Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Activist arrested for trespassing while selling buttons

Silver Spring man returns to Kensington Farmers Market; town officials say market is for produce

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Alan McConnell was arrested on Saturday morning at the Kensington Farmers Market for trespassing to sell his political buttons. The Town of Kensington maintains that the market is for produce and homemade goods only.
Alan McConnell flopped limp on the ground in defiance as Montgomery County Police officers tried to arrest the 74-year-old Silver Spring man Saturday morning.

But three officers carried McConnell away from the Kensington Farmers Market and arrested him for violating a no-trespass warning issued by police on Thursday, barring him from selling his wares at the weekly market.

Now McConnell could face a maximum penalty of six months in jail and $1,000 in fines for selling $1 political buttons after the town warned him not to come back to the market, which is meant only for produce, flowers and home-grown products.

Despite his arrest, McConnell vowed to return to the market to stand up for what he says is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

‘‘I will be back, I will be on the sidewalk,” McConnell said from his home Monday afternoon. McConnell was released Saturday from the Montgomery County Detention Center.

Only the parking lot where the market is held is included in the no-trespass order, and McConnell said he plans to be at least 10 to 15 feet away.

The scuffle between Kensington and McConnell escalated on June 30 when the town asked police to issue a no-trespass order that would bar McConnell from selling his buttons, which read ‘‘Impeach Him,” referring to President Bush, at the market.

McConnell is a founder of the Washington Area Impeachment Fund LLC, a company that uses the proceeds from the button sales to purchase more buttons and lawn signs bearing the same message.

But Kensington officials said the buttons don’t fit with the homemade products and produce that have been the foundation of the market for at least 12 years.

McConnell claims his right to free speech was restricted unfairly, but he has never had town approval to sell the ‘‘Impeach Him” buttons, according to town officials.

McConnell, who said he sold the buttons weekly at the Kensington market for months, was asked to leave the market on June 16 by Kensington town staff. He left the market that day, but returned on June 30. Town officials again asked him to leave, but when he refused, they called Montgomery County Police who issued the no-trespass order.

Despite warnings and citations, McConnell went back to the market just after 10:30 a.m. Saturday, sold his buttons, was issued another town citation and was arrested by police within 30 minutes.

He and nearly 40 supporters staged a protest at the Kensington Farmers Market Saturday morning to show their disapproval.

Officers repeatedly asked McConnell to stand up and go with them, but he refused and stayed on the ground as some people approached and bought buttons.

At least three different anti-Bush activist groups booed and chanted free speech slogans as McConnell, still limp in the arms of officers, was carried into a police cruiser and taken to the county detention center in Rockville.

McConnell also received a second citation, which could carry a $500 fine, from the town for selling goods at the market without a proper license because he was not a town-sanctioned vendor.

‘‘This isn’t just an old fart standing on principle,” McConnell said on Thursday before his arrest. ‘‘If we have to get vendors licenses [to sell buttons], we’re dead.”

He said his company wouldn’t have enough money to purchase vendor licenses for the town fairs and markets he and other Impeachment Fund employees visit, around the Washington, D.C., area.

Kensington officials said the vendor license costs $35 for the summer.

According to a Montgomery County Police report, the land where the market is held is owned by CSX, serves as the parking lot for the MARC train station and is leased to the town. McConnell believed the lot was public property, owned by the town, and that he had a right to sell the buttons there.

Protesters weren’t the only ones up in arms about McConnell.

Vendors said their sales were affected by the political theater on the sidewalk.

Dave Richards, a produce seller from Prince George’s County, said there were certainly more people at the market, but few were buying produce.

‘‘We’re just trying to wait on customers that have been here for 10 years,” he said. ‘‘[The protesters] are turning it into a flea market.”

He had seen McConnell selling the buttons before, and said it had a negative effect on market-goers.

‘‘He makes you feel uncomfortable,” Richards said. ‘‘If you buy a button, you’re a Democrat and if you don’t, you’re a Republican. Either way, you’re making people uncomfortable.”

Several protesters, including Kensington residents Pam and Michael Sysick, said it would be difficult to keep such a high level of interest in protesting at the Kensington Farmers Market in the future.

However, Larry Bryant, a longtime friend and fellow activist said there’s a good chance McConnell would be back.

‘‘I think it’s up to Alan and how much he can resist the urge to come back,” he said.