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  • July 8th, 2017

THE CIRCUS IS IN TOWN

By Joel M. Vance

Bill Clark has been my cherished friend for nearly 60 years. I’ve told many people that he is the most fascinating person I’ve ever met. Bill lives in Columbia, Missouri, and has done more for Columbia and Boone County and, for that matter, central Missouri, than anyone I can think of.
Bill recently was driving along in his ancient Toyota Camry festooned with liberal bumper stickers, and several hundred thousand miles on the odometer, when he stopped fully at a stop sign then turned right. Next thing he knew there was a police car behind him lights flashing. Bill obediently pulled over, and then, thinking that the cop was after someone behind him, continued on through a green light.
Next thing he knew the siren went on behind him and once again he pulled over. This time the stop was for real. A pair of Boone County deputies accused him of making an illegal turn by not having signaled his right turn after a stop. Now all of you raise your hands if you ever have done the same thing.
I spent 21 years with the Missouri conservation department and often worked with the conservation agents who are, at the bottom line, Cops. They are law enforcement officers authorized to do the same job as deputies, highway patrolmen or other law enforcement types. I saw them engaged in encounters with civilians many times and always was impressed with how professional and empathetic they were with those they dealt with. They all possessed that most necessary attribute of a good law enforcement officer— common sense. Once again, raise your hands if you’ve ever been pulled over by a patrolman for a minor infraction and, instead of getting a ticket, you got a warning and were sent on your way.
Not so in this case Bill got a ticket. Then he made the mistake of writing a column for the Columbia Tribune which has been his forum since the 1950s. He has written thousands of columns for insufficient pay and probably is the best-known person in the city and County. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. Bill supports the arts more than any single human in the city. There are few concerts plays or other art endeavors that he misses. He also organizes and emcees a series of musical events at the Boone County Historical Society and fills the auditorium every time. He has a fitness gym that rarely if ever has broken even but is open to those who want to improve their physical health. He has organized speed walking races and for many years ran a nationwide weightlifting competition among prisons (obviously, by mail).
For the record, Bill Clark is active in the Unitarian church, a Korean War veteran, an ardent conservationist who has with his small band of fellow birdwatchers visited more than 1000 conservation areas on weekly birding trips, has, with his wife of more than a half-century, Dolores, raised five children all of whom are praiseworthy— one a former Peace Corps worker, another a network television scriptwriter, another a software developer and on and on. Bill has never smoked nor has he ever had a drink of alcohol. He was a champion for minority civil rights long before there was any nationwide push for such reforms— before Martin Luther King, before marches on Selma, Alabama, before southern colleges ever thought of having black players or, heaven forbid, black coaches.
Also for the record the comments on his situation posted on the Internet are frightening. Overwhelmingly, they support what the deputies did which is okay—apparently the deputies played it by the book and were professional although why they didn’t simply issue a warning and let the situation deflate is debatable. But most of the comments are downright horrifying. One suggested the police simply should have shot Bill. Many were profanely abusive and many seem to equate that what Bill did was because he’s a liberal and therefore an un-American whiner who doesn’t deserve to drive and should’ve been jailed. The lynch mob reaction was a microcosm of what’s wrong with the country and why we have a president elected by the very type of proto-Nazis who would suggest shooting a man for a minor traffic violation.
What Bill did was a minor transgression blown out of proportion. My question for the Columbia Tribune is don’t they have an editor who vets Bill’s column? His inappropriate comments on the Sheriff’s Department should’ve been stopped before they ever got in print. And my question for the Sheriff’s Department is why turn this into a major brouhaha instead of just sitting down with Bill and the editorial staff of the Columbia Tribune and settling the whole thing quietly without turning it into a media circus and a forum for all the nutcases to vent their odious spleen?
Bill will apologize in print as he should and, one would hope, be reinstated to his voice in the newspaper. He is not a crusading, muckraking newsman, nor is he Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, exposing corruption and perfidy in high places. He’s a guy who for decades has been cataloguing the humanity of his home town with humor, compassion, and a great love for the place where he lives.
This incident is symptomatic of the malady infecting the whole country. We have a president decrying “fake news” and “the lying press” nearly every day in an attempt to distract the world from realizing that he is a lousy president with nothing to brag about and much to hide. The good people of Columbia should rally in defense of this good man who has given so much to the community for so little in return, but who also has not asked for any return.
Who to blame here? Bill for committing a minor traffic violation and then mouthing off to the cops? The cops for not de-escalating the incident? Bill for writing an inflammatory column? The newspaper for not defusing the column before it ran? The Sheriff for throwing gasoline on the fire by responding to the column? But most of the blame should accrue to the segment of the population that seized on the incident to heap abuse on Bill. And also some to me for not allowing the entire thing to sink into the mud where it belongs.
On the other hand we have a constitutional guarantee of a free press in the United States and without that guarantee we are no better than Russia or any other totalitarian regime. Remember, when the press is muzzled, whether you agree with what the press says or not, freedom likewise is muzzled.

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