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The City of Hate Is Now the City of Bullies

Robert Groden expects Dallas to keep coming after him on Dealey Plaza.
Mark Graham

One way or another, the Robert Groden situation in Dealey Plaza will fester and erupt again in months ahead. You know who I mean. Groden is the Kennedy assassination expert who sells books and videos there on weekends. The city has been trying to get rid of him forever.

Funny. People get the car-wash issue — my stories about the people who wash cars for a living at Jim's Car Wash in South Dallas and how the city abuses an anti-begging ordinance to ticket and harass them. I think folks like the car-washers. They're doing something most of us admire, striving to overcome poverty the hard way, by toil of their hands and sweat of their brows. Everybody sees why the city's oppression of them is reprehensible.

Almost nobody gets Groden. The city has done the same thing to him it does to the car-washers, illegally ticketing and even arresting and jailing him for an activity that is specifically allowed by city ordinance and protected by the Constitution.

Most people don't care. I think most people don't like what Groden does. It sounds cheesy and undignified, an embarrassment to the city in a very public and focal venue, the very site of the city's greatest anguish and humiliation. The message of the recent 50th anniversary ceremony at Dealey Plaza, deemed a success by almost everybody but me, was that Dallas wanted to commemorate the Kennedy assassination with taste and dignity and then forget about it or at least not dwell on it. It's hard to argue with that. Obsessing about tragedy seems sick after a while.

I can make a case for Groden. He's a charming guy with serious credentials as an author and as an expert on the Kennedy assassination. Whenever I visit his little spot on the Grassy Knoll on good weather weekends, he always has a crowd of tourists around paying rapt attention. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Dealey Plaza every year to put their feet on the sod where it happened. Listening to Groden is an interesting and positive part of that experience for many.

But, look. I don't have to make that case. All I really need to tell you is that the city has ticketed him more than 80 times and arrested and jailed him, and literally every one of those tickets and arrests has been ruled illegal by the courts. By illegal, I mean that local and appeals courts have ruled that Dallas arrested or otherwise harassed Groden for something that was not illegal. After a couple dozen of those, I think we can assume the city knew it was breaking the law.

In all of that litigation, a certain archive of emails and other communications has been developed showing a clear trail of purpose and intent by the city over 10 years' time to force Groden out of Dealey Plaza by whatever means necessary. The one healthy outcome from all of that is that the city was forced a couple of years ago to rewrite its ordinances governing vendors in parks in such a way as to specifically distinguish and protect Groden's activities at Dealey Plaza as constitutionally protected speech. So he's still there every weekend doing his thing.

But now he is at a dangerous moment. A couple of weeks ago, with almost no notice from mainstream media, a federal jury ruled against Groden in a civil rights lawsuit. He lost. I guess it wasn't news.

That email trail I told you about showed elaborate planning for his arrest from police headquarters to the park department at City Hall, but, for reasons never explained, a federal judge, who was in the process of leaving the bench for a comfortable academic appointment, dismissed the city from the case as a defendant. Then he turned the case over to a new judge. That left the arresting cop out there on his lonesome, as if he had thought it all up on his own whim.

When the jury announced its verdict clearing the police officer of violating Groden's civil rights, the jury also sent the judge a question, which he read in open court. They wanted to know why the city was not a defendant.

Bradley Kizzia, who was Groden's attorney, was not without sympathy for the jury afterward. He said, "Without having benefit of the opportunity to talk to the jurors, the impression based upon the question they submitted was that they didn't want to leave a 30-plus-year veteran police officer who was on the verge of retirement holding the bag for a policy that his superiors put into place and approved of."

In an ironic sense Kizzia's own case and the evidence he put before the jury may have made it more difficult for jurors to rule in his favor, given the decision to let the city out of it. Kizzia had shown the jury emails from the police officer's superior officer directing him to help carry out a formal campaign of enforcement against Groden and telling the officer that the object was less to win a conviction than merely to cover him up with citations.

 

The arresting officer reported back to his superior that Groden had been kept in jail long enough, before bonding out, to be made uncomfortable by denial of access to needed medications. The superior officer emailed the arresting officer back congratulating him on a job well done. So how could the jury blame the officer alone?

No court has ever ruled that the city's ticketing and arrest of Groden was anything but illegal. Up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the courts have consistently ruled against the city. But this federal jury ruled that Groden and his lawyer had not proven to them that the police officer who arrested him was personally responsible for violating his federally protected civil rights in a way that would make the officer alone vulnerable to a verdict for damages.

So where, exactly, does that leave it, and why do I fear mischief ahead? First of all, Groden will never leave the fight while he's still breathing. "I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing for the last 20 years," he told me. "I'm going to stay in the plaza.

"The one good thing we did get out of this is what they have been calling the Groden law, the fact that the ordinance has been written to protect what we do, until they try something new, I suppose."

But Kizzia pointed to my car-wash stories and sketched for me a disturbing theme common to both. I can raise Cain all I want about the city breaking the law by ticketing the car washers. The courts can rule as often as they like in Groden's favor, deciding that the city has been ticketing and arresting him without any basis in law.

But there is no price. There is no cost to the city. Kizzia said, "It's one thing to waste city resources and police resources to harass somebody out of business, throw them in jail, and then, you know, fight it all the way up to the court of criminal appeals and then lose and have those courts declare what you probably already knew, that you were using an inapplicable ordinance. But what's the cost of that?

"If they can do that and never face any consequences other than to have the court say, 'Hey, what you did was wrong,' then they'll do it again." He called the car-wash deal "another example of an inapplicable ordinance that they are using as bullies to force their will upon somebody. Until a court and jury assess some financial consequences of that, you know, I suspect they're going to keep doing it."

Obviously that's where the two stories come together for me. Whether you like the car washers, don't like Groden, whatever, the unifying theme is a dangerous official arrogance. Dallas City Hall has learned it can get away with ticketing and even arresting people even though city officials including police officials know full well that those people have done no wrong, and even when City Hall gets caught doing it there will be no cost.

If there is any fear of God at all tempering the police campaign against the car wash, it is City Hall's knowledge that the owners of the car wash have the ear of powerful state legislators who have intervened to protect them in the past and could do so again. In the last round almost 10 years ago, everybody from the mayor to the police chief wound up in front of a committee in Austin eating crow. People have short memories and this is an all-new cast at City Hall since then, but maybe they have looked at some of the old video.

In the Groden case, he and his lawyer have an even tighter, more hardball strategy to hold the city at bay. Kizzia told me the federal civil rights case produced an unanticipated trove of evidence tying Groden's plight to a conspiracy between the city and the semi-private Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, a longtime and sworn Groden nemesis.

Groden is suing the museum in state court and that suit may be his best chance to hold the city off. As we saw at the time of the 50th, the museum is a favorite project of the city's old guard establishment, who would surely hate to see it severely gouged.

Really it's a shame that the museum ever found its way into the center of this crossfire. But we should all be able to get what Groden and Kizzia are saying: The persecution of Groden and the car-wash story, taken together, are ample proof that City Hall will keep on illegally bullying people this way until there is a price.

 

If there is no price painful enough to impress City Hall, maybe there will be one for the museum. Something has to get their attention.


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