Anti-gang dress code adopted for fair

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With an eye toward tamping gang violence, Walla Walla County commissioners unanimously approved a dress code for the county fairgrounds.

The ordinance formalized a long-standing policy prohibiting gang attire and other identifiers at the annual county fair or other county-sponsored events.

The measure became effective Monday immediately after being signed by commissioners and will be in effect for this year’s Walla Walla Frontier Days, which begins next Wednesday.

At a public hearing Monday, three motorcycle club members protested the ordinance, which they said violates free speech rights and would profile club members who wear their emblems as being criminal gang associates.

“To me it just screams a violation of our First Amendment,” said Walla Walla resident Jeremy Sumerlin, president of the Brothers of Liberty Motorcycle Club.

“As long as the county fair is a public event, and not a private event, people should be allowed to wear what they want to wear,” Sumerlin said. “And I understand that there is a need to police the criminal street gang activity in Walla Walla ... but I think addressing it this way, I don’t think is the way to go.”

However, county Sheriff John Turner said that neither the Brothers of Liberty badges on the black leather vest Sumerlin was wearing at the hearing nor the tattoos visible on his neck or arms would be prohibited under the county ordinance.

The ordinance will specify certain gang insignia, “but what you are wearing, sir, is not one of them,” Turner said. “So if you came to our fair dressed exactly like you are dressed, you would have absolutely no problem at all.”

There will be prohibited identifiers for “listed outlaw motorcycle gangs,” which include the Hell’s Angels, the Bandidos, the Pagans and the Outlaws, who are the “big four” outlaw motorcycle gangs as identified by the FBI, Turner said. The FBI also lists “supportive” or “puppet” clubs, such as the Amigos, the Canyon Riders and the Hermanos, which are used to enhance or expand the “criminal infrastructure” of the four major gangs.

Ron Goodall, who said he was a motorcycle club president and was wearing a vest with a Combat Veterans International Motorcycle Club emblem, said he agreed with Sumerlin’s remark and that he believed Turner was “profiling” motorcycle club members.

“Because a person knows somebody else, that doesn’t make them a crook. I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “This is Walla Walla, this isn’t Seattle ... How much problems (does) any biker club (cause)?”

Turner said he “respectfully disagreed” with Goodall’s assertion and, as with Sumerlin, said what Goodall was wearing at the meeting “wouldn’t be a problem” if he wore it at the fair.

Following Goodall was College Place resident John Smith, who said he was “a proud member of the Amigos MC local” and its  chapter president. He said he also felt motorcycle club members were being unfairly painted as criminal associates.

“My biggest concern is that list,” he said. “What that list is saying (is) ‘guilt by association,’ ” Smith said.

“All those support clubs that are on that list under the Bandidos, they’re their own clubs,” Smith said. “They don’t follow Bandido’s rules, they’re not puppet clubs, they don’t do nothing for Bandidos that show support. And that’s all I want to say when you consider that list.”

Before the start of Monday’s hearing, county Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jesse Nolte said the proposed ordinance was modeled on one passed in Marin County, Calif., “which seemed to be a good template for what we are trying to do.”

Nolte said the Walla Walla County ordinance has been written to “narrowly focus” on specific criminal gang identifiers.

“We’re really trying to ... narrowly tailor this to protect the interests of the county fair, to make the county fair a safe, family-friendly place were any one can attend,” Nolte said. “But there are certain things that people cannot wear and certain activities that people cannot engaged in ... So we’re taking that policy that’s existed since the ’90s and narrowly constructing it to what I think is a legitimate public interest.”

Before voting on the measure, Commissioners Perry Dozier and Jim Duncan both said the intent of the dress code was to ensure public safety.

“For me, the key to this is criminal intent,” Dozier said. “We’re not profiling, we’re not trying to take away somebody’s freedom of speech at all. It is, really ... to try to create a safe environment for those wish to attend any events that the county has sponsored.”

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Andy Porter
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