Alex Jones Meets Barney Fife at Dealey Plaza: History in the Making or Just Another Show?

I have a column coming up in this week's newspaper calling Austin radio personality Alex Jones a "Jeremiah," which is supposed to be a good thing -- that is, a prophet calling to awaken his people from their slumber and corruption. But I admit, it's a tough swallow, even for me.

The good things about Jones are fairly abstract and cultural. The tough swallow is the more personal aspect, especially his penchant and talent for self-promotion.

But that's not why we are here. Today before all of it fades from memory, I want to add a footnote about the cops who handled last Friday's affair at Dealey Plaza, especially the difference between the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

I stayed with Jones and his crew of 150 or so organized protesters from his staging area at Main and Griffin right up to the police barricades at Houston Street just shy of the plaza. His outward behavior might have seemed outrageous and off the charts to a casual observer, but I saw him calibrating things pretty carefully as he drew closer to the cop line, which was made up entirely of uniformed DPD officers at that point.

Jones saw them ahead. A voice from a passing patrol car warned him the police would arrest anybody who blocked traffic. Jones halted his troops at the corners like a school crossing guard, waiting for the walk signal. He continued to shout and bluster, but as he drew closer to the barricades he began pruning and controlling some of the behavior in his group, warning people, for example, that they would be arrested if they continued to use bullhorns.

Every step of the way, Jones was hooked up to a sound and camera production crew, and he was doing what I assumed was a live broadcast. He continually asked the crew if he was still on the air, and he was obsessively careful to check and re-check the cables connecting him to his equipment.

When he got to the police barricade, Jones dialed down his act noticeably. The rhetoric was still there, talking about a police state and all that stuff, but he took it down several decibels.

I followed two uniformed DPD officers who were cutting through the crowd to get to him. After a while, I realized there was a police commander right behind me in plain clothes. The commander asked me to step out of his way. I asked him if he was police. He said yes. I got out of his way.

What I saw from there was an interesting tableau. Jones was inches from a line of uniforms facing him from just the other side of the barricade. Right behind Jones and just ahead of me were the two uniforms who had cut through the crowd to get to him. Behind them, sort of next to me, was the commander in plain clothes, who was eyeballing Jones carefully, taking his measure.

In a matter of less than a minute, the commander figured out that Jones was not going to do anything arrest-worthy. The two uniforms looked to the commander, mumbled something I could not hear, a question. He nodded and gave them a thumb signal to split. They moved off through the crowd.

From that point forward, Jones continued to do his low-decibel on-air provocateur act into the microphone and for his camera. The Dallas cops on the other side of the line stood rigidly at attention with that I'm-not-even-lookin'-at-you-but-I-see-you expression. They were military. I noticed that their uniforms were spotless and tight.

The commander, who was now just ahead of me, was like an orchestra conductor but working it with his eyes instead of a baton. The cops on the other side facing us checked him out every few seconds. His face said, "We are cool, we are cool, we are ready but we are cool."

And that's how it went. That's how I read it, anyway. Everybody was a pro. Jones was right at the line, doing his act but dialing it back just enough not to get arrested. The cops were letting him know they were right at the line, too. One step over, one inch in their direction, he was toast. One step back, he was OK.

Then later as things were breaking up, I followed the protesters to the corner of Commerce and Houston streets and saw the Dallas County sheriff's deputies. And I immediately thought, "Oh, man, this is trouble."

The deputies were ragtag and Barney Fife, standing around in more of a mob than a line. They looked like they had slept in their uniforms. There was no visible command, just a bunch of dudes with badges sort of checking each other out.

I think that Jones and his crew spotted the same thing. The Jones crew had not personally insulted the Dallas cops. But the sheriff's deputies looked disorganized and a little uncertain what to do -- vulnerable, in a way. The Jones group started in on them with some very personal insults, like calling an overweight officer a fat pig.

And bang, it started. The sheriff's deputies were pushing and shoving protesters without any clear mission or goal, just kind of pushing them around in an unrestricted public space where the protesters clearly were allowed to walk. I did not see all of it. I had to go to Youtube later and look at Jones' tape of it.

The Youtube footage is sort of hilarious, really. It's like Christmas-come-early for Jones. This is just what he wants and needs -- a chance to look like a martyr without actually going through the messy business of an arrest.

If you look closely at the video, you see Jones shouting, calling names, threatening lawsuits, warning the deputies they will be in big trouble when the revolution arrives, but all the while he is slip-sliding away from them with the grace and dexterity of a rotund ballerina. His voice only sounds truly anxious when he worries that someone, a deputy or one of his own people, may have snagged one of the cables connecting him to his production crew.

But it's also not hilarious, because the footage shows the undisciplined and ragtag sheriff's deputies going straight for the bait, allowing the protesters to get to them with verbal insults, then charging into them on a mission that has no legal goal or objective. What the deputies really needed at that point was for Jones and his crew to go crazy with them, drop to their level and duke it out, a scenario in which the badges are always right no matter how it starts.

But, look, Jones does this stuff for a living. He knows what he is doing. He is not an amateur. The only amateurs out there Friday were the sheriff's deputies, who acted like off-duty mall cops.

Jones and his crew did not lose it or go crazy. They ratcheted up their own howls of indignation with what I thought were mixed results. Somehow, I must admit, speaking as a veteran myself of the '60s and a lot of protest scenes, I find it difficult to sympathize with a supposed victim of police brutality who somehow manages to capture his own victimization on his own iPhone. Hey, maybe it's one of them generational thingies.

I am going to stick with my assertion in the column this week that Jones brings an important message to the public discourse. Does he bring it in a way that is self-serving and earns him a pretty good living? Yup. Plays it like the pro he is. That's something you need to know if you get assigned to Jones patrol.

The DPD did know. That commander in front of me sized it up in about 30 seconds, called off his guys who were ready to nab Jones, then stayed right there and conducted the orchestra with his eyes.

The sheriff's deputies? What a mess. What a gift to Alex Jones. I have to admit, I have very mixed feelings about that. He may have an important message to sell, but we should at least make him work for it.

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