Note from Dan: While I’m on vacation, I’m treating you to some oldie-but-goodie columns from the past. Remember the arrest at the City Market Building of the performance artist, by the police officer who had no sense of humor? This column ran May 17, 2009.
Are you feeling safer yet?
Last week in the Roanoke Valley, the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrapped up the final cases against a local heroin distribution ring that was selling at least 130,000 bags of heroin a year.
The FBI managed to maintain no-bail status for a small gang of young men alleged to have plotted fearsome kidnappings of women out of their Southwest Roanoke County homes.
The Roanoke Police Department created a Web site listing the names of 2,480 people wanted on outstanding warrants.
Meanwhile Thursday, a Roanoke police officer busted a woman for the subversive act of pretending to watch TV.
Did you get that? He protected the citizenry from performance art — in the center of a town that desperately wants to be the “Arts Capital of the Blue Ridge.”
Did you see the video? It led the TV news and it’s all over YouTube. We’ve got it on our Web site as well. It’s bizarre.
Officer Reinhold “Bill” Lucas could have been out chasing one of the 2,480 wanted men and women listed on the city’s Web site.
Instead, he was outside the Roanoke City Market Building manhandling and handcuffing Katherine Gwaltney, 27. He charged her with impeding foot traffic and obstruction of justice. It was unclear Friday how severe the penalties she might face are.
A little background:
Officer Lucas is a 34-year veteran of the city’s police department, assigned to downtown. You may have seen him before, astride a horse with the mounted patrol, which a budget-conscious city council recently voted to disband.
A little more background:
For more than a year now, members of the local arts community have created improvisational performance art projects. They have staged zany outdoor pillow fights in Century Plaza and a Big Wheel race down the spiraling Church Avenue parking garage. They participated in the 11,000-bouncing-rubber-ball drop in the Center in the Square atrium on New Year’s Eve.
These are silly, amusing, nonviolent happenings designed to pique curiosity and tickle passers-by. They generate excitement around town and provoke thought.
Plenty of thought was provoked on the city market at lunchtime on Thursday, when dozens of people showed up with unplugged TVs, then sat or stood motionlessly and gazed into the sets for five minutes. (Although many contributed, the idea was sparked by downtown resident Katherine Walker).Some onlookers thought the TV gazers were silly. Others thought they were interesting. More than one opined it was a clever statement about a society that watches too much TV, or something like that.
The word “thought,” however, is an inapt description of Officer Lucas’ reaction.
It certainly seemed like he felt provoked, though.
“I will not allow, these people, to sit on the sidewalk and impede vehicle or foot traffic!” he bellowed.
“And if they continue doing it, I will charge them and take their TVs as evidence!” he barked.
Then he demanded the Hollins University student’s identification. When she ignored him he snatched away her TV. When she continued to try to watch it, he slapped handcuffs on her.
Many different terms can be used to characterize the officer’s response. “Brow-beating,” “ham-handed” and “freaked out” come to mind. “Dumb” and “stupid” do, too.
(Friday, Roanoke police spokeswoman Aisha Johnson said the department has received phone calls and e-mails both criticizing and commending the officer’s actions, but no formal complaints. The department declined to make him available for comment).
Lucas must have left his funny bone at home Thursday morning. Or maybe he’s mad because the city council took away his horse.
Perhaps Gwaltney took her blank-TV-gazing “performance” a little too far. She certainly managed to stay in character all the way through her handcuffing — you’ve got to give her that.
In a different city and in a different age, Gwaltney’s arrest might have made Lucas eligible for a commendation.
But this is 2009 in Roanoke, Va., a city that’s trying to remake itself as an arts destination.
It’s not Berlin in the late 1930s, or Chicago in 1968.
Instead, says downtown landscape architect Greg Webster, all that was proved is “we still have a long way to go to catch up to major art-appreciated metropolitan areas where younger crowds flock.”
Let’s hope a judge sees it that way — and orders city police to develop a sense of humor.