Conspiracy Theory

JFK assassination buffs who peddle their wares on the grassy knoll think there's a plot to put them out of business. They may be right.

West says that the Sixth Floor, which attracts only a quarter as many tourists as Dealey Plaza does, wants to put a kiosk on the plaza where it can sell film and maps and offer guided tours. But in fact, its intentions are more far-reaching than that. The Dallas County Historical Foundation, which runs the Sixth Floor Museum, wants to be "the exclusive manager" for the plaza, responsible for "operating, vending, leasing and servicing duties," according to documents the foundation filed with the city.

The Sixth Floor may want to rule the plaza, but not all the vendors believe the museum is responsible for instigating the ticketing. A small vendor faction, as well as some people associated with the museum, think that the complaints have been lodged from some jealous vendors intent on eliminating the competition. At least one vendor blames another vendor partial to the Oswald-as-lone-gunman theory of the assassination for siccing the police on the conspiracy theorists.

Regardless of what prompted the policing of the plaza, the vendors say the city is not playing fair. The Dallas City Code contains a confusing ordinance on street vendors that requires them to be permitted in certain circumstances.

However, the vendors claim they have had trouble getting straight answers from the city about how to go about obtaining a permit. While some see this as part of the conspiracy as well, it is probably more a function of bureaucratic ineptitude.

The city has instructed some of the vendors to contact the Health Department, which provides a limited number of vending permits for the Central Business District, including areas around the School Book Depository but not Dealey Plaza proper, which is governed by the Park Department. All of the Health Department permits available for this part of town, which is considered part of the West End Historic District, have already been issued.

The people who have contacted the Park Department have been given contradictory information. Some have been told they didn't need a permit to sell magazines or videos on the plaza, only to be ticketed anyway. Some were told they could sell printed materials without a permit, but not videos. Others were informed they couldn't sell anything without a permit, but when they inquired about getting one, they were told there weren't any available or were sent to the Health Department, where they came up empty-handed.

The Dallas Observer spent more than a day being transferred from one Park Department staff person to another trying to find someone who was in charge of issuing permits for Dealey Plaza. We finally found the right person--Ralph Mendez, assistant director for the eastern region of the Park Department, who says that the policy governing Dealey Plaza is still being worked out. According to Mendez, a potential Dealey Plaza vendor or tour guide has to submit to the Park Department a detailed proposal, which has to be approved by the Park Board and the City Council. So far the only people who seem to know about that policy are those who work for the Sixth Floor.

Even if the Sixth Floor and the city wanted to see the vendors gone, Jeff West thinks they are probably protected by the constitutional right to free speech. That point has actually crossed the minds of the people who run the Park Department. Not sure whether the city code gives them the right to stop people from selling certain material on the plaza, they recently asked the city attorney's office to research the matter, says Mendez.

Nevertheless, the police continue to roust the conspiracy theorists, even while the kinks in the ordinance are being worked out.

All of which leads to an interesting bureaucratic and legal Catch-22. The police are ticketing people for selling materials in Dealey Plaza without a permit, but the city is not even sure it has the right to issue such a permit. The saga of the plaza subculture is like everything else associated with the JFK assassination--neither simple nor sane. And there's a little bit of truth in all of it.

"Like the police have nothing better to do but police the plaza," says an indignant Brad Kizzia, a local lawyer with Strasburger & Price and a student of the assassination who has informally counseled some of the vendors who have been ticketed. "It's a misuse of our police and legal resources and an infringement on [the vendors'] constitutional rights. If it weren't so troubling and disturbing, it would be laughable."

Dan Hayden never intended to sell JFK assassination memorabilia for a living, but "it just gets into your blood," he says. "The grassy knoll is the vortex of the world."

A compact man of 40, Hayden sports a green "JFK Grassy Knoll Tours" shirt and a deep sunburn, earned from spending long days selling Robert Groden's magazine The Killing of a President and giving guided tours of Dealey Plaza. The magazines cost $5 apiece and his tours, depending on the length, average about $10. He gives free 15-minute talks to groups of schoolchildren.

A part-time house painter, Hayden got interested in the assassination in the early 1980s, when he moved here from East Texas. He spent a lot of time browsing the library archives and eventually started selling newspapers on the grassy knoll in 1992, from sunrise to sunset, six or seven days a week.

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