The recent tear gas incident in Wichita’s bar district was, quite literally, a terrorist attack. According to Merriam-Webster, terrorism is defined as “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion”.
To understand why the Wichita Police Department chose to deploy tear gas on over 1,000 people outside and inside of a popular dance club on Thanksgiving night, and why this was an act of terrorism, one must first examine the socioeconomic and political factors surrounding Old Town, Wichita’s entertainment district.
According to the Old Town Association, a committee of business owners in the district, Old Town businesses generate over $50 million, annually. The club that was tear gassed, Doc Howard’s, is located directly in-between two very posh hotels, the Hotel at Old Town and the Courtyard Marriott.
Doc Howard’s is one of, if not the largest of the clubs in the district, and caters to the most racially diverse customer base. Despite the club’s investment of over $100,000 in video surveillance equipment, strict prohibition of gang or drug related activity, and a unit of privately hired Wichita police officers, there are occasional disturbances outside the club, particularly when the bars close at 2 am, as is customary when large numbers of people are drinking.
Rather than effectively police the situation, officers have repeatedly resorted to unjustifiable violence to resolve incidents, rarely making arrests, even when they witness violations of the law, firsthand. The police use horses to force the crowd down the road, when the clubs close.
In that time frame, it is normal for as many as 2,000 people to fill the street. Most people move slowly in the direction of their cars, often stopping to talk with friends, or determine who is driving whom, since most of the club-goers are inebriated by the end of the night.
People have been trampled, and one young man was even tied to a horse, by a police officer, and then dragged through the street. This does not happen outside any of the other clubs in the area, or anywhere else in town, for that matter.
Fights that happen outside other clubs in the area are generally ignored by police, who may break up the fight, but make no arrests. Loiterers are not harassed outside the other clubs in the area. But the people who leave Doc Howard’s just before 2 am are herded like cattle, down the road, and forced into their cars, in the name of clearing the area to maintain public safety. Again, this does not happen outside any of the other clubs.
In September, the Wichita City Council passed a series of ordinances after a spate of incidents in Old Town. The ordinances gave police more power to cite people not leaving the area fast enough, added more cameras and reworded an ordinance determining which clubs can cater to customers who are adults, but not yet at the legal drinking age, which, in Kansas, is 21.
These ordinances were lobbied for by the Old Town Association, and opposed by the owners of Doc Howard’s. The problem with these ordinances is that they do little to address the actual problem. The ordinances require club owners to provide security outside their clubs, and particularly in adjacent parking lots.
These parking lots are actually where the majority of the problems occur. They are not well-lit, and are not patrolled by the police. Unfortunately, the club owners’ insurance policies do not cover their employees when they are in these adjacent parking lots, so no one is securing these areas.
When these ordinances passed, the owners at Doc Howard’s made the decision to stop paying four Wichita police officers to provide private security outside the club. These officers were each being paid $37.50 per hour, by Doc Howard’s. However, the Wichita Police Department determines who can actually hire these off-duty but uniformed officers, and who cannot.
Doc Howard’s cannot hire these officers directly, so they are required to contract them through the Old Town Association. The Old Town Association has determined that Doc Howard’s is bad for their businesses, and many of those owners want Doc Howard’s shut down. The high class hotels in the area feel that having large numbers of drunk minorities walking by is detrimental to their sales revenue.
Many of the business owners that comprise the Old Town Association also have very close ties to members of the Wichita City Council, which passed these ordinances, that were clearly designed to harm Doc Howard’s business. In fact, one member of the City Council actually held their victory celebration in the Hotel at Old Town, after the election.
So essentially, Doc Howard’s was paying these police officers who were, in all actuality, working against the club for the Old Town Association. So, a few weeks ago, Doc Howard’s stopped paying the private police unit. And that is when the real problems started.
Now we come back to Thanksgiving and the tear gas incident outside the club. According to Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams, one canister of tear gas was deployed in response to multiple small disturbances outside the club, although video evidence and eye witness reports do not support these claims.
There was an altercation, with at least one patron being injured, but the vast majority of the people in the crowds were not involved, nor even close to the fight. The police are claiming that the fight was the reason for the tear gas, but evidence suggests that the fight was actually just an excuse to tear gas the crowd.
What is known, is that tear gas was deployed, just as the club-goers had started filing out of the door. Approximately 1,000 people were either in the street outside the club, or still exiting the building when the tear gas was deployed. The chaos that ensued was captured on multiple security cameras and the videos are embedded below.
The security cameras that were installed after the ordinances passed were, according to Chief Williams, not functioning. The police department failed to inform the media of the incident for several days. In fact, if certain members of the media had not been tipped off (by me), the police never would have made any statement regarding this incident.
When the Chief did finally release a statement, he downplayed the situation and repeatedly claimed that the tear gas was the safest way to disperse the crowd, which is absolutely ridiculous when one views the video footage. The reality is that the crowd was dispersing, and the tear gas caused an extremely dangerous situation in which people were trampled.
When Chief Williams released his statement, he had not seen the video footage, and did not expect it to be released. Chief Williams says the tear gas was justified and reasonable, although local civil rights attorney Jim Thompson disagrees. Thompson says that the officer’s actions put far more people in danger and that those people have a cause for action in civil court. Thompson represents Doc Howard’s and also spoke out against the ordinances when they were first proposed by the City Council.
Now, just over a week after the tear gas attack, Doc Howard’s has rehired the private police officers. However, the officers demanded a pay increase, and are now paid $60 per hour, each. Just to clarify and reiterate:
This private police unit was making $37.50 per hour, apiece. Then Doc Howard’s stopped paying the officers, because the officers seemed to cause more harm than good, primarily because they were actually employed by enemies of the club. So then the department tear gassed 1,000 club goers, including the entire staff of Doc Howard’s. Now, the private police unit has been rehired, but demanded an unreasonable pay increase, with assurances that there will be no more trouble.
The tear gas attack in Old Town was a terrorist attack, and it was extortion, in its purest form.
The videos below show that the crowd was clearly dispersing in a safe manner prior to the tear gas. Then, chaos erupts as gas fills the street and the inside of the club. The first two videos are raw, uncut footage from Doc Howard’s surveillance cameras. The third video is an edited cut, in which the police chief’s false statements are dubbed over footage of the carnage. Below that is a link to the video of Chief Williams’ uncut statement. I urge you to view them all, in their entirety.