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Can You Say "Assassination?"

Daniel Fishel

Wrong. I said the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in Dallas would be no big deal. It will be. And it looks as if Dallas, to the delight of many, will step right into the middle of that big deal looking guilty as sin of something or other. The question will be what.

Guilty of complicity in the assassination itself? Or guilty of being stupid? It's my town and by God I love it, so I'm going with the second door.

First of all, Hollywood alone will guarantee major renewed interest in the assassination and in all of the legends, myths, folklore and theory that surround it. Tom Hanks has a movie in production starring Paul Giamatti and Billy Bob Thornton, to be called Parkland. The plot is not known, but I'm guessing it's JFK with a serious head injury waiting to be seen by a doctor at Parkland Hospital for 18 hours. We all know how that scenario ends.

Leonardo DiCaprio has another JFKer in the works called Legacy of Secrecy, which is supposed to "blow the lid off what really happened in Dallas," according to some publicity I saw. That poor lid by now, eh?

There's another movie in the works, supposedly, about a documentary filmmaker who gets tied up in a conspiracy to make a dishonest documentary about the assassination. Also, Errol Morris, the internationally acclaimed real documentary maker, is supposed to have something JFK-based in the works. I heard about another documentary being produced locally by some serious talent I can't name yet.

Then last week I had coffee with yet another documentary maker, a European with good credits who was here scouting a film based on Dealey Plaza. I suggested we meet in the Zapruder Cappucino Shop, as I call it, across the street from the Sixth Floor Museum. It's the museum annex gift shop (they have two), where you can sip coffee beneath an endless loop of assassination-related home movies projected on the wall.

I love/hate that place. It's a special intersection of the universe where banality and horror collide head-on. (Banality wins.)

Now, you do realize, I trust, that if all these documentary makers ever get together and make a documentary about a documentary filmmaker making a documentary about a documentary filmmaker making a documentary about the Kennedy assassination, then we will enter the realm of Kennedy assassination documentary quantum physics.

Last March I reported here hopefully that our mayor, Mike Rawlings, had met quietly in Washington with John Judge of the Coalition on Political Assassinations (COPA), seeking a resolution of the standoff between conspiracy scholars and a small private committee of mossbacks who have been put in charge of all events during assassination week in Dallas. The mossbacks, with support from City Hall and the police, intend to ban the public from Dealey Plaza for two entire weeks bracketing the November 22 anniversary of the assassination. In fact, they intend to ban the word assassination — I am not kidding — decreeing instead that the event is to be called only "The 50th."

Are we weird enough yet?

They do not like that word. Documents produced recently in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city show that officials of the Sixth Floor Museum began meeting with Dallas police officials in 2010 seeking ways to ban people who go to Dealey Plaza to promote or discuss assassination conspiracy theories. In an email June 28, 2010, Sixth Floor Museum Executive Director Nicola Longford updates her board of directors on the ongoing police crackdown against conspiracy theorists in general and especially Robert Groden, an author about whom I have written in the past.

This is a special form of suppression of free speech, called "content-based." All suppression of free speech is bad, but some of it may be inspired by mistaken or simply stupid notions about speech — that it might disturb the peace, offend somebody, clash with a special party theme like Grease!, or something like that. But using the cops to suppress speech because you disagree with the argument being made in the speech is the worst, the most Soviet, the least defensible. That's what Dallas has been doing to Groden since 2010.

Groden has been ticketed or arrested by the city more than 80 times for lecturing and selling books and videos in Dealey Plaza. Every single ticket and every single arrest has been thrown out by judges who found he had broken no law. He is in federal court now suing the city for abridgment of his civil rights.

But Dallas has its own little home-fried way of working these things out. U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson Jr. recently dismissed the city from Groden's lawsuit on some very Alice-in-Wonderland grounds. Groden's lawyers had demanded the city answer 38 "discovery questions" aimed at finding out who in particular had ordered the crackdown on Groden. You and I know from the emails I mentioned above that specific police and park department officials met with Longford and then began cracking down.

 

But the city refused to answer any of Groden's questions. The judge then said Groden didn't know who had ordered the crackdown, so he didn't have anybody in particular to sue. He also said Groden, who is white, isn't entitled to the same civil rights protections as minorities. And he said there was no proof the city deliberately broke the law by cracking down on Groden, because there was no proof the city knew it was against the law to do so. In his ruling Furgeson did not mention the 80-plus times the city's own municipal judges had told city officials, in so many words, "What you're doing to do this guy is illegal."

Judge Furgeson is an interesting jurist. He took a hard smackdown at the beginning of 2012 after disciplining a bankrupt person by imposing unusually severe penalties and conditions that the person in question claimed amounted to slavery. A federal appeals court agreed and ruled that Furgeson's action was "an abuse of discretion." Slavery, you know, not every judge has that on his record.

Furgeson has not been at ease in his work, anyway. He recently wrote an article for the Texas Bar Journal saying the paltry pay for federal judges, about $174,000 a year, may just force some of them to retire. "Salary erosion may compel senior judges who are losing ground financially to eventually choose retirement," he warned, "so that they can return to the private sector to make up for lost economic opportunity."

That's just what he is doing, by the way, after doing Dallas a big solid on the Groden case. Furgeson, now finishing up some work in the courts, will retire this year, but his fate will not be left to the vicissitudes of the private sector. As soon as he clears his desk at the courthouse — and maybe the Groden case does it for him — Furgeson will report for work as dean of the new college of law that the University of North Texas is starting in downtown Dallas because the world needs another law school. His selection was announced by University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee F. Jackson, who before retiring from politics to enter the academic world at the top was head of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, where he was best known for his ardent championing of the Trinity River toll road.

So at least within the comfortable confines of Dallas, things just have a way of working out, don't they? The problem — and this is what Dallas will walk straight into next November — is that the Kennedy assassination does not belong to Dallas. It is not the right or privilege of Dallas to throttle the event. Behaving as if it has that right is just wrong on so many levels. If the world, for some bizarre reason, did decide to choose somebody to throttle "The 50th," Dallas would not be selected, because Dallas is where the man got shot.

Last week I checked back with the mayor. His staff told me there had been no progress on a compromise between the assassination scholars, who want to carry out a moment of silence in Dealey Plaza that day, and the mossback committee, which wants them fenced and penned inside a small "dissent" area behind City Hall. The mossback committee has declined over three months even to respond to a request from COPA for a meeting.

When I met with the European documentary maker in the Zapruder Cappuccino Shop, I explained all of this. He asked if I thought the mayor would overrule the mossbacks, especially since the mayor had said such nice things about COPA and John Judge after meeting with them in Washington. I explained that the mayor lacks the ability or authority to overrule them. In Dallas, the mayor doesn't tell the mossbacks what to do. They tell him.

I could see the wheels spinning inside that European documentary filmmaker mind. A shadowy committee of elders who can defy the mayor and even make him dance to their tune, with a fear of the word "assassination." Just think if you had a hero figure who freezes the mossbacks to the ground by stalking them with forefingers held before him in a cross, muttering the word, "Assassination ... assassination."

Groden's civil rights suit, by the way, is by no means dead. He has other grounds and avenues on which to proceed, but the suit probably is stalled until after November 22. I hope nobody is stupid enough to think that will help. By the time "The 50th" gets here, the entire focus will be on the mossbacks. The T-shirts are already being printed (again, not kidding).

 

So I see us getting down to two choices. We act like this in front of the world because we're idiots. Or we act like this because we did it. Me, I'm not going anywhere near that event without a propeller beanie, short shorts and a huge lollipop.


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