By a bit after midnight on Wednesday morning, no sheriff’s deputies had arrived at the Monroe County courthouse lawn to enforce a local ordinance on hours of use for the grounds. [Updated at 2:24 a.m. on June 10, 2020: Sheriff’s deputies arrived around 12:30 a.m. Details appended below.]
For the last dozen nights in a row, the courthouse lawn, at the corner of Walnut Street and Kirkwood Avenue, has been the scene of protests against against police brutality and for the defunding of law enforcement.
Based on statements from the Monroe County legal department—made earlier in the day and at the county council’s Tuesday meeting—the expectation was that on Tuesday night, the hours of operation for the courthouse grounds would be enforced by sheriff’s deputies.
According to the ordinance, the grounds are open to the public only from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. But the 10 o’clock hour came and went on Tuesday night without any intervention by law enforcement.
Protests nationwide and locally were prompted by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, along with other recent police killings of Black men and women. Floyd was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, when the police officer pinned Floyd down with a knee-on-neck hold, a scene that was caught on video.
Nationally, momentum has started to build for conversations about a different approach to funding law enforcement, including de-funding it. At their Tuesday meeting, Monroe County councilors set June 30 at 6 p.m. as the date of a town hall gathering to start listening to input from community members on the topic. Details on the format of the event haven’t been settled.
President of the county council, Eric Spoonmore said the most important role for the council at the town hall is to listen to and learn from those in the community who are so often underrepresented.
At 10:58 p.m., a couple of hours after the county council meeting ended, protesters at the courthouse declared victory. By then, no law enforcement officers had arrived to hand out citations or arrest anyone for violating the ordinance on the hours of operation.
According to county attorney Margie Rice, speaking to county councilors during their Tuesday meeting, the fine for a first offense is $25, and for a second offense it’s $75. Or, if an officer needed to arrest someone, it it would be for trespassing, Rice said.
Some confusion was sown among protestors through the day on Tuesday when a posting went up in the windows and doors of the courthouse on Tuesday, announcing that the tents on the courthouse lawn would be removed by county staff starting at 10 a.m. on Friday morning. Later, protesters said, they were told they couldn’t be on the courthouse grounds after 10 p.m. starting that same night.
As Rice explained to the county council, there are two different ordinances. One regulates the hours of operation for the courthouse grounds. The other prohibits camping paraphernalia. The one prohibiting camping paraphernalia requires 72 hours notice before the county can remove it, Rice said, which is why the notices were posted on the courthouse windows and doors. The curfew for the courthouse grounds can be enforced at any time, Rice said.
After declaring victory for the night, one organizer of the protest told the group the conversation can’t end when the protests end—and the protests would eventually end, he said. It’s not enough to hold a sign that says “Black Lives Matter” at a protest, he said. They have to be willing to have tough conversations with family members and coworkers.
The town hall, now scheduled for June 30, was prompted by a special meeting last week of the county council to hear a request from the sheriff to fill two vacant deputy positions. Sheriff Brad Swain withdrew the request at the start of the meeting.
The request had to go through the county council, only because of a hiring freeze, imposed due to fiscal uncertainty from COVID-19 pandemic impacts to revenues.
The hiring freeze goes through July 1, the day after the town hall. Unless the hiring freeze is extended, the sheriff will be able to hire fill the vacant positions, without going in front of the county council, because they are already budgeted.
Earlier, Spoonmore told The Square Beacon the town hall is not meant to be a one-off meeting. He wants it to be guided by a criminal justice reform study the county has had in the works for more than a year.
“I am desperate to get my hands on that criminal justice report,” Spoonmore said.
At Tuesday’s county council meeting, Rice said she had a Friday phone call set up with the study’s consultant to get an update. She hopes to be able to provide some information from the study for the June 30 town hall.
The county council heard from several community members during public commentary on the scheduling of the town hall. Some recurring points included: make sure everyone feels safe in the space where the meeting is held; don’t bring preconceived ideas about outcomes; and do bring lots of data.
Update: Sheriff arrives with deputies around 12:30 a.m.
According to protestors still on the scene at the time, Monroe County’s sheriff, Brad Swain, and nine deputies arrived at the courthouse grounds around 12:30 a.m. No citations were issued and no arrests were made, they said.
Protesters did have to move from the courthouse grounds to the adjacent sidewalks, which are public right-of-way. At the county council’s meeting on Tuesday night, county attorney Margie Rice said that the courthouse grounds started at the steps, but people were free to demonstrate on the public sidewalks all night long.
Around 2:30 a.m. a couple dozen protesters were still clustered around the sidewalks. They told The Square Beacon they had removed the remaining tents before the sheriff arrived.