Phoenix civil liberties activist Fronzo West is currently doing time in the Maricopa County jail for exercising his freedom of speech rights as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Folks like to say we have freedom of speech in this country, and in theory, we do. But in practice, it's a whole 'nother matter. West, 65, challenges that theory nearly every day of the week here in Phoenix by riding around in a car emblazoned with the slogans "Fuck the Police" and "Stop Police Brutality." He goes further than that. Everything he wears, from the cap on his head to his loafers also bears the same anti-cop messages.
For West, it's part of a self-appointed crusade against police heavy-handedness that dates back some 30 years, when "The Fonz" as he's known around town, was wrestled to the ground in downtown Phoenix by white police officers. The Fonz, who is black, was roller-skating -- his preferred mode of ambulance -- while carrying his child in a papoose. The Fonz's mixed race kid was white in appearance, and this is what led the cops to believe something was askance. The entire ugly incident was captured on tape by a local TV news crew, and watching it now is, to say the least, a surreal experience.
Since that time, Fonz has driven around town in a vehicle scrawled with his opinions about the local gendarmes. He also stops to videotape them whenever he spies them pulling someone over. But Fonz, a Navy vet who served this country during the Vietnam war, pays a price for his activism, and for expressing himself so boldly. That is, whenever cops of any stripe see his car or his garb, they harass him, pull him over, and find something to cite him on.
Fonz has no idea how many times he's been arrested, and a cursory check of court records does not reveal all of the times I know he's been collared after I first met him several years ago. (There are numerous jurisdictions involved.) But he must've been taken into custody scores of times since he began his mostly one-man "Stop Police Brutality" organization.
It should be noted that Fonz has a Gandhi-like approach to local law enforcement. When they begin to question him after seeing his clothes or his car, he remains silent. If they approach him and lay hands on him, he does his patented "Fonz flop" and falls to the ground, a textbook example of passive resistance.
As a result of doing this for decades, many cops know who he is, as do many judges and justices of the peace. As Fonz offers no threat to the community, and as his continued harassment by law enforcement does nothing but waste cops' time and taxpayer money, you'd think they'd just ignore him. But that'd be like a Spanish bull ignoring a red sash. And so, Fonz inevitably ends up in court on some pretty bogus charges, like "failure to obey" a police officer.
According to his longtime lawyer Steve Suskin, a former La Paz County Attorney who currently represents New Times in numerous matters, when Fonz ends up in Phoenix municipal court, the judges there, who are all lawyers, overlook his clothing, perhaps as a nod to the First Amendment issues involved. But in the justice courts, the Justices of the Peace are so disturbed by Fonz's attire that they frequently order him to remove his shirt or order him out of court altogether.
Fonz's predicament has resulted in some fairly amusing episodes. Once, when ordered to remove a shirt with an offending inscription, he did so, only to reveal another beneath it with the same message. In another incident I witnessed and wrote about in April of last year, JP C. Steven McMurry lashed out as soon as he saw the Fonz, sputtering, "I am not having that 'Fuck the Police' [shirt] in the court!"
Fonz left the courtroom, and later, McMurry apologized for repeating in court the very phrase he wished to forbid.
Fonz's appearance before JP Armando Gandarilla a couple of days ago was not so amusing. Before Gandarilla on lame charges of "unsafe lane usage" and "failure to obey" a police officer, Fonz was wearing his Eff the Po-Po uniform as always. Gandarilla held Fonz in contempt, and Fonz is currently in MCSO custody on a $500 bond until his case is heard Friday morning.
"I think the judge's thinking was, he'd be in jail the rest of this time," explained attorney Steve Suskin. "And when the sheriff's deputies brought him back to the court, he'd have a striped suit on. That's fine. You can have a trial with a striped suit on, but you can't have a trial with a `Fuck the Police' shirt on."
Keep in mind that Fonz's already spent several days in county after being arrested on the original charges back in March. If you take a look at the DPS reports generated by the March incident, you can see what a mountain the four -- count 'em, four -- DPS officers made out of this molehill. (You can read them for yourself, here.)
What was Fonz stopped for? According to Officer L.A. Lopez, it was because as Fonz was exiting I-17 at 16th Street, the car's "right front and rear tires crossed over the fog line by a full tire width." We all know this wasn't the real reason. Lopez and the other officers do allude to the real reason by stating at the top of their reports that, "the vehicle was also covered in red anti-police graffiti/slogans such as `Fuck the Police' and `Stop Police Brutality.'"
The remainder of the reports are like something right out of a script for Reno 911, save for the fact that it sounds like Fonz was moments away from getting gunned down. Lopez reports that, "The driver a black male immediately exited the vehicle pointing a silver object in my direction that was in his left hand as he stood in the roadway." The "silver object," of course, was Fonz's camcorder. A black man with a silver object in his hand? Fonz is lucky to be alive.
True, Fonz probably could have parked in a more convenient location for the patrolmen, and he was hardly what you call cooperative. On the other hand, Fonz should have never been pulled over to begin with.
The DPS officers go on to search Fonz's vehicle without his permission or any probable cause that I can see. They find what they call "burglary tools," basically a couple of slim jims. When having one of these became illegal is beyond me, but interestingly this one semi-serious charge is the one that's been dropped. There were no drugs or any other sort or contraband in Fonz's car. So this illegal search and seizure produced nothing of import. I should also mention that one officer's sinister suggestion that Fonz is an IV drug user is completely untrue, based on zero evidence whatsoever.
It's not the first time Fonz has gone to jail on petty charges, drummed up and enforced because those with authority don't like Fonz's message. Nor will it be the last. Fonz is not afraid of jail, and indeed, he seems to feel it's part of his duty as a citizen to be incarcerated for challenging unchecked police power. As we approach the Fourth of July, I would posit that Fonz is a true patriot, a Yankee Doodle Dandy wearing his declaration of independence on his sleeve, and every other part of his clothing.
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Justice Gandarilla and the DPS officers involved should be ashamed of themselves for what they've done, in no small part because Fonz is a veteran who is not in the best of health. The last time he was in the hospital, his heart stopped and he had to be revived. As the police are hardly gentle with Fonz when they arrest him, I anticipate that he will one day die in custody, just because his eccentric devotion to certain constitutionally protected phrases ticks off those bearing badges and black robes.
UPDATE: The sheriff's office was supposed to deliver Fonz to JP Gandarilla's court Friday morning at 9 a.m., but did not do so. JP Gandarilla told attorney Steve Suskin that he would sign an order of release for Fonz.
I called down to the court, and am awaiting a call back from someone who works for Gandarilla to tell me whether or not this was done, and if Fonz has been released.
This farce will continue after the court reschedules the trial on these bogus misdemeanor charges Fonz faces. More as I get it.