Kokomo — A dollar bill taped over a mouth led to the arrest of two protesters Friday at the Howard County Courthouse.
Protesters Darren M. Burke, 38, and Greg Lambert, 52, both of Indianapolis, face misdemeanor preliminary charges after the incident.
Members of Occupy Kokomo and related movements around the state had been rallying outside the courthouse that morning with permission from the Howard County commissioners.
They walked into the building, where Sheriff Steve Rogers met them at the security check-in.
Lambert told the sheriff he and his companions planned to return Monday with signs, at which point both parties turned and walked away.
Protester David Fox called Rogers back to speak with him. A moment later, the sheriff noticed Burke, who had been using a computer tablet to film the entire rally that morning.
Behind the electronic device, the Occupier was wearing a dollar bill over his mouth, a biohazard sticker on his cheek and his sweatshirt’s hood was over his head.
Rogers decided Burke was violating a court order that prohibited masks in the courthouse.
“Take your mask off,” Rogers told Burke.
“I don’t have a mask on,” Burke responded.
“I don’t care. Take your mask off,” Rogers said.
The sheriff then grabbed at Burke’s face as the protester turned around and shouted “Get off me. I’m going outside.”
Rogers and deputies pushed Burke into a wall, at which point Lambert became involved in the fray. Occupiers said Lambert was trying to protect Burke’s tablet.
After tackling Burke to the ground, Rogers placed him in handcuffs and he was taken to the Howard County jail. An Occupier told the Tribune Lambert had been bailed out of jail, and they are collecting money for Burke’s bail.
The sheriff department has preliminarily charged Burke with contempt of court, trespass and resisting law enforcement, according to jail records. Lambert was preliminarily charged with resisting law enforcement.
Willing to be Arrested?
The Occupy gathering began outside on the eastern lawn of the courthouse with an initial four people: Burke, Lambert, Fox and Brian Turnpaugh. They held posters and discussed political and economic issues, such as “right to work” legislation and high foreclosure rates.
After about an hour, Fox went inside to speak with officers about what the rules were for inside the courthouse. Fox said Rogers told him the group was not allowed to have signs or masks.
Rogers said in a phone interview after the arrests that the rules were in place to allow court offices to conduct business regularly and for employees to feel comfortable. The no-mask rule was for “identification purposes and the fact that it’s intimidating to people in the building,” he said.
After Fox returned to the group, the protesters debated whether they were willing to spend time in jail.
“I’m trying to decide whether I’m willing to be arrested over that,” Lambert said about protesting in the courthouse.
“Well, you know what, I don’t think I’m willing to be arrested today, but I’m more than willing to come back Monday and get arrested,” Fox said.
Lambert said he would rather wait so he could speak with the American Civil Liberties Union so a legal representative would be available if the group encountered problems.
Discussion continued for a few more seconds, then Lambert said “I’m going in there” as he headed toward the courthouse doors.
Rogers said in a press statement Friday both men arrested were at a Howard County commissioners meeting Thursday, where they heard about the no-mask rule, and they were informed of it again Friday before their arrests.
The county commissioners told protesters Thursday they could use the courthouse’s east steps and lawn. They could come into the building if there was inclement weather as long as they obeyed courthouse rules.
Occupiers had already gathered in the courthouse before Thursday’s commissioners meeting. They chanted briefly, which protesters later admitted was disruptive, so sheriff deputies asked them to remain quiet. And the group did, according to the sheriff’s department.
For Friday’s protest, Howard County Superior Court I Judge William Menges issued a court order that barred anyone from wearing a mask into the courthouse, Rogers said in his statement.
Commissioner Bill Thompson, who was in the building at the time of the incident Friday but said he did not see it, said the mask rule was like any other set in place in a courthouse.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with what you say or what you do,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t matter as long as you comply with the rules. It wasn’t the speech that they were confronting. It was a violation of the rules. All persons, not just Occupy, have to abide by the rules of the courthouse.”
Fox said after deputies arrested Burke and Lambert that the dollar bill on Burke’s mouth represented “silent protest.”
“If you want silent, then we’re silent,” Fox said.
• Daniel Human is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. He can be reached at 765-454-8570 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.