Yesterday evening we encountered something that we really haven’t dealt with before during our five-year tenure as the Mid-South’s premier zombie walk event (I just made that “premier” bit up; is it true?!): Persistent resistance from officials who did not want us there.
This post is going to be about public spaces and the right to assemble, the right to be weird, and the misplaced anger of some authority figures. It is likely to run long and be full of detail and some philosophic wonkery, so I’m putting the bulk of the post after a jump. Still, if you are interested in your rights as a taxpayer — hell, as a human being living in an increasingly vibrant city — to utilize public spaces in responsible yet creative ways, I encourage you to read it and let me know what you think.
This year was the second year that we began the walk at G.E. Patterson and South Main. Last year, we ended up doing our pre-walk staging in the grassy lot at Front and G.E. Patterson. This worked well for us for several reasons: 1) It gets our people away from the intersection and the street for those couple of hours it takes to set up and do makeup (a safety precaution). 2) It is a public area, not owned by a private business. 3) There’s shade and grass in the area so participants don’t get overheated. 4) There is plenty of free parking in the area.
So we decided to stage in that area again this year.
Almost immediately after we began setting out our boxes for the Mid-South Food Bank, I noticed a couple of women talking tersely with one of our organizers. I walked over to see what was going on, and the women began complaining that we were on MATA property and explaining that we, frankly, shouldn’t be. They were expecting people for a formal event later and we were in the way, there were MATA buses swinging through the adjacent parking lot (creating a safety hazard), they hadn’t been notified about this, there were people with Memphis In May coming to park in the area and we were taking up their spaces, there were people living nearby who had a right to know when something like this was happening near their home (I presume they meant the people living in the converted lofts on the corner of S. Main and G.E. Patterson; that’s where she gestured), etc.
I assured the women that we had a permit, and pulled it out of my purse to show them. I also assured them that we would be out of their hair at 6:30 p.m., the time we’d be heading toward Beale. By then it was 4:30 or 5.
Every year, we file a permit application with the city’s permits office. They look at our area of activity (they ask you to include a map with your application) and determine which organizations and people we need to call to get our activity cleared. Perennially we are asked to clear our event with Performa, the company that manages Beale Street. We are usually asked to contact the police lieutenant who is over special events, although the past couple of years we haven’t had to do that (because, I assume, our event is expected and fairly unobtrusive and given a sort of implied consent). In the past we have had to clear our event with a smattering of other organizations (South Main Association, Beale Street Merchants, etc.), but this year, as soon as Performa faxed their OK to the permits office, we were approved and I was told to come retrieve our permit.
Keep in mind that a public assembly/parade permit costs $25 plus $3 to have notarized. We pay this small fee every year because we like the reassurance a permit provides. We did lots of research the first year of the zombie walk, and found that in other cities, the undead throngs had run into resistance from police and others who didn’t understand what was going on or why, and didn’t think zombies had a right to gather, as silly as that sounds. I think it was Chattanooga’s zombie walk one year that ended up being canceled because of resistance from police, who made outright arrest threats. We didn’t want to end up on the bad side of police or anyone else; we recognized the fun “surprise!” part of a flash mob, but we had no intention of our flash mob getting derailed by our lack of planning and coordination with officials. What has resulted from our compliance with the permits office is a sense of familiarity with our event among many Downtown police officers. Last year, I overheard The CA‘s Michael Donahue talking with an officer on Beale Street.
“What do you think of all this?” Donahue asked the officer.
“I love it!” the officer replied, beaming at the kids lurching and being silly all around him. “If I didn’t have to work, I’d do it!”
So this is why I was taken aback at being pushed — pretty hard — by the MATA representatives. After the representatives listed their initial complaints to me and a fellow organizer, we asked what we could do to help alleviate their worry (since we had no plans to pack up and leave, we felt it best to attempt a compromise). They asked us to move any cars parked on the north side of the Central Station pavilion to the south side, so that their people coming for a special event would have the closer parking spaces. We happily complied, thinking that would be the end of MATA’s suffering.
But they kept insisting that we had no right to be hanging out in the grassy area at Front and G.E. Patterson because we had not cleared our permit application with MATA and our permit only covered our walk route. I’ve thought a lot about this in the intervening hours and decided that in my application, I should have erred on the side of extreme caution and made it clearer that we would be staging at in that grassy lot near G.E. Patterson and South Main. I drew a map of the route and mainly emphasized the route itself, and not the place we figured people would be milling around before the walk. Had I made it clearer that we would be half a block west of our starting point for an hour or two before the walk, the permits office might have instructed me to call MATA. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure they would have. (MATA was copied, along with many other city offices, on the approved permit.) And besides, that grassy area is a public space. It’s not owned privately by a business and it’s not someone’s front lawn. I even asked the MATA representatives point blank, “Is this a private lot?” They said no.
We sort of reached a point where we had to agree to disagree; I told them our permit was on file in the permits office and they were more than welcome to check it out. (I also showed them my copy and gave them my name.) I went back over to the staging area to check on how things were going, but noticed that one of the MATA representatives was just fixated on our crowd and had a phone to her ear for quite a while. At about 5:45 — 45 minutes from our start time — I noticed that the same lady was sitting in a van facing our crowd, looking very unhappy.
A man in a white shirt came over to me and asked me to please come talk to the MATA representatives and try to reach some sort of compromise. He said he was with Norfolk (the railroad company), and I was sort of chagrined because I thought we had reached a compromise when we all moved our cars and explained that we would be out of MATA’s hair at 6:30.
The MATA representative was still very unhappy with this turn of events, and went over her list of complaints — plus some new ones — with me again.
• We presented a safety hazard, being so close to the area where MATA buses were coming by.
• It was my responsibility to clear our event with MATA despite the city having approved it.
• MATA had to incur the cost of a second after-hours security guard because of us and that had to come out of her budget and that was going to really hurt.
• They were expecting Memphis In May people to come park and we had taken up all the spaces. (I asked if the lot was a private lot and they said it’s not, unless there is a special event, at which point it becomes reserved. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it was clear to the average person that the lot was reserved that evening; it wasn’t blocked off or marked when we arrived at 4:30.)
• The people coming to a nearby special event were coming for a Christian event, and shouldn’t have to see zombies on their way because that offends them. (My response: “This is a FOOD DRIVE!”)
• The people living in the lofts nearby deserved to know who was hanging out in their back yard (fun fact: they live next door to a former brothel).
• Our event was causing people to drive into the wrong entrance to the parking lot. (When a black convertible — filled with people who were not even there for our event — entered the parking lot in the apparently incorrect manner, a MATA security guard stopped the car and, according to witnesses, got out his pepper spray and told them to leave.)
• We were littering and leaving a mess. (You’ll see in a bit that this was a premature complaint; we work hard to leave our staging areas in good shape. We returned to pick up what little litter was left, and the fake blood stains on the grass will wash away when it rains.)
• Someone was skateboarding. (I had to go over to the guy and be the heavy who told him to cut it out, even though he wasn’t hurting or bothering anyone.)
There were more complaints but frankly I lost track at that point. I asked repeatedly what we could do to help, to make MATA feel better about our presence. We had already moved our cars to the far side of the parking lot. I suggested that, if they wanted to preserve the spots in the lot, they could have the guard manning the entrance to the lot tell incoming zombie participants just to park elsewhere. “There is plenty of street parking around here,” I told the MATA lady. “Have him just turn our participants away. They can park elsewhere.” But rather than take me up on the suggestion, the representative started complaining that her security guard shouldn’t even have to worry about directing traffic (despite the fact that he was posted at the entrance to a parking lot). And she mentioned that usually that lot is blocked off for special events. (I’m not sure, then, why it wasn’t actually blocked off when we arrived.)
She was also worried that we posed a safety hazard for the buses that were coming into and out of the parking lot. I asked if it would help if we made sure people kept to the grass. She said yes, so I went over and, with the help of other organizers, tried to herd people onto the grass and off the concrete.
I came back to see what else we could do to help, and just continued being given a rundown of complaints that, honestly, I could not do anything about. I think she just wanted someone to listen to her complaints and feel bad about them. I stood there for quite a while and just let her vent, and when I realized that there was nothing we could do to make this woman happy, I asked her, “Are we doing anything illegal?” The answer was, of course, no. By then her fellow MATA rep had taken our permit and gone to make a copy of it. I waited for her to get back before I told them both that I needed to get back to the group because it was almost time for us to go. They were still unhappy. So much so that it seemed like any time an organizer passed by the van where they were positioned, watching our group, that organizer would get pulled aside and given the same laundry list of complaints as I had been given several times.
At 6:30, just like we had planned and promised, we were out of the staging area. The organizers packed up the boxes of food and picked up what little trash had been left behind. After the walk, several of us came back through and made sure the area looked OK. I threw away a couple of soda bottles, a makeup brush, and a cardboard sign that had been left by a film crew. Other than that, and a few “blood stains” on the grass (that will wash away when it rains), the place looked fine. Here are pictures taken at 7:36 p.m. Friday:
In some ways I sympathize with the MATA people. They were pissed that they didn’t expect us in their area because no one consulted them. They were worried that someone was going to get hurt and that they would be liable. Plus, they were probably taken aback by the level of (fake) gore on display; a zombie walk may be easily understood by people into horror films or performance art, but the average person probably still thinks the spectacle is weird and troublesome. MATA was worried about security and what kind of shape we would leave the area in, both of which are valid concerns. But those concerns are shared by the walk’s organizers: We don’t want anyone getting hurt or leaving a mess or posing a security problem either. Our future marches depend on the success and reception of the current one and we work hard to try and get everyone on board with us so we avoid such problems.
Here’s the crux of the issue, as I see it. Zombies — as wacky and scary as they may look — have a right to assemble as much as the next oddball niche group. And that’s why the MATA rep’s claim about the nearby Christian group really rubbed me the wrong way. First off, what makes her so sure that there aren’t Christians among our ranks? Plus, by bringing that aspect into her argument, she was calling into question the content of our speech and suggesting that it was inappropriate for that public venue. All this, despite the fact that we weren’t there being political or making a statement, other than “boo!” — and even that was in jest. We were there to get ready and to stay off the street before our march, and to take up food donations. And to be weird while doing all that, sure. But that’s relatively harmless. The fact that the appearance of some of those in attendance might offend passersby has no bearing on our right to be there. (And, honestly, the vast majority of people who see us stop to take pictures and don’t even think to get offended.) I suspect that’s why, even after the MATA rep spent all that time on the phone, no police officers ever showed up. Because what would they have told us?
It was frustrating on my end offering again and again to compromise, each time being told that it’s just not enough. What they wanted, I think, was for us to go back in time do everything over a different way, perhaps somewhere far away from the MATA area. And the MATA rep made it sound like she was going to make lots of phone calls and visits to find out just exactly how we landed in that little grassy area. Her tone was ominous. I presume that means she might make it more difficult for us to land there again next year, which would be a real shame, considering all the benefits I listed at the top of this post. But, you know, we’ll see.
Hopefully next time around any security guards we encounter will keep their pepper spray in their pockets.