Bloomington press conference on farmers market covers First Amendment, gun laws, possible exclusion of a vendor

After announcing on Monday (July 29) that Bloomington’s farmers market would be suspended for the next two Saturdays, Mayor John Hamilton held a press conference on Wednesday morning to address the situation.

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Left is Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton. Right is farmers market vendor for 34 years, Linda Chapman of  Harvest Moon Flower Farm. July 31, 2019 (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Monday’s press release gave the general background for the market closure: “Since the recent public discussion of ties between a vendor at the market and white nationalist causes and groups, the City has identified increasing threats to public safety.”

The press release also hinted at more concrete reasons: “…[I]nformation gathered identifying threats of specific individuals with connections to past white nationalist violence, present the potential for future clashes.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, when Hamilton and the city’s chief of police, Mike Diekhoff, responded to questions from the press on the topic of threats, they didn’t provide additional details on the exact nature of the threats.

Hamilton said, “The threats were enough to identify particular individuals that meant to us, we saw a threat of violence in the market. And given the realities that I talked about, we felt it was critical for public safety to hit pause.”

Hamilton led off the press conference with about 15 minutes worth of prepared remarks, then fielded questions, first mostly from the press, then from others.

Hamilton’s prepared remarks framed the issue of public safety in terms of two challenges: (1) Indiana’s permissive gun laws; and (2) “a toxic stew of bigotry and hatred, of intolerance and divisiveness, that is being brewed by many, all across the country, including our own President.”

The mayor’s remarks, and several questions from the audience, touched on constitutional issues of free speech and the specific circumstances of an arrest made by Bloomington police at the July 27 farmers market. Police arrested Cara Caddoo, an Indiana University professor of history. She was holding a sign protesting against white-supremacy, outside an area in the market that’s designated in the vendor’s handbook as “Information Alley.”

Several topics came up during the press conference. Here are some highlights, starting with Caddoo’s arrest.

First Amendment, circumstances of arrest

In his prepared remarks, Hamilton stated the reason for Caddoo’s arrest: “The First Amendment requires our government to enforce this rule in a viewpoint neutral manner…That even-handed approach to enforcing market rules regarding protest is constitutionally required, and resulted in the actions last Saturday.”

The mayor also described Caddoo in his prepared remarks as someone “whose spirit and goals I certainly share.”

Hamilton was asked a few times about the decision to arrest Caddoo. A couple of times, the question of fair-handed treatment of Caddoo, compared to other protesters on other occasions, was raised—especially given that she’s a woman of color. One questioner wanted to know why some high school students, who on a past occasion were inside the market with signs about restricting gun laws, were not arrested. Another audience member chimed in, “Why weren’t the children arrested?”

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Vauhxx Booker: “It was just a year ago, Mayor, when I shouted you down in the most public venue in the city. And I wasn’t arrested.” July 31, 2019 (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Hamilton appealed to the statement he’d made in his prepared remarks: “I’ve expressed support for her views, sympathy for her actions. What I can only say, as I said before, that the city tries to be constitutional in the enforcement of the rules and sometimes people choose to do civil disobedience to make a point.”

The issue of even-handedness in treatment of protesters also arose when Hamilton called on Vauhxx Booker to speak during the question period. Last year, during Hamilton’s state-of-the-city address, Booker used a megaphone to protest the purchase of an armored truck, and the mayor was not able to finish the speech. He told the mayor during Wednesday’s question period that Caddoo’s arrest sent a “chilling message.”  “It was just a year ago, Mayor, when I shouted you down in the most public venue in the city. And I wasn’t arrested,” Booker said.

Responding to a question, Hamilton said that there had been no conversation between him and the police about the arrest before it happened, and that it had been made during the course of normal operations. Diekhoff said that the several officers involved in the arrest were called as backup to handle the crowd that gathered, once the arrest was made.

Options for excluding a vendor from the market

Because it’s the city government that operates the market, it’s not possible to exclude a vendor for viewpoints expressed elsewhere, on pain of violating constitutional rights of the vendor.

Among those suggesting that the farmers market should take a private path was Andrew Guenther, Republican candidate for the District 2 city council seat, also contested by Democrat Sue Sgambelluri. Guenther attended the press conference and issued a statement to the press that said, “As it currently stands, I believe the best course of action is for a group of volunteers to explore the option of reopening the market as a non-profit entity, instead of one run by the city.”

Linda Chapman, a vendor at the market (Harvest Moon Flower Farm), opened her question by telling Hamilton: “I’ve been a vendor at the Bloomington community farmers market for 34 years.” It prompted a quick word of thanks from Hamilton and applause from the crowd.

She said that the City of Bloomington had broken its contracts with 117 vendors so that one vendor could be at the market. (Schooner Creek Farm is the vendor who’s been the target of protests.) Chapman said, “This problem isn’t going to go away as long as that one vendor is at the market.”

Chapman said she wanted the City to find a loophole that would allow the market to exclude the one vendor. She recalled how she had once, decades ago, been asked to leave the market, because she had created a disruption. She’d appealed to the board, she said, and she understood that she was wrong, and she apologized. “But the market was going to kick me out for creating a disruption.” Why couldn’t the City of Bloomington now do the same thing, she wondered.

Hamilton told Chapman, “I deeply appreciate your service and membership at the market. I appreciate your suggestions and views. …”

Chapman followed up: “I respect and recognize that you don’t want to go to court over this. But I suggest that this could even go to the Supreme Court of the United States and that we should do it, because our community is so threatened by one vendor.”

Hamilton said he was not confident that a Supreme Court case would end the issue, but he called Chapman’s point “reasonable.”

Hamilton was also asked: “Have you guys confronted the vendor who was allegedly tied to this white supremacist group, to ask them not to attend the farmers market anymore?” The mayor responded to the question by saying, “Conversations have been held with vendors, including all the vendors, about how to respond to this situation. And we will continue that with all the vendors.”

Before Chapman made her remarks, Hamilton responded to a question about the legal and contractual relationships between vendors and the the city.

Hamilton said vendors had been cooperative, dealing with the situation over the last number of weeks. Hamilton said, “We did not take this action trying to calculate what is the legal and fiscal impact of this, we took it for public safety. We felt it needed to be done.”

As far as how to work through the contractual relationship with vendors, Hamilton said, “I suppose the short answer is, we’re going to figure that out with the vendors how best to respond to them. We’re certainly working very closely with them.”

Responding to a question about the possibility of allowing a private entity to take over the market, to sidestep the constitutional question, Hamilton said, “My own view is the history of taking things from government in order to avoid constitutional requirements is not a very good one in this country. It’s been done often in ways to avoid constitutional requirements of integration and racial justice and trying to avoid government responsibility. It’s being dealt with in public schools today and other ways. So I think it’s a deep question. It’s certainly worth asking.”

Indiana gun laws

One of the issues prompting recent concern over the farmers market has been visible firearms at the market. As one person in the press conference crowd noted, that’s legal in the state of Indiana.

The farmers market is not the only public place in Bloomington where firearms have been seen and drawn complaint in recent years.

In 2016, machine guns were displayed on the Panther Ridge Training Center’s  Fourth of July parade entry. About a week before that, a letter to the editor of the Herald-Times complained about a man carrying a gun tucked into a belt under his wet T-shirt at the Bryan Park pool.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Mayor Hamilton alluded to those events by citing a piece he’d written partly in response to them—a guest op-ed for the New York Times.

From the op-ed: “But five years ago the State Legislature prohibited cities from enforcing virtually any individual local regulation of firearms, ammunition or their accessories. The statehouse said we couldn’t restrict what kind of guns or ammunition can be carried, displayed, worn, concealed or transported, with a few very limited exceptions like courtrooms and intentional displays at official public meetings. ”

The legislation, enacted in  2011, passed the state senate on a 40–10 vote and the state house by a tally of 70–24. It allows anyone who’s impacted by a city gun restriction that violates the state law, to recover damages from the city that are triple the cost of their attorney fees.

In 2014, the state legislature enacted a prohibition on gun buy-back programs. That bill passed on similar margins: 38–10 in the senate; 75–24 in the house.

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Bloomington’s police chief, Mike Diekhoff: “Indiana has some of the most liberal gun laws in the nation.” July 31, 2019 (Dave Askins/Beacon)

On Wednesday, Chief Diekhoff told the crowd, “Indiana has some of the most liberal gun laws in the nation.” He said he’d testified this year at the legislature against legislation that some state legislators were proposing—they were looking to make it easier to have and carry guns.

Diekhoff told those who were concerned about gun laws to go to the state legislature.

It’s the same sentiment expressed by Hamilton, when he was asked about the lawfulness of open carry at the farmers market: “How are you going to be able to fix this?” Hamilton responded: “That sounds like a really good question for the state legislature. I hope you’ll asked them that, too.”

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