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Dallas Still Wants to Control Speech on JFK Anniversary

Jared Boggess

Nothing could be crazier or sadder. It is the continued determination of a small group of people in Dallas to tightly control public observations of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination here. They want to banish the public from Dealey Plaza where it happened so that no one can go there and raise questions.

At the behest of this group, the city has agreed to barricade and shut down Dealey Plaza for two weeks bracketing the November 22 anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's murder in 1963. The longer this goes on and the closer we draw to the date, the more I feel myself getting spooked out by the whole thing. This is some weird stuff.

The city's stated goal is to keep Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists away from the immense hordes of international press that city leaders fear will show up for the event. First of all, immense hordes are not coming. C'mon. If you asked people on the street right now to tell you who JFK was, half would guess he was a rapper.

But a pretty decent-sized contingent of press might show up to see Dallas acting like we did it. "Half Century Later, Dallas Still Guilty" — now that's a decent little color piece. The more City Hall keeps doing cheap imitations of a 1950s TV detective show, the better chance we have of actually drawing interest and attention next November, all of it bad.

Last week another shoe dropped onto the overwhelming mountain of evidence already arguing that shutting down Dealey Plaza is a manifestly imbecilic and self-defeating idea. An appeals court came down entirely on the side of Robert Groden, a best-selling author and assassination expert whom the city has been hounding for a decade. The court's finding was a refutation of everything the city has ever said about its right to control Dealey Plaza.

In 2010 a trial court judge quashed the city's case against Groden for selling assassination tracts in Dealey Plaza. Even though the city had come up with three different versions of what they claimed Groden did wrong, the trial judge said it still failed to find a single law he had broken. By the way, this was the 81st time the city had been tossed out of court for trying to banish Groden form Dealey Plaza. Eighty-one. If in the first 80 times you do not succeed, try an 81st!

The city appealed the trial judge's ruling in 2010. It took the appeals court three years to make up its mind, but last week a judge finally handed down the score: Groden 81, city of Dallas goose-egg. A few days later the city informed Bradley Kizzia, Groden's lawyer, that they will not appeal again. The city attorney's office confirmed this to me.

I learned recently that when Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was in Washington last January for the inauguration, he met with John Judge of the Coalition on Presidential Assassinations, a national umbrella group for assassination scholars and conspiracy theorists, to explore the possibility of compromise on the 50th observations. Judge told me that he offered the mayor three possible compromise positions.

First, Judge suggested the city move its memorial event to the Kennedy Memorial site two blocks from Dealey Plaza and leave the plaza open to the public to whom to it belongs. Second, if the city insisted on using the plaza for its memorial, Judge proposed the city allow COPA to be present during the observation in some nondisruptive fashion. And finally if the city just could not share the moment, Judge suggested that a staggered timing be worked out so that COPA could move into the plaza and hold its own event immediately before or immediately after the city's event.

Mayor Rawlings confirmed to me he had met with Judge in Washington and discussed possible points of compromise. Of the suggestion that the official event remove itself from Dealey Plaza and leave the plaza open, Rawlings told me he told Judge, "I don't think so." He said he did agree to relay a request from COPA that it be allowed to meet with the committee sponsoring the event to present its thoughts, something the committee has declined to allow so far in spite of previous requests from COPA.

Rawlings told me that since returning to Dallas he has met with members of the event committee and has relayed COPA's request to talk to them. He sounded reasonably though not totally optimistic that such a meeting will take place. "If they [the committee] want to, I think we will make that happen," he said.

He also said this about Judge and his group: "John's a nice guy. It was a good conversation. I felt that they cared about this day as much as anybody, so we needed to continue that dialogue.

 

"I was pleased with a couple of things I heard them say. One is that it's not a massive group. I was afraid it was 500 people or something. I think it's not. I think it's a smaller group. And second, they've been very respectful [in the past]. In fact they were complaining about somebody who had disrespected their moment of silence. So I liked the tenor of what they were talking about."

COPA, by the way, has a long history of solemn and respectful observations at Dealey Plaza on previous anniversaries of JFK's death. Like Groden, Judge and most of the people we are talking about here are mature scholars who choose their words carefully and know how to behave when they go downtown. The suggestion that there is something ominous or dangerous about them — a linchpin of the city's 81 failed cases against Groden — is a lot of what keeps getting the city laughed out of court.

In fact, for the most part the assassination writers and theorists only look scary when you read about them in the pages of The Dallas Morning News, whose writers have described them as necrophiliacs and fiends in the past. The News, of course, was singled out at the time of the assassination for having fanned the flames of extremism in Dallas. Plus ça change.

Dallas would probably have had an easier time of it in the courts if it had launched a jack-booted horseback and lasso round-up of professors of Greek love poetry. No judge has ever been able to find anything wrong with people standing around on the grass on Dealey Plaza speaking to the hordes of tourists who come there seeking answers to the JFK assassination mystery.

And it is a mystery. Most of the world takes it as a mystery. But organizers of the official Dallas City Hall event for the 50th are determined that no one must be allowed to speak those three words — it's a mystery — at any time or in any place near the event.

Groden was a consultant to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations convened in 1976, which said in a report two years later it had found credible scientific evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing Kennedy. The report didn't say who did it. It said it was a mystery.

The murder is still an open case, a point driven home here recently when sponsors of the city's official 50th observation succeeded in luring members of the Kennedy family back to Dallas for an official event — the first time since the assassination. At a gathering in the Arts District, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said exactly the same thing the city has been persecuting Groden for saying in Dealey Plaza: It's a mystery. Kennedy said his father, the assassinated RFK, publicly endorsed the lone-gunman findings of the Warren Commission but privately dismissed those findings and derided the commission's report as "a shoddy piece of work."

Early on in this effort, city officials went to great lengths to explain their sensitivity to the feelings of the Kennedy family, even suggesting at one point that the word "assassination" would be banished from all publicity and proceedings lest it cause the Kennedys to recall something they had perhaps forgotten about. Of course, that story went sailing out the window when RFK came to town and said his father thought the Warren Commission was bunk.

In fact for all its lugubrious, funeral-home hand-wringing, it's the city now that begins to emerge as ludicrous and profane in its treatment of this event. How could Dallas, of all the cities in the world, ever have gotten the idea that it had the right to control this particular conversation?

The mayor's more reasonable tone may offer hope for a more reasonable outcome, but he was careful to tell me that this particular piece of business is not in his hands. He repeated a few time that decisions about the 50th are in the hands of "the committee."

I am slowly coming to my own personal theory about "the committee," the people behind Dallas' effort to basically make this day go away. The committee includes some window-dressing and diversity names, but the core group is made up of way-back Dallas society and money names including Ruth Sharp Altshuler, Deedie Rose, Erle Nye, Margot Perot and Caren Prothro. I suspect their obsession with this event is linked somehow with the Kennedy assassination having been the first time in human history that international live television took a place most people had never heard of before and cast it out naked onto the center stage of world attention, covered in shame and blood as if in a scene from Stephen King's Carrie.

 

For the people on whose watch all of that happened in 1963, the assassination became the cause for their own personal arrested development. Only by thinking of it that way can I make sense of their approach to the 50th.

It's not the Kennedy family they're worried about. And I don't even think it has anything to do with the city's vaunted image. Images don't really go back 50 years. More like 50 minutes in this world.

It's the nightmare. They're afraid the nightmare is coming back. The strangest thing, the spookiest thing, the saddest thing in all of this is that they are the ones conjuring it out of the ground.


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