11/22/2013

In one year the entire world will turn its attention to Dallas to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy. The mayor hopes to show off a city that has evolved into a sophisticated global destination. But when it comes to the assassination, nothing is as simple as it seems—and that is why Dallas is so worried.

typical story line seemed to be that Dallas was learning to let go, and outsiders had forgiven and forgotten—or they never even knew. “Twenty-four Years Later, City Plans to Face Kennedy Slaying” was a Chicago Tribune headline in 1987; the following year a story ran in the Tribune titled “Dallas Starts to Confront the Memory.” Hunt told the paper that the completion of the Sixth Floor was “a concrete manifestation of the community coming to terms with this event.” On the thirtieth anniversary, Kane Patrick Kennedy (a man who claimed to be a distant relative of JFK’s) attended a gathering that drew three thousand people. On the fortieth anniversary, five thousand people—yes, many of them conspiracy theorists—assembled for a quiet vigil in Dealey Plaza. The Dallas symphony performed that night. “Dallas Comes to Terms With the Day That Defined It,” declared the New York Times. JFK’s death had finally made that memory-into-history transition, taking its place alongside the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Like so many other controversies, it’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of this one. Some people think the trouble started in March 2010, when Erykah Badu—born in Dallas in 1971—stripped naked in Dealey Plaza and collapsed where Kennedy was shot. She wasn’t having a breakdown; she was filming a music video. (“Badu said she picked Dealey Plaza since it was one of the most popular places in her hometown of Dallas,” WFAA television reported.) By contrast, Groden thinks that a local makeover for the 2011 Super Bowl—the first to be played in the Metroplex—was to blame. But for whatever reason, the police announced a crackdown that summer on vendors in Dealey Plaza.  

So, on a bright sunny day in June 2010, a woman walked up to Groden’s card table on the grassy knoll and asked to buy JFK: The Case for Conspiracy. Groden took her $10, autographed a copy, and handed it to her. The next thing he knew, a somewhat portly Dallas police officer stepped out from behind one of the columns supporting the Depression-era pergola and arrested him. His crime? Selling printed material in Dealey Plaza without a permit, something he had been doing since 1995. Groden was subsequently handcuffed and escorted to the county jail, where he was stripped to his skivvies and searched, then forced to share a cell with people who had, most likely, been arrested for far more serious crimes. Police confiscated Groden’s collection of assassination materials and deprived him of his medications. As if that weren’t discomfiting enough, after he had gotten out on bail and hired a lawyer, Groden made an unfortunate discovery—for Dallas. “As it turns out, what they charged me with was not even really an arrestable offense,” he said.

In fact, Groden was charged twice. First, he was accused of selling merchandise on public property. The problem was, as Groden learned, the ordinance made specific allowances for the sale of publications. The city then charged Groden for violating a different ordinance, one that required him to get a permit to sell printed matter in Dealey Plaza. But it turned out the park department didn’t sell such permits, and, probably worse, the city was supposed to have signs in Dealey Plaza posting its rules but didn’t. Or, as one of Groden’s pleadings would later state, “Thus, none of said ordinances apply to Plaintiff’s First Amendment activities in Dealey Plaza.” A municipal court judge agreed. By the time the city appealed, Groden had already filed suit in federal court.

It was not surprising that Groden then developed a new conspiracy theory. It centered on the desire of the Sixth Floor Museum to put him out of business because he was the most legitimate person on the plaza pushing an alternative theory of JFK’s death. “The other salespeople don’t matter,” Groden explained. “They don’t have any credibility.”

Indeed, the Sixth Floor staff does seem dedicated to the idea that Oswald killed Kennedy from his perch in what is now the prime corner of the museum, which annually welcomes around 350,000 people. To its credit, the museum doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the toxic atmosphere that pervaded Dallas at the time of the assassination; the infamous black-bordered ad that “welcomed” Kennedy to the city is prominently displayed (paid for by a group of right-wing businessmen, it asked, among other things, why JFK had “scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the Spirit of Moscow”). But the exhibits are less focused on the messier elements of the assassination. Scant attention is given to alternative theories, and on the day I visited, the bookstore, while big on nifty copies of Jackie’s jewelry, did not sell a single book that suggested anything but that JFK’s death was the work of a lone gunman.

According to Groden, the museum’s conspiracy-averse viewpoint can be explained by an early agreement between the city and the museum that the latter would follow the Warren Commission’s line, which, conveniently for Dallas, doesn’t involve any loony theories about Jack Ruby and late oilmen like Clint Murchison. It could also be that the Sixth Floor shows what it shows because it believes Oswald acted alone, a notion supported by the failure of any government commission to come up with much evidence indicating a conspiracy after nearly fifty years of trying.

But for whatever reason, Groden’s arrest and subsequent lawsuit have presented what political consultants like to call “bad optics,” particularly after Groden’s lawyer discovered a few emails in which the Sixth Floor security guards reported the presence of vendors in Dealey Plaza to the police—i.e., go get ’em!—and another from the CEO of an influential group of boosters thanking the police “for the continued efforts to rid the downtown area of criminals.” 

While the traditional media largely ignored the fight, Jim Schutze most decidedly did not. The Observer’s bearded, laconic gadfly—he refers to Dallas’s power elite as “people who have had too many toddies”—started pecking away at the city’s hypocrisy, turning a

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