decision maker to grant some request, even if it’s unrelated to the issues; it’s likely to be granted.)
With that, I repaired for a cigarette outside. When I came back, several speakers had returned to the issues of racism and homelessness (in some cases from firsthand experience).
Then another lawyer got up and absolutely nailed the legal issues with the ordinance, shining terrific light on what’s undoubtedly going on behind the curtains in the Raleigh city council. Paraphrasing her remarks…
I strongly suspect that the reason the city of Raleigh doesn’t enforce the anti-food distribution ordinance is that it knows the ordinance is unconstitutional and thus void. Numerous courts have held that providing food to the poor is a fundamental right of religious expression, and that ordinances like the one at issue here are contrary to the first amendment of the U.S. constitution.
The city knows that if the RPD actually makes arrests in trying to enforce this ordinance, and it gets challenged in court, that ordinance is going to be struck down.
So rather than do this, the city is trying push food distribution out of Moore Square without provoking a legal battle that it’s guaranteed to lose. The city is trying to get people’s consent to give away rights that the city council wants to take away but cannot do so through the enforcement of law.
DING-DING-DING. We have a winner. She’s correct about the law and about the fact that it’s easily discoverable by anybody—city attorneys, for example—researching it. See this post.
Here’s what I believe is at work: someone got to either the city council or the RPD, or both, and provided some inducement to get the cops to act like thugs and intimidate charity workers handing out free food. I could be wrong about this, of course, but financial contributions to police departments and politicians in charge of the police should be public record as a matter of course. Someone instructed the RPD to do what it did, when it did; we just don’t know who it was, despite the hearing.
While the city council nurses its freshly blowtorched facial wounds, the RPD is unlikely to molest Love Wins in Moore Square for the foreseeable future. That will change—once the furor has died down and the spotlight is off. That is when the city can quietly evict Love Wins from Moore Square, which was the plan all along, despite the evidence elicited at the hearing.
This is a textbook demonstration of crisis management among the power elite, as explained brilliantly by Cook County (Chicago) Sheriff Tom Dart in 30 seconds during the filming of Bailout:
At bottom, the city is wrong six ways from Sunday. It’s wrong morally. It’s wrong legally. It’s wrong factually. And it’s wrong logically, which is why its explanation for what happened doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Despite this, the city council will go ahead with whoever is behind this brazenly illegal outrage. And yet at the same time, it wants everyone involved to make nice and go along with Raleigh’s plan for ramming some anonymous coward’s fist literally into the mouths of her weakest residents.
You may recall that the “consent of the governed” was the basis upon which the colonists jettisoned King George and established a new government in 1776.
The same thing is going on now, in Raleigh and everywhere else, only in reverse. The Sausage Biscuit Storm Troopers provide a crisp snapshot of how things work no matter where you live.
Sadly, Andy isn’t welcome in the big city anymore.
John Titus has practiced patent litigation in federal courts for 19 years. He is the creator of the feature length documentary Bailout about the crimes that caused the ongoing financial crisis.