Tool of the Trade

This week’s column is supposed to be about the two party system. It is not. Nor is it about Charlottesville,Va. It is about the next Charlottesvilles, they are coming, and it is about an overlooked municipal tool that could greatly help authorities prevent or minimize the next one. The tool is called the parade or assembly permit.

A story. In the mid-‘1970’s America was seeing a resurgence of Klan and neo-fascist groups. Rallies reaching past the hundreds into the thousands were occurring mostly in the south, although the mid-west was seeing its its share of activity as well. There came a request in a well-known, medium size deep south city for a Klan march and of course a counter-demonstration.

The city had the right not to issue the permit; public safety trumps freedom of speech and assembly under the “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater” ruling. But not to grant the permit was going to cause more trouble that granting it. The city got creative. It issues the permit, but for a location well away from the requested downtown area. It also said there could be no masked or covered faces. A few extra “this is how we really feel about it” clauses were added such as the march would be a a street that was on a hill. It would begin at the bottom of the street and go to the top (couched geographically ie south to north). It would begin at noon (it was dead summer and temperatures were near 100 degrees). Had it had an expiration time. When that time came you were gone or you turned into a pumpkin and were liable to end up in the patch with iron bars.

In another city, this one in North Carolina, an ugly lesson was learned when a marcher brought a long gun. It was never proved if the gun went off accidentally or on purpose. People were shot and chaos ensued. The city rewrote the permits for future gatherings to exclude open carry, which at that time was an unstated but “everyone does it” part of the area culture.

Since the ’70’s several non-profits and legal groups have drafted different versions of what they felt were constitutionally acceptable, but restrictive, permit ordinances some having reasonable request time requirements i.e. 30 days notice. The Southern Poverty Law Center is always available to help.

The beauty of the restrictive permits is two fold. First of course they can be challenged in court. That’s the good news. Usually by the time the challenges and counter-challenges are made and heard the time for the march has passed and things have calmed down.

Equally if not more importantly the restrictive permits give police a legal blueprint to follow and enforce. A specific set of legal guidelines for the public assembly has been given everyone. Everyone knows the rules before they hit the streets. Trouble and potential trouble-makers–dangers to public safety–can be interdicted before they hit the staging point. The rest is tactical: how many officers. where they are placed, what they shall wear, back ups plans etc.

Nothing is a fool-proof solution for those seeking to cause trouble. But the worst solution is sticking one’s head in the sand or just putting the proverbial toe in the water. Cities and counties can and should act with determination. They have the power to say NIMBY (not in my back yard) and given the tenure of emotions in the country right now, they should be considering their options right now.


If reading “At Least From My Perspective” has given you food for thought, made you smile, or even evoked a laugh over time you may well enjoy the author’s,”Mirth Wind and Ire” available at or on your Kindle, Nook, or at ibooks. It’s squel, “More Mirth Wind and Ire” will appear this Fall.

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