Fayette Police serving summons to John Tinker for having "weeds" in his garden
Oct. 30, 2002
Fayette, Missouri, USA
John Tinker thinks his wildflowers are beautiful. Fayette Police Chief Brian Kunze thinks they're a nuisance.
Tinker says the black-capped chickadees are a wonderful addition to the ambience of his yard. "I think they like the seeds from the lambsquarters, but it might be the sunflowers, the grasses, or something else. I'm not really sure."
To Chief Kunze, those same sunflowers are "weeds". Asked what exactly the problem is, he said, "They violate the weed nuisance paragraph in the Fayette City Code that prohibits 'overgrown vegetation over 12 inches high.'"
Tinker points out that this would imply that all citizens must keep their trees, bushes, etc. all trimmed down to 12 inches or under, as they all qualify, within ordinary English usage, as "vegetation." But perhaps this small central Missouri town speaks a different language.
Chief Kunze says that, as Chief of Police, it is his call. Asked whether the buck stopped at his desk, Kunze said "I guess it does."
Chief Kunze then clarified that the City Council asked him to look into this, and that it was his call, and that in his opinion the weeds in the garden were a nuisance. "The front lawn looks ok, but the weeds are too tall in the garden", Kunze said, referring to dead sunflowers, lambsquarters in seed, various grasses, and morning glories entwined throughout.
To Tinker this is nothing more that an arbitrary and abusive use of power.
"I asked Brian Kunze what exactly was the problem with these wildflowers, " says Tinker, "but he could only reply that in his judgement they violated the city code. The city code says no "overgrown vegetation over 12 inches high." That's ridiculous on the face of it. It's meaningless. What is overgrown? Who gets to decide, The Chief of Police? Why not use all that energy catching literbugs instead? That's where the real shameful behavior is showing itself. Well, that along with all these city officials with nothing better to do with themselves than to be some wildflower bigot's political lapdog.
"It's all about enforcing conformity, in my opinion. But of course they see themselves as freedom-loving, patriotic Americans. Perhaps making my yard an issue is just a scapegoat for their failures to bring jobs to Fayette."
"And, wouldn't it be nice if, instead of trying to make Fayette appear more ripe for the picking by some corporate interest, instead of bring more fast food joints to town, instead of more convenience stores, they would try harder to make Fayette more livable for its residents?"
"Jeez, what they did to Mike Sulltrop was disgraceful. That man does more honest labor on his day off then most people do in a full week. Why would they harass him? Because he deals in salvage? Haven't they ever heard of ecology, and recycling? Or maybe they think 'recycling' just means where to put the soda bottles. There are some people in high places who perhaps don't know a great deal about primary industry, and the relationships between primary industry, and what historian Gustavus Myers calls the 'surfeit occupations'. A little introspection by the sociologists among us, may be called for in this case.
"I tried to tell Chief Kunze that legally it is prohibited in Missouri to cut wildflowers while they are in bloom." Tinker says he thinks he read that somewhere.
"Brian admitted the he has a compost heap himself, though he said that mine is bigger. He may having some compost heap envy," says Tinker, "but as a public official, he must not let those sorts of feelings affect his professional judgement."
"The fleabane never really quit blooming, and it's all over the place, so they'd better be careful if they come in here to cut anything down.
"Can you imagine that? Them coming in here to cut down my dried up old sunflowers, even though the heads are filled with seed that the birds eat? And the morning glories are so beautiful when they are in bloom. The morning glories need the dead sunflowers.
"What motivates these people to create such an intrusion into the affairs of a private citizen? It's totally disproportionate. They,the City Council, are abusing their power over a non-issue.
"It as though the power relationship itself is somehow the point they're trying to make. I'm just mostly interested in finding out specifically where it's coming from. It is actually somewhat interesting, in a sordid sort of way.
"Whether it is coming directly from the City Council, or this supposedly "concerned citizen", or even Police Chief Brian Kunze himself, I don't know. Nobody really seems to want to claim much responsibility for having made the decision, except Brian Kunze, to the extent that he directed the summons to be delivered.
"I've been very up front with Mr. Kunze. I've told him right from the start that I would be recording and publicizing my experiences with regard to this issue.
"But it will be the City Council dragging me before the judge next Tuesday [Nov. 5, 2002]. Ultimately, it is them who will have to accept responsibility for having abused their power in this manner. If anyone wants a quick lesson on the meaning of civic shame, they could do worse than to contemplate certain American citizens that would bring upon fellow citizens such un-toward and un-called for coersive exercize of power, by a supposedly democratic government in a supposedly free country.
"Ordinary people see the logic of this. Power that is in the hands of individuals who do not respect the people's basic sense of liberty, is corrupt power. It is power that shouldn't be there. I say that as a citizen of the United States, a citizen who has paid his dues to freedom in this country. Don't tread on me," Tinker says, somewhat grandly.
"When I talked to the City Council a few weeks ago, I pointed out my exceedingly large collection of photos of other vegetation around town. I have several hundreds of these photos. I took these photos not because I think the vegetation they portray looks bad. Not at all. I don't think it looks bad. I like it. But I wanted to be able to show that I am being singled out. The city isn't being fair to me. They are not thinking about equal justice. I hope the people who see these pictures realize that I am trying to support their right to have vegetation over 12 inches tall. I am not in any way critizicing the citizens of Fayette who fail to see shame issues in tall vegetation.
"It seems that some private citizen is able to bring down the power of the city government on me over this issue. But it's my own private issue. It's not an issue that is appropiate to any interference of any level of government, unless they can point to some harm that I am causing them.
"Some private citizen, apparently, has the power to play out upon me his misconception about the nature of shame. This citizen watchdog of my lawn, himself perhaps doomed forever to miss the point, is still somehow able to organize the power of the city government to his purposes. Isn't this interesting?" skoffs Tinker.
"The pictures I took of Fayette vegetation," he continues, "include a few specimens in front of the mayor's own privacy fence. The mayor, Mike Hirsh, says these are his "mint." Fine. But why then come after my garden? And by the way, how would they like me to build a privacy fence around the old school? I could letter the text of the bill of rights upon it, with commentary. It would be educational, a shrine to democracy.
"Mr. Lutz has written that it would have been better to have razed the building, than to have allowed me to do with it as I have. Is this who has the mayor's ear? Like I said, I just don't know.
"I could build a privacy fence, for not a few thousand dollars, that I don't have. I could use fresh timber from the rain forests. Is that what they want?" asks Tinker. "If that's what they want, they're crazy."
"Just my opinion," he adds.
"But why would they want to take the little chickadee's food source from them? I really don't understand. Today I went out to look, and there were hundreds of them. They like my place especially. Why? Doesn't it matter?
"Everybody knows I love this yard. I weed my strawberries. The onions were astounding, four feet tall. I've improved the soil tremendously with the compost heaps. What are they made of? Weeds. Plants I've pulled up because for one reason or other I didn't want them where they were. I'm turning them into compost, to enrichen the soil in the garden. It works wonders.
"And I've planted a hundred trees of all varieties, nuts and fruits, shade trees, cyprus. I planted 25 hazelnut bushes. Brian Kunze is talking about several patches of garden that grew tall this summer with a variety of species. I protect specifically sunflowers, blackeyed susans, purple flox, coneflowers, batchelor buttons, milkweed, mullein. These are besides the gladiolas, tulips, daffodils, iris and other domesticated varieties. I take out the thistles, because I like to walk in the grass barefoot."
"But most of all, I just enjoy seeing what comes up out of the ground around here. And these plants are not 'overgrown'. They're grown just right. God grew them like that. And the chickadees like them like that. They're just right. People need to think for themselves. What more can I say?" he says. But Tinker was not through.
"I asked Brian Kunze who was putting him up to this, and he said the City Council had asked him to do it.
"They said they had received complaints from citizens. Well, I know of only one Fayette citizen who has complained about my yard. And I don't know him personally, only by name.
"There are many fine people in Fayette, and I just want to assure them that I don't feel any shame at all about the yard, least of all about the remains of the flowers which were so beautiful this summer, and now are feeding birds.
"There may be others who would rather I do something differently, but who also recognize that I have a right to have my garden however I like, as long as I'm not hurting anyone. I'm not hurting anyone. But I'm being hurt. Mr. Lutz constitutes the nuisance, from my point of view. It is a nuisance to me that the City Government is having difficulty discerning between right and wrong here. That's my point of view of course. But from here, believe me, it a nuisance.
"That Mr. Harvey Lutz would focus his comments on the idea of shame is rather surprising. What is his concept of shame, such that he takes it out on my lawn? And he is taking it out on me. He doesn't know me, and he's not off to a good start, either. But none of these are reasons why he should be able to dictate to me what my garden will look like. It's simply none of his business. Everyone who believes in freedom should take notice of this. Talk about a victimless crime..." Tinker trails off as he realizes too much of his energy, for the moment, is coming from anger. He regains his composure and continues.
"Don't they understand that this is what democracy looks like? These people would claim to be patriotic Americans, I'm sure -- who doesn't these days? -- but so far they really seem to have very little respect for the concept of freedom, in my opinion. They don't seem to understand that there is no freedom without tolerance. I don't tell them how to keep their gardens.
"I am not ashamed, either, of how I have treated this beautiful old building. I love my yard, the chickadees, the dead sunflowers with the morning glories. The idea that they have the spare time to bother me about my choices in my garden, really makes me mad. Don't they have anything better to do with their time and the taxpayers' money?
"And what's the deal, anyway? They have it set up so that they feel compelled to react to any citizen complaint? Somehow I doubt this. My complaints about litter have always been met by a stoic, 'we wish we could do something about that, but it's impossible.'
"Will this citizen Lutz face me in court? Or will it be the City, operating at his behest? The City Code is vague and inspecific -- what the heck does 'overgrown' mean? This is the classic case of a law that is so vague that its interpretation becomes the private domain of the Police Chief. I don't see Brian Kunze as being corrupt. I see the condition of having such a vague definition of the law, that any interpretation of it can only be arbitrary, that is a corrupt condition for the law to be in.
"This is not a secret. If you ask Police Chief Brian Kunze if that is true that he gets to decide whether my wildflowers are 'overgrown', he will likely admit that yes, that's his call. I believe him to be an honest man. But he doesn't understand my aesthetic issues. When laws are so vague as to require arbitrary enforcement, then that is to say law itself no longer really rules, at least not in a democratic sense. Arbitrary enforcement of law at the discretion of the enforcer, is not a democratic notion.
"The mayor, Mike Hirsh, is a sociologist. It's interesting to watch the role he plays. But when I try to explain myself to him, he just heats up. He doesn't get my point, and perhaps thinks I trying to be obstructionist. He gets mad at me like a friend would. But I'm trying to get him to see me as a citizen of this town. I want him to understand my point. I am due some rights, not just favors, like you'd get from a friend. I agree with Mike that promoting the welfare of Fayette is important. But he doesn't understand that my position is the result of a lifetime of thinking about things too. A citizen shouldn't have to be a professional anything to still find an attentive listener in a civic leader. There are reasons that I find beauty in the things I do find it in. But I'm being treated as an enemy of the Chamber of Commerce or something. Like my wildflowers, and the birds they attract, are going to drive away tourist dollars. I have nothing against the Chamber of Commerce. I put their links up on my web page. I patronize local business as a matter of preference.
Tinker takes a breath. Could he be over-reacting?
"Well dang it," he pleads, "why can't they see what they're doing? They're the ones that are giving Fayette a bad name, with this very kind of action. They're the ones who should ponder the meaning of shame. If they let any uptight citizen's complaint result in a summons, they have set up perfect conditions for generalized witch hunting. How appropriate that this happens on Halloween."
"No, seriously, they should protect me from someone who feels ashamed of my yard simply because the lawn doesn't look like it did when he was a kid. They privatized the school long before I bought it. I don't accept historic landmark tax breaks for it. I don't owe it to anyone to maintain the lawn in the crewcut it once wore when that guy was a kid. I hope he saved pictures.
"But it's my yard now, not his. Can't they see that? I'm not harming anyone. I love this place," Tinker reiterates. "They should be protecting me from him. He doesn't need any protection from me. I'm not the one who is pushing anything about this, except I'm pushing back. I told Brian Kunze that I would push back, if I'm able, twice as hard as I'm pushed. Of course I feel vindictive when people attack me like this for no good reason. There is no reason that the police power of the City should be concerned about my little wild patches. If they can't figure that out, then I hope the freedom loving people of this community will get their act together and change representatives.
"It would be nice to hear a voice on the City Council in defense wildflowers, and wild patches to provide some habitat for birds, butterflies and rabbits," says Tinker.
"It would be nice to hear a voice on the City Council in defense of freedom.
"Maybe they could spend a little more effort dealing with the litter problem around Fayette. This would use up some of the extra time that otherwise they use to focus on my garden. People throw their beer bottles on the sidewalks and the streets in this town, but the City Council is going after the wildflowers. Does this make sense? The sidewalk around this block glitters with broken glass from beer bottles thrown out car windows. The convenience store patrons throw their trash anywhere. There are no city trash recepticles in sight. But the city goes after my wildflowers and wild patches. Shame on them.
"There was a party and a handful of people came up to congratulate me for my beautiful yard. Then up came the [then] City Administrator, saying I would have to 'do something' about my lawn.
"I've also had a number of people say how wonderful it is that I'm taking a stand on this issue. But many are reluctant to speak out publicly. They are afraid that the power of the city would turn against them, too. Many have told me that I will somehow be the recipient of vindictive wrath if I make a big deal of this. I hope not. We'll see.
People have told me stories of officials acting like jerks. I've seen it myself on occasion. A number of people have voice apprehension.
"I will say that Brian Kunze has been civil with me. His advice usually seems level-headed and reasonable. I appreciate that, and I've told him so.
"If I can't get them to see that my lawn is not really city business, then the next best thing I can do is to try to get them to see the beauty that I see in my garden. But if they can't see the first, I don't have much hope for the second.
"There is considerable beauty in the idea that the relationship between the individual and the government could be one of liberty and freedom. If any official along the due process route will simply apply the aesthetic which sees freedom as beautiful, all conflict in this issue would cease. I'm trying to be friendly.
"Some people suggest that the best approach is to try to appease the ones driving this issue. That the main thing is not to stand out. But if you keep doing that, freedom evaporates. When I say that, I think they see it, though.
"Yes, I ponder these things," says Tinker, "I wonder what really is driving the issue. What is the root intent of my tormentors?" Tinker asks somewhat melodramatically, yet philosophically.
"Perhaps it is the peace symbol in my front window that is the real cause of Mr. Lutz's focus on this property. Perhaps not, I don't know. How could I know? But here's the point: Why should I have to wonder? That's the nature of the chilling effect. Abuse of power stiffles creativity. Fear is a wet blanket.
"If there were no attack in the first place, I wouldn't have to wonder about its motivation.
"Mr. Lutz's attack on my property was devoid of goodwill. It was abusive, of me, and of the citizens of Fayette. At least of those citizens who understand freedom and its implications. Mr. Lutz's attack was without shame. How does one respond, then?
"Certainly not by making another shameful attack. I won't attack Mr. Lutz, because I don't know him. All the information I have about him, is third hand. To me, Mr. Harvey Lutz is an abstraction, representing generic mettling in another's business, and pretending to be harmed when he hasn't been.
[note: Harvey Lutz was unavailable for comment, due to an unlisted phone number. If Mr. Lutz would care to comment, please email to email@example.com, or write to P.O. Box 444, Fayette.]
"But when people have to go through life weighing each creative impulse against the likelihood that their neighbor's aesthetic sensibilities will be offended, that is not what I would call a 'friendly' culture. Look at that issue from the point of view of it impact on tourism," he says.
Tinker is sensitive to suggestions that he could "possibly be over-blowing this issue." His face clouds over at the question, and perhaps some color comes to his ears. He gets back to the subject of who he suspects is the primemover among his "tormentors."
"He [Harvey Lutz] has never taken the trouble to speak to me about the nature of the shame he experiences as he gazes upon my yard. So I don't know. Why my right to have my garden as I wish is not given as much weight as his opinion, I also don't know.
"The City Council claims they wish to promote Fayette. As my friends watch what the current City Council is doing to me, I don't think their general impression of this town is exactly positive," says Tinker.
"I've tried to promote Fayette. I'm getting ready to start producing seed packets for Fayette Wildflower Seed Company. It's going to be a lot of fun. I tell all my friends about that. I try to get my friends to come visit me. But when they hear the way the city treats me over the yard issue, it can make them feel uncomfortable here. I tell them that there are lots of nice things about Fayette, too.
"The Council was eager to get the McDonalds and the Taco Bell to come to town. From the litter on the streets around here, it's plain that many citizens hold no special love for the place. At first I kept picking up the litter and broken glass from the streets. Then I realized that it was probably part of the local culture, and I determined to become a non-participant observer. It was like Sisyphus deciding to take a break.
"Litter's not my idea of quaint local culture, but I could see little possibility of changing it. It seemed that I was being trained to pick up after people, like people are trying to get back at someone somehow for having done that to them in one way or another.
"Maybe much of the litter problem is just powerless people taking out their frustrations with whom they perceive to be the entrenched power in this town. I really don't know much about it. I wish I didn't have to know anything about it. But here I am, trying to defend myself from it.
"There's still plenty of simmering racism and racial resentment, from local history around here. I think maybe the City picks on me because they can't get a handle on the real problems. I'm just a diversion, I think. I'd hate to think there really was any connection to my well-known political activism. Maybe Mr. Lutz is a war monger, I don't know.
"I mentioned to Police Chief Kunze that one option would be for me to put up a sign in my front yard, explaining my position on this issue. This would be done squarely on a First Amendment basis. Pure political speech.
"I suspect that this would be seen an a disportionate response on my part. Honestly, I have not pushed this confrontation. It's a bother for me, and I'd just as soon it had never been brought up.
"Being an American, even living in a city with other people, is not a contract to resign ones aesthetic senses to the lowest common denominator of the popular commercial culture. I suppose if wildflowers were made in factories, we'd all be required to have some. Perhaps I don't watch enough t.v."
The smile betrays itself as he says this. But Tinker says he takes freedom seriously. Thirty-five years ago he was one of three (with sister Mary Beth, and friend Christopher Eckhardt) plaintifs in the landmark student's rights case "Tinker v. Des Moines". That was about the First Amendment right of freedom of speech in the public schools. Tinker and his friends had chosen to symbolize their mourning for war casualities by wearing a black armband to school. They were kicked out. But eventually the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that "students do not shed their Constitutional Rights at the schoolhouse gate."
John Tinker now claims that how he chooses to keep his garden is also a form of expression. "I didn't shed my rights at this schoolhouse gate, either," says Tinker. "The right to privacy is important. The right to express my own world view in my aesthetic choices, this is important. I call it an 'aesthetic of meaning.' If Mr. Lutz, or Chief of Police Kunze, or Mayor Mike Hirsh, or whoever, doesn't like the way it looks, perhaps they should re-educate their eyes. It looks like freedom. It looks like nature. It is quite beautiful when you finally see it. I'm thinking of making it the basis for a new religion," Tinker smiles. "Except it wouldn't be new, would it? Lots of people see God in nature.
"Seriously, it means a lot to me to watch nature in my garden. It's about the same as telling someone their hair is too long. My garden is not their problem, just like the length of my hair is not their problem. They should kindly butt out, and we can all put this behind us. It doesn't hurt them. They should practice being freedom-loving Americans.
"If the Fayette City Council can't get that figured out by themselves, then the voters should get rid of the lot of them, asap. That's the democratic solution. There's not even any reason to be acrimonious about it. Just change the government. But I have other things I'd rather be doing than fight them about this. I'm not sure what it is about me that keeps struggling about it. But it would seem shameful to let them grind me down over my garden.
"And if they say that I am bringing bad publicity to Fayette, let them remember that I have asked them nicely to please drop the issue. They are the ones that keep bringing it up."
Tinker will plead his case at City Hall, 117 S. Main, Fayette, Missouri, USA, on Tuesday, November 5, 2002, at 5:00 pm.
Anything else? Tinker smiled. "Be there or be square."
John Tinker kindly permitted schema-root.org free access to his recorded thoughts, for the reconstruction of this interview.