Scott Bledsoe is staying out of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for the time being. That's because Bledsoe is a wanted man in the tiny northeast Florida community. His offense? Telling the crowd at the Jacksonville Hemp Fest Memorial Day weekend that undercover narcs were among them and pointing out who the narcs were. That was enough for the Jacksonville Beach Police Department to charge Bledsoe with a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice. Fortunately for Bledsoe, no law enforcement agency anywhere outside Jacksonville Beach gives two hoots about a misdemeanor warrant, so he continues to walk free until he goes in to face the music -- an opportunity he says he will relish.
This isn't the first time Bledsoe and the Jacksonville Cannabis Action Network have tangled with local authorities over their hemp fests -- festival organizers won lawsuits over permit and free speech issues against Jacksonville Beach in 1998 and Jacksonville in 2001 -- but it has been several years since police have been so aggressive, according to organizers and eyewitnesses. And it is with police aggressiveness that the problems that marred an otherwise mellow and peaceable event on Jacksonville Beach began.
"The police were there to intimidate and harass, and they did their job well," said Bledsoe. "Undercover cops were circulating in the crowd, and, as usual, they made a handful of arrests, a couple for open container, one for a guy smoking a doobie, but they really seemed more interested in harassing the vendors and speakers," he told DRCNet.
But thing began going south for the narcs when one of their most gung-ho members, Jacksonville Beach police officer Jerry Dearing, sicced a pair of uniformed officers on waiting fest speaker Rev. Roland A. Duby (also known as Marijuana Man, nee Ronnie Williams of Kentucky). According to Duby's account, as well as those of other witnesses, the uniformed police approached him and asked to search a tobacco tin he was holding. He refused, citing his right to be free of unwarranted searches, and dumped the contents of the tin in a nearby trash can. At that point, according to eyewitnesses, the cops flipped out. They bum-rushed Duby, threw him to the ground, injuring his knee in the process, handcuffed him, then, as he lay moaning in cuffs, lifted up his eyeglasses and sprayed mace in his eyes.
[For Jacksonville residents and others who want a better sense of how scary Duby's attacker and other Jacksonville narcs are, visit the Jacksonville Hemp Fest web site -- http://www.jaxhempfest.com -- which has posted pictures of them.]
Not surprisingly, the violence perpetrated against an event speaker by the Jacksonville Beach police did not play well with the crowd or with Bledsoe. The crowd swarmed toward Duby's tent, where the police had him under guard, yelling "Shame, shame," "Nazis," "Pigs," and generally expressing their disapproval. "People were very angry and yelling at the cops, but there was no violence, there was nothing thrown. Still, the cops were freaking out," said Bledsoe.
Bledsoe added to their worries by ascending to the stage, telling the crowd what was happening, and notifying them that there were narcs in their midst. "I told the crowd there were four narcs out there, that they had arrested Duby because he refused an illegal search, and that one of them was a bald-headed guy wearing earrings. I told the crowd to watch out for those people, to stay away from them. I did not incite violence," he emphasized, adding that the entire oration, as well as Duby's arrest, had been captured on videotape.
Jacksonville Beach police told local media that "the crowd became a problem, and we could no longer conduct our operation," arguing that Bledsoe's identification of Dearing endangered the narc and prevented him from doing his job, thus meriting a charge of obstruction of justice against Bledsoe.
"It was the police conduct that incited the crowd, not anything I said," Bledsoe retorted. While Bledsoe is not exactly thrilled at having to deal with the warrant -- it will cost time and money, he said -- he is eager to once again skewer the local gendarmerie in court, and it looks like he's got a very good case. Florida legal precedent is on his side. In a handful of cases, the most recent only three years ago, Florida appeals courts have ruled that "a person whose speech identifies an undercover police officer and frustrates the officers' attempt to make a drug buy is not guilty of obstructing the officer in the lawful performance of a legal duty."
"I don't know what's wrong with these people, why they want to start this crap up again," said Bledsoe. "We already sued both Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach over ordinances they wrote to try to block us -- and won -- and now they're sending in the police to disrupt a peaceful festival. There was no violence, no drunkenness, not even any cursing on stage. We run a class act, a family-oriented event. After all, we are out here not only to celebrate our culture but also to educate the public. And this arrest warrant is a big joke. It's just harassment, but I'm not worried, I have the law on my side."
Bledsoe will give himself up for arraignment at an appropriate time, he told DRCNet. "Sometime in the next week or two, once we get the media lined up and can make a real show of it," he said. "The cops could have avoided all this controversy if they had just left us in peace. Now we will get more publicity, they will get more scrutiny, and the taxpayers of Jacksonville Beach will pay. They'll pay because I fully intend to sue the city for violating my First Amendment rights with this warrant."
As for the Rev. Duby, he is reportedly recuperating back home in Kentucky after friends posted a $15,000 bond for him. He is charged with resisting arrest. "I thanked God for my eventual release into blessed America and asked him to forgive my kidnappers, for they know not what they are doing," said Duby.
The Jacksonville Beach Police Department did not respond to repeated calls from DRCNet.
As for next year's Jacksonville Hemp Fest? "We'll be there," said Bledsoe. "Count on it."