I got arrested today. I didn’t hurt anyone or rob anyone or call anyone bad names or damage anything or threaten to damage anything. I was calm and polite and did my best to cooperate in so far as I am able. The officers stopped me from building a perfectly legal small safe campfire in a safe way in a safe place and with no one objecting to my proceeding except for the officers themselves.
To be fair they were very nice respectful officers who seemed to me to be more than a little embarrassed by having to arrest an old man who had only hoped to warm himself by a perfectly legal small safe campfire. I understand they are public employees doing a difficult job under stressful circumstances and my own safety depends on them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thankful on the streets of Duluth for an officer’s presence. I do some social activism for the poor and homeless on the streets and my safety depends upon the calming of lots of hurt, damaged, and troubled human souls who have been shoved to life and death margins on the streets of our cities. Some have even been driven to what I can only describe as purposeless violence which surely must deserve some psychiatric diagnosis. But I am not qualified for that.
I am qualified to build small, safe campfires for warming and cooking purposes, and I have read every law and code and ordinance there-to pertaining, aside from having built probably thousands of such fires in my life off the grid. That life is over for me now but I remember the utility and practice of small safe fires. The fact is the law specifically forbids the imposition of regulation on this type of fire. No one has to ask for a permit to warm themselves or to cook their food.
The fire department and the city parks department is right to be concerned about the building of any fire that is a danger to public safety. Fires which are too large or are built near combustible materials or threaten to cause damage to property should indeed be suppressed in any safe community. In fact, this is so strong an idea that the necessary conditions for a small safe fire are set down in the law and are not a matter of anyone’s opinion. That law descends to us through the state and national fire codes and safety standards, which are word for word the same as that found in international codes as well. Each of those sources states clearly that small safe fires are not to be subject to any regulatory permitting procedure. Any person who needs a small safe campfire for warmth or food and who is capable of building such a fire in a good way with good fuel is actually protected by public law, and law enforcement officials have no jurisdiction to enforce imaginary laws against them. So I assert, and it may be we shall see.
The question of the fire is actually the lessor one in my opinion. More important to me is the question of officers trying to enforce not law, but their own opinions. I believe my arrest was a case in point. The nice officers may have decided my fire threatened somehow a danger to someone and so required their attention.
They told me I looked like I was about to ignite an illegal fire. I explained to them that my intent was to light a small safe campfire which is perfectly legal. They asked for my identification. I asked if I was breaking a law. They assured me that my fire was illegal by city ordinance. I asked for the number of the ordinance so I could look it up. They didn’t know of any. So I asserted my right to a small safe blah blah blah campfire. So they arrested me. So.
They searched me of course. My ID was in the wallet I generally keep in a zipped pocket. They opened my wallet and searched through it for my ID. They found my drivers license and began asking me questions about my name and address and all of that. I decided I needed a lawyer and explained to the officers that I did not intend to answer any questions without a lawyer.
Since the officers could think of no law under which I should be arrested, they decided that refusing to give an officer identification is an offence in Superior. So the ticket I eventually received from the nice counter lady at the jail was under the title “OBLIGATION TO PROVIDE IDENTIFICATION TO A POLICE OFFICER” sic. The paper said it was a violation of Ordinance 86-7.
You can google it yourself. My reading of it is that an officer can ask for ID if there is a crime or violation of ordinance, or if it appears such a violation is about to occur. The supposed violation justifying the ID check was the fire. But there is no law or ordinance against my fire. So they asked for my ID, on the basis that a violation was about to be committed. But how can there be a violation of the ID ordinance if there is in fact no ordinance against my fire?
The nice officers acted in a strictly professional manner and I can honestly say that nothing they did caused me any more discomfort than is offered any other citizen in the hard plastic back seat cell of a squad car. The fact is there just is no way a person could sit comfortably there, even without the handcuffs. Not only is the seat hard plastic but so also is the part of the cage in front of you, and I, at least, could find no way to ease myself in there without over-stressing joints, tendons, knees and elbows, nor either was there a way to keep my backbone perpendicular to the seat, but had to ride one hip or the other in turns, with the old disks grinding. Luckily for me it was a short if uncomfortable ride.
What happens next? I go to court in Douglas County Wisconsin on February Tenth. I will submit a condensed form of this story to the judge and ask that the charge be dismissed. I expect that is what will happen. Of course, I am open to any suggestions……
BTW I have no way of knowing who reads this or what they may think of it, unless you leave a little happy heart or a raspberry or something. Please do. It does get lonely sometimes in this big dark place. Thanks.
Sometimes I wish the bureaucracy would let us alone to do our actions and have our public meetings and talk freely in a public place with as simple a human amenity as a small clean wood fire suitable for cooking or heating at any public park, if such an installation is available in steel or stone, and regardless if a citizen wants to build said small entirely legal fire in a device suitable to holding and containing any coals or ashes such that no permanent trace is left of where the fire has been.
Yes, it would be pleasent to avail oneself of warmth, hot beverages and food in public spaces large enough for an open discussion of current civic, political, and social issues. But I don’t have access to such a space in my personal life, and access to relevant public spaces nearby is denied to our group by large armed police officers and suitably equipped fire crews, who come at the order of “some people in our town” who don’t want a fire at a publicly owned memorial. More properly, I would venture our group believes “some people in our town” don’t want at all any mixed groups of people gathering at a memorial for social and potentially political conversation with the neighbors, a chance to meet and get to know the people we ordinarily encounter only in passing on our streets. If we give in to “some people” on our right to have a safe legal fire, they next will say we cannot share food, and if we give them that, they will say we can not smoke a cigarette or burn fragrant herbs for smudge. They will go so far as to ban loitering if we make no protest. There have even been suggestions to fence the memorial in, which is to fence ordinary neighborhood people out.
It doesn’t matter that the law is carefully written to express that simple clean fires for heating and cooking purposes do not require a permit in public parks and other public spaces. The legality of such fires is not decided by the law, but by the opinions of “some people in our town,” backed up at public expense by emergency personnel, even though there is no demonstrated emergency at all.