Protest rules at Five Corners
A recent demonstration against the war in Iraq by the Vineyard Peace Council (VPC) brought to light the confusion that exists regarding regulations about permitting such protests on federal property.
On July 23, the VPC set up an exhibit of combat boots and banners on stands on the red brick area that lies between the Vineyard Haven Post Office parking lot and the sidewalk at Five Corners.
Tisbury Police Chief John Cashin said the setup prompted a call from a vendor located near Five Corners, questioning whether it was legal for the group to hold a demonstration on federally owned property. Chief Cashin sent a police officer over to talk to postmaster Joe Massua, who explained that postal regulations did not allow that type of display on the property. However, moving the exhibit off the red brick area owned by the post office to the public sidewalk meant blocking access for pedestrians, which is not allowed by the town.
"We as a town have never had any complaints of problems with protestors being in the Five Corners area," Chief Cashin said. "However, it becomes a problem when you block a sidewalk and cause people to go around onto property owned by the post office, or if you set something up that people have to go around by stepping into the street."
Vineyard Peace Council co-chairman Sarah Nevin said the incident came to a "happy resolution" with the Tisbury police officer, and that the group was "evacuated by choice." Gina Stanley, the owner of the ArtCliff diner, offered an alternative solution, allowing the demonstrators to move their protest and display to her restaurant's parking lot.
A news report about the incident, "Police Order War Protestors to Move," published in the July 25 Vineyard Gazette, prompted members of Tisbury's planning board to write a letter to The Times editor on July 30.
Based on information in the Gazette article, the letter stated, "The Tisbury Planning Board was disappointed to learn that peaceful protesters were forbidden to use the Post Office grounds at Five Corners for a demonstration last week."
The facts were not as the newspaper reported, as Ms. Nevin was forthright in pointing out in a recent phone call. "People are allowed to use the sidewalk on that corner, as long as they don't have stationary objects on the brick area - it's federal property," she said. "The post office regulations do state very clearly you cannot have any stationary objects - our exhibit included black lace-up military style boots and stationary poles with weights on them to support banners. Those things are not acceptable according to postal regulations, and we were on the brick area, which is indeed postal property."
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
The rules governing conduct on postal property in the Code of Federal Regulations (39CFR232.1), found online at www.gpoaccess.gov, prohibit setting up tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type in postal lobbies or on postal walkways, steps, plazas, lawns or landscaped areas, driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces.
Leafleting, distributing literature, picketing, and demonstrating by members of the public are prohibited in lobbies and other interior areas of postal buildings open to the public, as well.
The planning board concluded its letter to The Times by stating, "We hope that in the future the town and Post Office can develop a procedure that will allow small demonstrations like these to go forward at this site without incident."
Reached yesterday and told what the regulations are, Planning Board co-chairman Henry Stephenson said the point of the board's letter was that the rules needed to be clarified so that people could demonstrate from time to time without getting kicked off the property. "If there's an understanding you can't set up equipment or signage but can carry your own material, that would be perfectly all right," he said. "There might also be a limit on the number of people that could gather at that spot as a matter of safety - it's not our role, however, to create the rules."
Since July 23, the VPC has held two more protests at Five Corners - without incident. "The second time we were there, I was feeling a little need to expand, having been evicted from the brick, so we decided to occupy two of the Five Corners," Ms. Nevin said. "We got permission from folks on the opposite corner - that's where we had been most of the time. I spoke with the owner of Tropicale, and he was very welcoming."
Ms. Nevin said during the last two protests, VPC members stood on the sidewalk at the post office corner, not on the brick area. They carried, rather than displayed, their "War is not the answer" signs. "The police have been very kind to us - there have been no scenes," Ms. Nevin said. "We appreciate that, and we have been obedient."
The Tisbury planning board's letter to The Times also stated that, "Five Corners, for all its faults, is nevertheless the 'Speakers Corner' for the Island. If anyone wants to communicate their interest or opinions to the rest of the community, this is the place to do it."
Chief Cashin said that he could understand the appeal of Five Corners to protesters as being one of the most visible places on the Island. However, he added, "Maybe it's not wise from a safety point of view to set up there - people driving through that intersection don't need any other distraction. Certainly there's a better way than putting up exhibits that infringe on other people's rights and interfere with pedestrian traffic."
The planning board's Letter to the Editor also mentioned the possibility that in the future, ownership of the Vineyard Haven Post Office's "corner plaza" will be transferred to the town.
Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee brought the matter up at Tuesday night's selectmen's meeting, noting that, "The planning board is reaching out to the post office to get the land under town control," in reference to the red brick area of the postal property.
"There was an understanding that when we finished work on all that frontage by the post office lot at Five Corners, that particular area facing the street would be ceded to the town, to become like a giant sidewalk area that would be the town's entire responsibility," Mr. Stephenson said yesterday. "We need to get a survey done to delineate the boundaries to work it out with the post office, and then start discussions."