By PETER RUGG
The Ginger Man, Daily Briefs and I were heading back from lunch in the Power & Light District Monday when we came across a street preacher on the sidewalk outside Chipotle on 14th Street. It’s OK if he didn’t bring anyone to Jesus that day, because what he did do was give Power & Light's owner, the Cordish Companies, the opportunity to show what a despicable job it has done training its security force.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get many more words out than “You need to turn to the Bible” before a Power & Light security person stopped him. They talked closely for a minute while the preacher explained his religious views and the young guard nodded, then stepped back and let him resume the pitch. While the preacher preached, the guard pushed his jacket up and fingered the walkie-talkie on his belt. Less than five minutes later, two more security guards came down as backup. Why the security force felt the need to outnumber a senior citizen armed only with a thick leather book three-to-one is beyond my reasoning.
The female guard who took the lead explained, “This is private property, so you need to go get permission to be here.” She then directed him to the Kansas City Power & Light District offices at 1100 Walnut. On the 30th floor there, he could get special clearance if Cordish so deigned. It was at this point that our moral sense was outraged. Had he been obstructing a business’s entrance, or had he asked for a dime to fund his ministry, we might have felt differently. But this was bullshit.
We caught up with him as he headed downtown. The guards had already broken up. He introduced himself as Michael Wheeler and said he’d been street preaching for almost 25 years in several countries. “I never get arrested anywhere but in America,” he said. “They told me this street is private property.”
That didn’t sound right, and I asked if I could go with him to the P&L offices while the Ginger Man and Daily Briefs went back to Pitch headquarters to find out if it was possible for Cordish to own the street. On the way, he told me he’d been drafted to serve in Vietnam when he was a kid. Instead he ended up spending time in a stockade. He was also an avid marathon runner.
We arrived at the main office, which was a brightly lighted, open space. Behind the receptionist's desk was a scale model of downtown, the kind I thought was reserved for James Bond villains eager to show who and what would be destroyed upon activation of a big space laser. Wheeler set his Bible on the desk and explained his position. “They told me I need to get permission to be on the sidewalk,” he said. The receptionist, a plump blonde, did not immediately react. She considered the Bible, then removed her headset. “I’ll get someone to help you,” she said.
Shortly after, Jon Stephens, the P&L District's marketing manager, came out. To his credit, he immediately said the streets and sidewalks were public property and that security couldn’t prevent anyone from saying anything.
Until sundown. Stephens never got specific, but he was careful to stress to Wheeler that Cordish's protection of the average street preacher's First Amendment rights focused on daylight hours.
“During the daytime, it’s your God-given right to say whatever you want,” he told Wheeler. “If you’re not asking for money and as long as you’re not obstructing a business, it’s fine. That’s all public. I’ll call and let them know you can preach there.” Then he gave us each a business card.
We went back to the street, and Wheeler started preaching again at the same spot we’d met outside Chipotle. “I didn’t see how this could be private,” he says. “That didn’t make any sense to me.”
I hung back on the other side of the street and watched Wheeler sell the Word, wondering if the guards would approach him again. The young guard that had come by the first time returned, but after a moment of discussion, during which Wheeler showed him the card, he left him alone.
“If he has clearance, than it’s fine,” the guard told me, still apparently unaware that you don’t need Cordish’s permission to shout gibberish on a public sidewalk.
And just to double-check, I called Sean Demory, communications specialist with the city's Capital Improvements Management Office. According to Demory, the P&L's streets are public space, but some sidewalks are mixed-use, meaning some are private and some are public. Meaning Stephens wasn’t even sure what was what. On Grand, all the sidewalks are public, so don’t take any shit if you get hassled there.
“Basically, there is a developer allocation of rights, and that gives exclusive use of sidewalks in some areas to Cordish for sale of properties,” Demory explained. “Meaning, if I had a hot dog stand, or if I sold hot dogs, I could pass out fliers saying, "Buy hot dogs at this location," but I couldn’t hand out free samples.” In other words, if you’re not trying to sell something, you shouldn’t be in violation of the rules.
The dress code is bad enough. The idea that I have to live by Cordish law, under its police force, just walking down a given street is deeply depressing.