Pulaski County push to ban violence-fueling concerts finds little support; free speech overrules proposal

A proposal that would urge cities in Pulaski County to enact prohibitions against any concerts or performers with lyrics that would "promote or incite violence" found little support from the Pulaski County Quorum Court on Tuesday evening.

The Quorum Court considered the idea proposed by Justice of the Peace Judy Green, D-Little Rock, but after an hour of discussion and input from community members, found it contrary to First Amendment rights to free speech. Justices of the peace instead approved an amended resolution urging cities to promote "civil discourse."

"I knew [the original resolution] wasn't going to pass," Green said after the meeting.

"But I got your attention, especially the media," she said, adding that her proposal became an opportunity for fruitful discussion on what kinds of action the community should take on a troublesome year of gun violence marked by a nightclub shooting that left 28 people injured earlier this month.

On July 1, gunfire broke out during a concert by Memphis rapper Ricky Hampton, who performs as Finese 2Tymes, at Power Ultra Lounge in downtown Little Rock. Twenty-five people were struck by gunfire, while three more were injured trying to flee the second floor of the club.

Later, many took to social media to circulate Hampton's promotional poster of the rapper aiming a rifle, which in part inspired Green's resolution.

"Anything is better than nothing," Green said.

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Community members, musicians and event promoters spoke before the board strongly opposing any idea of stifling local music that involved violent lyrics, or what local bluegrass musician Nate Kennedy called songs that are "holding up a mirror to our society."

"So if you don't like what you hear, or what you see, the issue is not with the messenger, but with the society that it's coming from," Kennedy says, arguing that violence is present in all genres of music.

And Jaimon Russell made his point to the Quorum Court that such a prohibition would wipe out 95 percent of the local rap and hip-hop artists and decimate Little Rock's hip-hop community.

"Violence has been going on in our city for years now, even decades. But you guys are basically trying to blame it on the African-American culture of hip-hop," Russell said.

As originally proposed, the resolution would have urged four municipalities in Pulaski County -- Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Jacksonville -- to enact a 180-day moratorium on the performance of "violent" music.

When asked on Tuesday, Mayor Gary Fletcher of Jacksonville and Mayor Virginia Young of Sherwood expressed full support of Green's proposal. North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith supported the proposal's moral intent, although he said he was uncertain if such an ordinance could legally exist in the face of citizens' constitutional rights.

And while Mayor Mark Stodola of Little Rock provided no comment, Little Rock city attorney Tom Carpenter said he found such an ordinance legally untenable.

"Maybe we don't like gangs so we shouldn't allow anyone to perform Romeo and Juliet -- because that's really what that was, two gangs fighting it out. Maybe we should tell them not to show Julius Caesar because that's about the assassination of the head of government," Carpenter said.

"I think if you just passed an ordinance like that, the first question would be, what's likely to incite violence? By whom, when and in what way? I don't think there are any clear answers to that," he said.

As explained by County Attorney Adam Fogleman, the resolution as written would encourage cities to adopt ordinances that would be contrary to constitutional law.

"We as a Quorum Court should be mindful of what we're encouraging other cities to do," said Justice of the Peace Curtis Keith, D-Mabelvale. "If it's against the law, how can we as a Quorum Court sit up here and encourage them to do something that's against the law?"

The resolution was ultimately amended by Justice of the Peace Donna Massey, D-Little Rock, who struck the 180-day prohibition from the proposal and instead molded the resolution to focus on facilitating "civil discourse among residents" and engaging "positive actions of empowerment and improvement of the community."

The resolution as amended passed 12 to 0, with three members absent.

Quorum Court members felt that Tuesday evening's discussion, along with the amended resolution, would send a clear signal from county government that there needs to be more discourse, followed by action.

"We don't have the right to argue against the Second Amendment or the First Amendment, but you had to do something, Ms. Green, you had to have the courage to do something," said resident Johnny Hasan.

Tuesday's outcome may come as a relief to Little Rock's music and venue community, many of whom said they found the idea not well thought-out, or even "un-American," as Little Rock promoter Chris "CT" Terry put it.

While Ricky Hampton's promotional poster appears in poor taste, Terry said, "banning art is not the solution."

"Whoever was coming to start trouble, they were going to do that anyways. I don't think people saw the poster and were like 'Oh wow, we should bring our guns!'" he said.

Terry also said tight security should be more of a priority in venues.

Matt White, a Little Rock promoter and co-owner of the White Water Tavern, said in a written statement that he was "stunned and embarrassed by the shortsightedness" of the proposal.

White also urged leaders to instead "work towards solutions that may actually have a positive impact. Otherwise, please prepare for ridicule on a national level."

Those solutions should include addressing the deep-seated issues at the root of Little Rock's spate of gun deaths, said Little Rock hip-hop artist Sean West, who performs as SeanFresh, adding that black boys are often growing up without fathers and that more black men are in prisons than in colleges.

"What they're rapping about is what they see in their community. So you got to see why they're rapping about it. ... The reason they have so many details and know what they're talking about is that they're actually living that life," West said. "Most people are rapping about their surroundings, so they shouldn't change the music; they should change the surroundings."

And Lisa Martin, who also said she was a part-time hip-hop promoter, added some perspective to Tuesday's discussion.

"I grew up in the gang wars of the '90s and things have settled down a lot," she said. "But things settled down a lot because a lot of people died and a lot of people went to jail. But they had kids before they left, and no one raised those kids. So you know who we're dealing with right now? We're dealing with the violent children of those that died and went to prison from the gang wars of the '90s.

"If we don't reach them now, it's going to be too late."

Metro on 07/12/2017

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