Clowns? Why Did It Have To Be Clowns?
September 9, 2016 (Fault Lines) — In this depressing time of wars, rumors of wars, presidential elections and insufferable celebrity temper tantrums, please take a moment to read the tale of the clowns infesting Greenville, S.C., and one brave police chief’s decision to stand against the darkness.
According to the cops, the current epidemic broke out on August 20, when residents at an apartment complex on the outskirts of town told police that fat clowns were emerging from the woods and offering money in exchange for their children:
A woman walking home late one night said she had seen a “large-figured” clown waving at her from under a streetlight, the police said. (She waved back.) And another woman said her son had heard clanging chains and a banging noise at his front door.
[s]everal children said that clowns were offering them money to follow them into the woods, close to the house by the pond.
The police, undeterred by the fact that every adult who reported a clown sighting refused to give his or her name, went ahead and investigated. Although they found no evidence of clowns, or any of what the New York Times hilariously calls “clown paraphernalia,” they did look into a number of additional reports that Greenville residents were panicking and randomly discharging their guns into the woods.
Much ado about nothing? Not quite. Because just ten days later, the epidemic had spread 180 miles north, to Winston-Salem, N.C.:
The Winston-Salem Police Department said officers responded to a call around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday of a person dressed in a clown costume offering treats to children. The person was seen by two children and heard, but not seen, by an adult, according to a police report.
The report said the person, a man wearing white overalls, white gloves and red shoes, with red bushy hair, a white face and a red nose, fled once officers arrived.*
About four hours later on a street two miles from the original call, the police received another report of a person in a clown costume. Efforts to find the person in both instances were unsuccessful….
Notably, the callers again refused to give their names. The police were at their wits’ end. Then, on Sept. 6, another clown was sighted in nearby Greensboro and everything changed.
According to FOX 8 and the Greensboro News & Record, local dad Chris Bass, who appears to be an actual person, was standing on his balcony at around 10 a.m. when he spotted a clown in the wooded area adjoining his home. It’s unclear what the clown, described as wearing a “white mask, red curly hair, yellow dotted shirt, blue pants and blue shoes,” did to provoke him, but sources agree that Bass called 911, grabbed a machete, jumped down from the balcony and chased him through the forest.
By the time officers arrived on the scene, the clown had sneakily disappeared into the undergrowth. Bass told reporters he did what he did out of “fatherly instinct.”
Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, the Greenville outbreak was getting worse and worse. The residents at Ground Zero, the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex, were so unsettled that they appealed to the police for extra protection. By August 24, Police Chief Ken Miller had instituted round-the-clock clown patrols; a chilling message from the property manager that was posted to Facebook gives readers an idea of the scope of the horror.
But the clowns were merely suppressed, not deterred. On August 29, they bubbled back to the forefront of public debate when an unidentified teenager claimed he saw two of them outside Shemwood Crossing, a second apartment building. Police responded, searched the area, and reviewed CCTV footage, all without finding a trace.
Suddenly, the reports kept coming and wouldn’t stop. On August 30, a female resident at Shemwood Crossing called 911 to say she’d seen two clowns at a nearby playground. When the cops arrived, they were told the clowns had been chased to a “newer model, black vehicle” and drove away.
Two days later, a couple of teenagers called in with a report that a clown dressed in black was “walking toward the back yard of a residence.” He wasn’t found. Less than two hours later, a woman said she’d been creepily stared at by a different, “middle-aged” clown outside a laundromat. He wasn’t caught, either.
Since then, no further clowns have been seen. Everyone’s on alert, and the town has been gripped by an eerie quiet. A local resident tells me his daughter and her friends are all petrified, convinced the clowns were outside their windows at night.
“It’s like the Walking Dead, but with clowns.”
– Fault Lines contributor Josh Kendrick, who has offices in Greenville
Nor have the police been sitting on their hands. It’s unclear how many Greenville PD officers were assigned to clown patrols, but it clearly wasn’t enough to calm the public’s fears. On September 1, the department issued a press release urging everyone to remain vigilant, forbid their children from playing unsupervised and report suspicious activity (photo documentation preferred). Clown patrols have been extended to cover any area where sightings were reported, and the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office was called up to help with the investigation.
The coup de grace came on September 2, when Chief Miller called a press conference and announced his intent to arrest any clowns on sight:
“It’s illegal. It’s dangerous. It’s inappropriate, and it’s creating community concern so it needs to stop,” Miller said.
Now, this isn’t necessarily as unconstitutional as it seems. To its credit, the department was able to point to both a state statute (SC Code § 16-7-110 (2012)) and municipal ordinance (Sec. 24-32, Greenville Code of Ordinances) under which it might be allowed to arrest them. Let’s take a look.
The state statute criminalizes “wearing a mask or other device which conceals [your] identity” in public. Anti-mask laws of the kind, with considerable variations, are on the books in most states. They also raise First Amendment concerns, because while they’re ostensibly passed to deter crime (especially by guys in white hoods), they also interfere with the right to anonymous speech and encroach on expressive conduct.
Under United States v. O’Brien (1968), restrictions on expressive conduct have to survive a four-part test in which the state must show they further a substantial governmental interest while burdening speech as little as possible. (It’s also very likely that the restrictions must be content-neutral.) And under NAACP v. Patterson (1958), “state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom of association,” like a requirement to disclose the names and addresses of NAACP members to the state of Alabama or an anti-mask law, is subject to strict scrutiny.
Unfortunately, a recent First Amendment challenge to New York’s anti-mask law, Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kerik (2004), failed before the Second Circuit. It’d be very entertaining if a Greenville clown challenged § 16-7-110 on First Amendment grounds, and I’m not at all keeping my fingers crossed for this to happen.
In the meantime, there’s always the municipal ordinance, a highly questionable dis con – esque confection that makes it a crime to “willfully or intentionally interfere with, disturb or in any way molest any person in the city” in public. They threw a sop in the direction of the Constitution by exempting “the content of spoken expressions,” though not “the making of oral sounds in a loud, boisterous, confrontational or aggressive manner.” It’s not nearly enough.
Far better to go with the state law, which is a safe bet in the short term assuming they actually manage to find a clown. Up until now, there’s no hard evidence they exist, and exactly one named person (wielding exactly one machete) claims to have seen one.
That hasn’t stopped clown advocates from getting butthurt, and in the meantime, the panic continues to unfold. Thanks to all the media attention, it’s even likely that there will be clowns soon. The copycat effect is a remarkable thing.
In the meantime, Carolina residents are urged to place their trust in the police. Thanks to heroes like Chief Miller, there’s every chance they’ll survive to tell their grandchildren about this.
*The New York Times didn’t get this quite right; according to the Winston-Salem Journal’s original report, it’s unclear which of the two clown sightings resulted in the description. But since they screwed up “Aleppo,” twice, while making fun of Gary Johnson for not knowing what it is, it might be unkind to hold them to too high a standard.