Wealthy Highland Park harasses environmental protester

Highland Park, Dallas is the 40th wealthiest city in the United States, and the third wealthiest place (per capita) in all of Texas. It was developed by landscaper Wilbur David Cook in 1907 as, a refuge from an increasingly diverse city.

Anyone who has driven through South Dallas in the dead of summer understands that impulse. At its worst, the Metroplex is a sunblasted urban wasteland of dilapidated housing, cracked sidewalks and pothole-riddled streets. It is the 13th most-polluted city in the nation.

The Trinity River is basically poison, which may have something to do with the fact that mother’s milk from women in this state has 75 times the average amount of toxic fire retardants found in European studies. We can’t blame the super-rich people in Highland Park for wanting to live here. The streets are clean and quiet, tree cover ensures ample shade from the sun while strict ordinances and well-funded police keep the streets clear of miscreants.

One such ne’er-do-well, a political canvasser named Kevin Vilbig, was arrested in July for a violation of Highland Park’s “Solicitation Ordinance”.

Mr. Vilbig’s employer, Texas Campaign for the Environment, has been operating in the Highland Park area since 2005. In that time, they’ve spoken to 2,234 of the town’s 8,842 people about local environmental problems. Their current goal? To push legislation that would require electronics manufacturers to dispose of their obsolete products. As it stands, televisions and computer monitors and smartphones loaded with mercury and brominated metals and lead are tossed into Texas landfills every day.

After a few years, these toxic chemicals seep out of our dumps and into the already strained water supply, which means that we end up putting all this ooky junk back in our bodies.

It was 1:30 PM, a hot Saturday afternoon in July, when Mr. Vilbig piqued the interest of a Highland Park public safety officer. Kevin had been knocking on doors for around an hour, talking to twenty or so people and convincing three of them to become members. “It was probably one of my best hours ever,” Mr. Vilbig says. Kevin had just finished knocking on the door to an empty house when the officer beckoned him over.

He asked Mr. Vilbig several questions about his purpose in the neighborhood and then produced a digital camera and asked to take a photo. Mr. Vilbig refused, at which point he was arrested and taken to Highland Park Jail. At no point was he read his Miranda Rights.

The local authorities claim that Article 4.04 of the Highland Park Code of Ordinances justified their behaviour. This “Solicitation Ordinance” bans travelling salesmen and their ilk from bugging local residents. Mr. Vilbig wasn’t selling anything, but he was accepting charitable donations on behalf of TC.

As he sees it, the money is incidental to the message. “I am a political organiser. My goal is to organise that community on this issue and get that legislation passed,” he added, “Donations and letters are equally important.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment has already gone to court twice over this issue, once for the requisite hearing and again for the pre-trial hearing. The next court date is set for November 9. And if that doesn’t resolve things? Jeff Jacobi, canvas director for the Dallas Office of TCE, gives one possibility: “We may very well pursue a different action that challenges the constitutionality of the Highland Park ordinance under which Kevin was cited.” I took to the streets of Highland Park to get an idea of what the locals thought about this issue. For the most part, the answer to that was “as little as possible”.

I canvassed the entire block Mr. Vilbig was arrested on, netting 14 very short interviews. Only two of the people I talked to had any awareness of the arrest. One of them was very much on the side of her town, while the other didn’t seem to think it mattered.

One woman told me she felt the canvassers were invading her privacy. She felt the application of the solicitation laws was just, because “they are trying to sell us their ideas”. Another stated that activists would be better served by buying time in a television spot, vastly over-rating either the viewer-ship of local cable channels or the financial backing of most environmentalists.

I didn’t run into any TCE supporters that day, but they do exist – Mr. Jacobi informs me that 632 residents have signed petitions at the group’s behest. Those folks will be glad to hear that Mr. Vilbig doesn’t blame them for his arrest, “I think I was arrested because a cop wanted to take my picture and so he used all of the force at his disposal to get my picture taken. My fingerprints were not taken, just my mug shot.” Which isn’t to say that partisan politics played no part in the arrest.

“I have no doubt that if I was a young Republican, he would have said ‘Thank you, have a nice day” and let me go,” Kevin adds.

Mr. Jacobi took a somewhat broader view of the whole issue, “I think Kevin was arrested because he knows his rights and his rights were violated and he took a stand. I’m talking about the officer trying to take his photo, I’m talking about the officer infringing on his right to freedom of speech, and I’m talking about the ordinance and its unconstitutional limitation of that speech.”