Clowns are creepy. There is something weird about a grown person who dons a rubber nose, floppy feet and loud clothes. Children don't know what to think of them. They stare with mouth open and thumb in mouth. Some cry. Clowns terrify my sister.
So when I read on Facebook that a police officer arrested Humboldt's own clown extraordinaire, Shea Freelove, last week, I wasn't sure what to think.
But it was Halloween night. And Freelove was dressed, he later wrote me, as an explorer. Not a clown. Much less frightening.
Here's what happened, according to Freelove. He was on the Plaza, as were many other Halloween revelers, around midnight, when he thought he would saunter up to a police officer and engage in a conversation about the city's new fire safety rules, which make it difficult for street performers, like Freelove, to use fire gadgets in their acts. The officer pushed him away, almost knocking him down. Freelove came back later to ask the same question. An officer grabbed him by the throat, pinned his arm behind his back, handcuffed him and booked him into the Humboldt County Jail, under the name Shea Love Freedomhowler. There he sat for four hours, until released.
Here is a guy who seems to live for entertaining people for very little money. You can't live in this area for long without seeing his act. He performs for kids at the Arcata Farmer's Market for free.
But let's put things into perspective. Last Halloween, the Plaza turned ugly. Apparently things were ugly this Halloween, as well. Police said they arrested some wacko who had an assault rifle around his neck and a magazine for it in his pocket. And in one of the many fights, someone got his ear cut off.
Still, with armed crazies and severed ears, why would you bother with a clown like Freelove?
I was in the Plaza earlier that day walking my daughter from store to store so she could collect treats and show off the kangaroo costume I made her. (It is all about the pouch!) It seemed like Hokeytown, U.S.A. Except for the police. There were barricades around the Plaza's inner circle. Police ringed President McKinley like Secret Service. The city stationed 36 officers and 15 cadets around and throughout the Plaza. We couldn't walk up Eighth Street to get to our car parked on F Street. We had to walk around the bank because the police had the road closed off for the Critical Incident Response Vehicle, an impressive looking van the size of a small apartment.
When you send out a message to the community to stay away, law-abiding people stay away. That leaves the troublemakers. Police get hyped up by their expectation of trouble. And people who aren't there to cause trouble find themselves in the midst of it. It is a recipe for trouble.
I find it troublesome that in Humboldt County, our governments reach for the pound of police presence as their ounce of prevention, particularly when the trouble is linked to some form of assembly.
We have in this country the right to assemble. It is one of the five rights embedded in the First Amendment, along with speech, press, religion and petition. When Occupy Humboldt set up camp in front of the courthouse last year, the county responded with police and criminal penalties. You will argue that people dressed up in Halloween costumes is not First Amendment protected speech or assembly, but it could be. On Oct. 26 dozens of community college students dressed as zombies "attacked" a crowd of people demonstrating in support of Prop. 30 to show what they thought would happen if the voters reject the funding measure.
It is interesting that Freelove found himself on the ground and handcuffed after trying to engage an officer in a conversation about a new law. Couldn't the officer have just humored him and said: "Hey man, I don't pass the laws and I think the law sucks too"? Then Freelove would probably have blabbered for a while and staggered off.
Does a dinky town like Arcata really need more than 40 police to protect people and property on Halloween? Bear in mind, I like police and I like laws. As a middle-aged, middle class white woman, my personal experiences with police have been all good. I think we need more laws. But couldn't there have been a response that didn't send such a militarized message?
In big cities, when you send the message that a public place, like a park, is dangerous, the friendly people won't go near it. Drug pushers, users and gangs then make it their home. When you send the message that family-friendly activities will happen, scary people stay away because nothing frightens them more than family-friendly activities. So I say police should be our last option, not our first response. Before we reach for the baton as a means of preventing violence, try instead something more benignly frightening.
Bring out the Humboldt Harmonaires! Fill the center of the Plaza with 30 old men crooning barbershop songs. I guarantee you the troublemakers will flee. Bring out some accordion players and the guys with the didgeridoos. Imagine an army of fiddlers. Get those drunks to two-step or square dance and they'll fall flat on their faces. You won't have to worry about them till dawn. Get the whole crowd to line dance to "Achy Breaky Heart." Break out the Abba. If that doesn't work, send in the clowns. They'll scare everyone away.
Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She wonders if Shea's case wasn't one of mistaken identity. Maybe we should ask: What was Steven Weaven doing that night?