After being told that Walmart wanted protestors moved because they were allegedly impeding pedestrian and vehicle traffic, the singing and chanting group moved down to a space on the sidewalk where they were told by the police they needed to remain. Shoppers never lost access to the store, nor did motorists find themselves barricaded in the parking lot where many spaces remained empty.
Despite cooperation, the prisoner transport van appeared and police began to assemble a so-called free speech zone with sawhorses, an effort that seemed confusing and laughable to most, as the activists had long been sticking to walking between two cones placed on the sidewalk for the better part of an hour.
When asked where my special media containment area was, the humorless officer gave no response and pointed me toward the area being used by activists.
The land on which Walmart sits has been leased by the Hartford Housing Authority. In 2004, the City of Hartford passed an ordinance protecting free speech in parking lots and on sidewalks in front of retail stores, in particular, those which are dubbed city-affiliated, such as Walmart. The municipal code states:
The Hartford City Council declares that it is the policy of the City of Hartford to protect and enhance the opportunities for various forms of speech and conduct, including the soliciting of support for political causes and other issues of community interest, the distributing of informational literature, and the collecting of signatures to qualify candidates or referenda for access to the ballot. The city council declares that the ability to engage in these activities promotes the safety and general welfare of the city by providing for an informed, engaged, and actively involved community.
The city council finds that retail establishments are among the most effective and low-cost forums in which the enumerated speech and conduct may reach their intended audience. As centralized business districts—surrounded by the streets, plazas and parks that constituted “traditional public forums”—have given way to freestanding retail establishments that are largely visited by car and public transportation, retail stores are now among the most widely frequented areas in the city.
The city council further finds that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and relevant portions of the Constitution of the State of Connecticut prohibit all public entities from abridging freedom of speech. While the nature of First Amendment obligations vary according to the use to which public property is put, all public property is subject to the constraints of the First Amendment. Thus, public property owners have a special obligation to protect freedom of speech.
Accordingly, the city council hereby finds and declares, as a matter of public policy, that owners of retail stores located on city-affiliated property should be required to permit the exercise of certain speech and conduct on the non-business areas of their premises and those non-business areas shall be considered “designated public forums” in the City of Hartford. In recognition of the legitimate commercial interests of the owners, lessees, and patrons of retail establishments, the exercise of these protected activities may be subject to reasonable, non-discriminatory time, place and manner restrictions.
Access to retail establishments. Every person, group or organization shall have access to the non-business areas of a retail establishment located on city-affiliated property to engage in non-commercial speech and conduct with customers and employees related to subjects, including, but not limited to religion, politics, business practices, or workplace rights. Such speech and/or conduct may include distributing literature related to such matters and soliciting signatures on forms and petitions addressed to public officials, government agencies, religious organizations, business entities, and other community institutions.
When I asked an officer why protestors were being moved out of the parking lot, he claimed that this parcel was owned by Walmart and not the City. The Charter Oak Marketplace plaza is shared with a RadioShack, GameStop, Payless, Marshalls, and more.
Once again, The HPD response to a peaceful protest was one that may lead onlookers to believe that no actual crimes were happening anywhere in the city. Activists commented that the police were there to serve and protect corporate interests.
Flyers were distributed in a non-aggressive manner; activists reported that Walmart workers were told they would lose their jobs if they accepted any materials from those rallying in solidarity with store employees who walked out in various locations around the United States.
Many complaints have been waged against Walmart, including that it keeps the African American community in poverty by refusing to pay living wages or offer an adequate number of full-time positions.
Joshua Blanchfield, an organizer of the Hartford solidarity rally said he was expecting about fifty individuals; the actual turnout was roughly double that, including a number of striking workers from the Healthbridge nursing homes.