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Don't Break Up the Extraordinary Event Ordinance, Repeal It 

When everything and nothing is extraordinary

click to enlarge rhiannonfionn.jpg

It's nice that city officials, activists and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department agree that the city's extraordinary event ordinance is outmoded and overused, but be wary of the remedy.

In Jan. 2012, when Charlotte City Council enacted the ordinance, Creative Loafing reported, "City attorney Robert Hagemann assured council that the ordinances will not impede anyone's First Amendment rights or otherwise be unconstitutional."

At the time, the ordinance enabled the city to yell, "Get off my lawn!" at Occupy Charlotte organizers, who had for four months maintained an encampment on the lawn of Old City Hall across the street from CMPD headquarters. The Democratic National Convention was to be held that September, and CMPD purportedly required expanded authority due to police-protestor clashes in other cities.

Since Occupy's tent eviction, which followed the ordinance's enactment, CMPD and the city manager have labeled more than 40 events "extraordinary," even though many of them, like shareholder meetings and football games, already have extra security and are as ordinary and regularly scheduled as Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. Of course, annual parades for those holidays also become extraordinary.

Before the ordinance became reality, local historian Tom Hanchett, retired from the Levine Museum of the New South, told CL, "The best-known protests in Charlotte are probably the sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement. Young people sat in at [lunch] counters for six months in some places and were not met with violence, and they weren't rounded up and arrested, either. Ultimately their message was heard."

On Jan. 23, the ordinance's fifth anniversary, several citizens addressed city council and requested they repeal it. They cited the council's minutes from meetings past where the public was repeatedly reassured that the ordinance was created for crowd control during the Dem's big party.

Prior to the DNC, the Charlotte chapter of the National Lawyers Guild expressed concern about the ordinance in a letter to the city council, stating that "even mundane everyday activities such as carrying a backpack, wearing a helmet or walking a dog would be considered unlawful based on a police officer's spur-of-the-moment judgment that the action is being done with certain intent. Such overbroad language will surely lead to innocent bystanders being detained."

When annual meetings and parades offer opportunity for the police to search your belongings and prohibit you from bringing even a bottle of water to a parade it becomes reasonable to shout "government overreach."

CMPD would disagree that literally reaching into your bag is overreach. For them, the ordinance is about public safety. "Take a bag of rocks as a broad example," said CMPD's Lt. Dave Moorefield, of the Office of the Chief of Police, "A person would ordinarily be permitted to carry a bag of rocks in a public area as there is no law prohibiting it. However, under an EE, a person would not be allowed to carry a bag of rocks (inside a crowd of say, 10,000 people), as they may easily be used as projectiles against other people."

But at the January council meeting, Sebastian Fekulak asserted that the ordinance is "too broad," citing missing requirements for CMPD to notify the public about extraordinary events. He also expressed concern that the city manager – who is appointed, not elected – is responsible for approving CMPD's requests for extraordinary events.

In response, City Manager Marcus Jones said he requested a review of the ordinance and that he was "committed" to sharing their report with the city council in February. That didn't happen. What did happen: On Feb. 13, WCCB reported that city attorney Hagemann "will likely direct council to repeal the ordinance and add prohibited items people can bring to events to existing ordinances" within "the next 60 days."

But, which ordinances? And will those ordinances continue to allow CMPD to stop anyone they choose for any reason during events, or any other time, so that they may search their belongings?

While Hagemann cited the First Amendment in his 2012 promise — and it may well be violated by way of intimidating citizens from even attending Constitutionally protected events — it seems it's the Fourth Amendment, protection against unlawful search and seizure, that's more noticeably at stake. And extending such a potentially unconstitutional arrangement with the police into other ordinances is the opposite of what citizens are telling officials they want.

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