Rick “Harpman Hatter” BoCook, Spokane’s top-hatted harmonica player, has already forced two city ordinances to change. It was he, with help from Gonzaga Law School, who led the charge to remove the peddler’s license requirement for street musicians. It was he who helped convince the city of Spokane to rewrite its noise ordinances to allow street musicians to play louder than their surroundings.
Now, he has a park department ordinance in his crosshairs. On Saturday, at noon, he’s planned a demonstration in Riverfront Park to protest.
Without express permission (or a permit) from the park, entertainers aren’t allowed to ask for donations in Spokane’s parks. They can play, sure. Just not with, say, their guitar cases open.
He has Spokane’s nonprofit Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union as his allies.
“The first thing that’s clear is that as it is right now, it’s not constitutional,” attorney Rose Spidell of ACLU-Washington says. “This is a pretty sweeping restriction on a protected activity.”
Asking for money, she explains, is usually protected speech. And since parks are public forums, a whole lot of expression is protected. The Ninth Circuit Court, Spidell says, found broad restrictions on entertainers in the Seattle Center to be unconstitutional.
“It is something we want to get to and clean it up,” Spokane City Attorney Mike Piccolo says. But currently, the city attorney’s plate is overflowing.
“We’re trying to go through different topics and different ordinances in more of a methodical way,” Piccolo says. Investigating the constitutionality of banning musical solicitation in parks just hasn’t risen to the top of the city’s lengthy legal agenda.
And that’s exactly why BoCook wants to make some noise — to give the city some reason to kick it further up the agenda.
“I don’t look at it as me versus the city,” BoCook says. “I look at it as, ‘Hey, your laws are archaic.’”
At first, BoCook says, the Center for Justice suggested he challenge the rule by playing in Riverfront Park and waiting for police to approach him. But when, on Martin Luther King Day, a fellow street musician was told he had to close his guitar case, BoCook thought something bigger — louder — was needed.
For Saturday’s protest, BoCook hopes to have 200 to 300 performers — musicians, magicians, jugglers, stilt walkers, mimes — all spread out across the park, all making themselves heard. (Or seen, in the mimes’ case.)
One problem: BoCook doesn’t have a permit for such a demonstration. He’s hoping the park will waive the permit instead. And if they don’t?
“If they tell us to leave ... we’ll leave,” he says.
Getting a permit takes 30 days and costs money — money a street musician just doesn’t have.