Civil rights advocates come in all variations, including one with a top hat, harmonica and a habit of irritating the local gentry. In a blues song Bocook penned about his experience, “Devils’ Advocate,” he cheers on those who “stand up for their cause and walk real tall.”
Richard Bocook, otherwise known as “Harpman Hatter,” is a Spokane street artist/musician and local character who has waged a low-key war for the rights of expression on various fronts. He claims Spokane officials have unreasonably harassed street musicians, chalk artists and habitués of all stripes.
Bocook uses a working man’s speech, his own songs and a stubborn streak in his eight-year conflict against Spokane authorities. He levels serious charges of corruption: “I’ve witnessed city councils get controlled by businesses.”
“Harpman Hatter” isn’t always reasonable or particularly charming and he appears to deliberately bait the town’s burghers at times. But he knows his rights and is insisting on them for everyone else.
Often ensconced before City Hall, Bocook’s current nemesis is the owner of a small inner-city business mall, the Bennet Block Building. Owner Dru Hieber also has other properties where crowds tend to gather in Spokane. Chalk artists leaving their offerings on sidewalks near building entrances angered Hieber, who repeatedly asked them to leave or called police. Bocook was one of them and the escalating parlay became more personal. Bocook made (still does) caricatures of Hieber and Spokane Mayor David Condon, with unflattering remarks. Bennett building managers harassed him and threw buckets of water on him and his work, Bocook claims.
Several tickets and altercations later, Bocook took them to court. Aided by attorneys, sympathetic Council member Breean Beggs sponsored an ordinance to allow chalk art in public spaces. Art festival organizers had been informed that it was “a crime” which Begg claimed was “probably not constitutional” and a good way to attract lawsuits.
As of June 2016, Spokane City Council reinterpreted existing laws on graffiti and vandalism with leniency to street artists. Voting unanimously, they agreed that it is not an offense to use “non-permanent, non-toxic means, such as chalk or water-soluble paints” in public access space, if sidewalks are not blocked.
This isn’t “Harpman the Hatter’s” first legal show-down with Spokane. He’s been at it since 2007, engaged in battle as a blues musician. After he and other street musicians were prohibited from playing, fined or required to get licenses, Bocook took them to court with help of civil liberty groups. He also performed songs locally and on Youtube for publicity, such as his “No License to Play.”
Although Bocook isn’t particularly religious and he drifts leftist/libertarian, he has a point about the nature of civil rights. “I’m stating picketing is still freedom of speech, preaching on a corner in front of a business is freedom of speech, boycotting is freedom of speech … it’s all protected.”
Spokane’s musicians triumphed in 2008 and 2010 when they struck down a permit requirement for buskers. This is commonly demanded in many places, such as Seattle. New York City only requires licenses for amplified music and speech, however you must audition for a spot in the coveted subway stations.
Excessive noise ordinances were settled with technology. Officers there now use decibel meters to judge if sound levels are 10 decibels (db) above ambient noise in daytime or 5db higher after 10 p.m. Previously, music and speech in Spokane was deemed “excessively loud” because someone nearby was complaining about it. Not the best means of establishing law, but it’s common across the nation.
Often the loudest, most powerful voice, or those with easy access to lawyers, determine the prevailing taste for the rest. Bocook doesn’t fit that stereotype and he claims he is often harassed because he is perceived as homeless. “What they didn’t expect was me to have legal help,” he noted. Councilman Beggs (also a lawyer) denied the law was changed due to Bocook, but out of a “sense of justice.”
“Government can’t take sides” even if art is political, Beggs told a local paper this year. “If you want to, you can stand on a sidewalk with a sign that says some things that are offensive to the business in the building, as long as you don’t block traffic. That’s the law.”
Local business people have mixed feelings and some are unhappy with the decision. Bocook’s victory is a “defeat for civility, and bad for downtown,” some warn. Principal target of Bocook’s indignation, Dru Hieber accused Bocook of targeting her with “caricatures of me as the Grinch.”
“He [Bocook] has very well stated that that’s his corner and he ain’t leaving,” Hieber said to the Spokesman Review, accusing Bocook of hiding behind “constitutional rights.”
Others requested he be more sensitive for the sake of peace, while agreeing theoretically on his right to speak/sing/draw. Still, they are petitioning the mayor for rules to protect them from future insults and a blues singer who just “wants to piss people off.”
Bocooks has triumphed, if indirectly, after the codes on public expression were changed. Yet he hasn’t become less belligerent about the general situation in Spokane. Now he’s focusing on other subjects, such as the “sit and lie down law.” Bocook describes it for us: “You have been accused of the crime of sitting down on the sidewalk. The evidence is overwhelming true. Caught by the surveillance cameras from multiple views, with several witnesses from the mall testifying you were sitting down on the sidewalk. The maximum fine is $5000 and sentence is one year in jail … how do you plead? guilty or not guilty?”
Small-town stuff, but it’s indicative of bigger issues: Political correctness vs. free speech, and business interests vs. homeless people or the public at large. Regretfully this showdown is uglier now, when individuals are often more vulgar and less chivalrous than our past glories. Physical proximity of Bocook’s songs and drawings bring things more quickly to a head as well.
Not everyone is a musician or artist and may never deal will these problems. Conservatives are even less likely to frequent “Occupy” meetings as Bocook does, or to distrust business and community leaders in general or kick back with homeless alcoholics. Still, we have the same Constitution.
“One is loved because one steps for the rights and gives courage to do the same” Bocook posted last month. “Then one is hated because one succeeds on showing when it comes down to our rights we are equal with the ones who try to keep us from our rights.”
It may be less eloquently spoken, but he has something in common with so-labeled “right-wingers” and Thomas Paine there.
Personal interview with Richard Bocook, July 2016