Loud and unclear: Charlottesville city councilor confronts Mall regular over clapping

  • 28 COMMENTS
Bob Fenwick. File photo. Bob Fenwick. File photo.

You might not have met Michael Jones, but if you’re a regular on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, chances are you’ve heard him.

Jones is known for walking the Mall with his headphones on, clapping loudly and sometimes chanting about the glory of God. But an altercation with a Charlottesville elected official over his actions is raising questions about freedom of speech.

City Councilor Bob Fenwick said he’d been concerned about Jones’ clapping and chanting for a long time before he confronted him earlier this month.

“People told me they were scared of him, and said ‘I’m never coming back to the Mall,’” said Fenwick. Restaurants complained, saying they were losing customers from outdoor tables. So on August 8, Fenwick walked up to Jones while Jones was standing on the pedestal at the Mall’s free speech wall. 

The two men’s accounts differ as to what happened next. Fenwick said Jones became agitated, and told him that the last person who tried to take away his rights “was murdered.”

Fenwick said he backed off. “I said, ‘I wish you luck,’ and I gave him my card.”

Days later, said Fenwick, Jones followed him up the mall in what Fenwick felt was a menacing way. Fenwick made a complaint to a local magistrate, but said he was told that as there was no physical contact, direct threat, or swearing, there would be no charges.

“I was really frustrated,” Fenwick said.

Jones said he never threatened Fenwick, and never followed him. “I told him I am practicing my First Amendment right and he said if you don’t [stop] I am going to make you stop,” Jones said in a written statement provided to C-VILLE.

In an interview at a downtown coffee shop, Jones said he’s had a tough go of it in life, but has gotten things on track since moving into The Crossings, Charlottesville’s permanent housing complex for the formerly homeless, a year and a half ago. He grew up poor in Buckingham County, he said, and stole chickens to feed his parents. He spent time in jail for burglary, and he slept on the streets for several years. Now that he has has a place to stay, things are better, he said, and he’s running his own lawn care business. He takes time to praise God and read the Bible, he said, “because otherwise the Devil would have gotten me long ago.”

Jones has been arrested on numerous other occasions, and was found guilty of assault in 2010, according to court records. He’s currently facing a drug charge in Charlottesville General District Court. Twice—once in May 2013 and again in May of this year—he was charged with noise ordinance violations after police used a sound meter to record him at more than 75 decibels. He was found not guilty the first time, and a judge dismissed the second charge.

Fenwick pointed to Jones’ arrest record as an indication that his allegations of threats should be taken seriously, and said he still thinks something should be done to curb Jones’ clapping and shouting.

“We can’t hide from it, because it’s right in front of us, and it’s hurting people,” Fenwick said. “The pursuit of happiness doesn’t mean you’re frightened or cowering in your home or in your business.”

Jeff Fogel is a human rights lawyer who has represented Downtown Mall panhandlers in free speech disputes. Jones’ situation is a sticky one, he said.

“On the one hand, you don’t have a right to unlimited free speech,” Fogel said. “The question is when do you cross the line between something people don’t like and is annoying and something that really warrants a restriction on that right?”

There will always be situations where you can’t accommodate everybody’s interest, said Fogel, and in such cases, “there are no answers, just difficult questions.”

  • Paul

    Fenwick’s( and others) real issue is Jones’ Christian chanting. If Jones was Muslim, praising Allah out loud.. he could walk on the mall waving a gun, and Fenwick would work to protect his right to free speech, not challenge it.

    • belmontDude

      What does brandishing a firearm in public have to do with free speech and where has anyone especially Fenwick ever supported that?

      There is enough that local officials actually do that is deserving of exposure that there is no need to make up baseless accusations. A citizen’s right to free speech being challenged by an elected official is enough to be outraged by. Changing the subject to a ridiculous hypothetical issue does nothing but take the focus off of the real offenses.

      • Paul

        Illustrating absurdity of Fenwick by being absurd.

      • lovinggunmaker

        What’s interesting is how the people who are opposed to the clapping man all seem to lack a sense of humor about anything. I wonder if there is a connection between not being able to take a joke and being offended by a United States citizen clapping his hands in public.

  • belmontDude

    Why is Fenwick hassling this guy named Jones who he has no business telling what to do?

    There is another guy named Jones (Maurice) who Fenwick does have some business telling what to do and it seems that guy actually may be breaking the law. Last friday Aug 22, reporter K. Burnell Evans wrote in the Daily Progress that Charlottesville has paid $2,530 over the past 3 years to cover the phone bill of a former election official whose term ended in 2011. According to the article, Jones (Maurice) knew about that as early as March if not earlier and did nothing to stop the illegal flow of taxpayer money.

    What Maurice Jones did is “right in front of us and it’s hurting people” too. Where is Mr. Fenwick’s concern about that? Maybe he thinks that is something he can hide from.

    • max

      Fenwick has every right to “hassle” him. So do I. Clapping is not speech, period.

  • Al

    I thinks it’s as simple as this. Yeah- the guy has a right to free speech…blah, blah, blah. Now I’ve observed the guy for a long time (as a downtown resident) and my impression is that his sole goal is to provoke a reaction- this guy wants attention. It’s easy enough to tell from the challenging looks he gives people. So I applaud Fenwick, this time, but caution how this is handled going forward as I think Jones is looking for a battle…and probably money.

  • Stacey

    Jones’ incessant clapping basically tortured my life while working in the building adjacent to the freedom of speech wall. His clapping gave me anxiety and I couldn’t work in my own workplace with the hour of long, repetitive, LOUD clapping. I confronted him and told him that I had anxiety issues developing because of it and he stopped for a week, then came by my office asking for a donation to his church. After not donating to his church, he became threatening when confronting him the second time, pleading that he stop or at least move to the park where there are less places of business (meaning mine). He had started this behavior again because I would not donate money to his church. The only reason my company is happy we moved from our previous location on the downtown mall is that we now no longer have to deal with the “clapper.” IT WAS AWFUL

    • Bruno Hob

      Interesting that his heart-felt Christianity doesn’t stop him from making a ‘joyful-noise ” that causes even one fellow creature pain–at 75 decibels! that’s a lot of clap. Now, hang in there Jones, I see a big law suit judgment in your favor, affirming your free speech and I bet you do too!.

      • Evan Knappenberger

        I think the 75 decibels was probably more of a less-regular thing, when the dude was going on about God. Be grateful he isn’t following the Biblical precedent of Jeremiah, wandering the street naked and in chains, or laying on the ground for a year. Faith makes people do crazy things, and is often meant to challenge peoples’ comfort.

    • Evan Knappenberger

      Okay first of all “torture” is a little strong don’t you think? I mean, if waterboarding isn’t torture, if security guards tasing people isn’t torture, then clapping is definitely not torture. Now, if he was a battalion of Marines blasting Barney songs at you all night long, then I’d understand torture. Don’t cheapen the meaning of the word by stretching it to include this dude’s clapping.

      • Stacey

        I used the word torture on purpose. It may not have been the most amount of pain I could feel, but it was terribly painful to go through and could easily drive anyone who had to hear the whole thing, every day mad. I’ve told friends about this guy who was making mine and all my coworkers’ days at work miserable, yes just by clapping, and I showed them by clapping loudly ONLY 5 times. They would immediately be annoyed by just 5 loud claps. Now try an hour or more of much louder clapping with an echo. It affected my ability to work in a place of business, I could not hear or pay attention to customers on the phone over the loud, incessant clapping. Add to that, I donate to my own church and in no way think it’s okay to force somebody to donate money for any reason, religious or not! There were plenty of places or parks that the cops would ask him to go for his clapping and chanting so that it wouldn’t affect people trying to work, but he didn’t care and took it as a strike against God. I am a Christian and believe in evangelism, but I also believe in being kind to your neighbor and when I talked to him about the problems he was causing for me, a Christian would show kindness and care when their actions are negatively affecting those around them.

        • belmontDude

          How was the sound of distant clapping coming through a solid brick wall, probably some sheetrock and insulation too, louder than you clapping right in front of someone?

          Anyway, seems like the real solution was to each pray to your respective versions of the sky god and let them battle it out on your behalf. If you did that, then he either has a better relationship with his guy or maybe his is stronger. Seems like the clapping is paying off either way.

        • Evan Knappenberger

          If you are on the verge of losing your marbles because of some guy clapping, then maybe you are too tightly wound. Torture is when somebody systematically attacks you physically and mentally, in order to break your will– like what God supposedly did to his only beloved son to satisfy bloodthrist. I’ve sat on the mall for hours, and never had an issue with the clapping. I kind of like it. It’s like Jeremiah proclaiming to the city…

    • lovinggunmaker

      So you could have stopped him, but chose not to. Good job.

  • http://www.monticelloroad.com Peter Krebs

    I, for one, enjoy his clapping/chanting, though I don’t live there. For better or worse, the Free Expression Wall, which is where he hangs out, was meant for EXACTLY what the dude is doing. Many people who rail against him are also all about their own liberties, are all concerned about imminent domain, etc. I do allow, though, that there is a your-rights-end-at-my-face issue here but I think the right to free expression makes your right to not hear stuff a pretty high bar to clear.

    Definitely extortion is not cool, though, but I don’t think that’s really what bothers people.

    Here’s a short story with only my own perspective:

    We were setting up for a day of mural-making on the Free Expression Wall for the StoryLine project. Of course he was clapping like mad and I was afraid the children would not be able to communicate over the din, so I was annoyed and thinking “This guy’s gotta go.” So I walked over to him. He looked me in the eye and nodded over my shoulder to a big bunch of thunderclouds, which looked like they might spoil the party. Then he looked THEM (the stormclouds) in the eye and started an amazingly intense sequence of claps. Soon the clouds dissipated, he bowed and walked away.

    My perspective on what he was about changed on that day. He went from attention-craving lunatic to unconventional shaman, which is a huge distinction. People who choose that role for themselves are never 100% pleasant to be around, and they can’t be or they would be mimes, but they play a tremendous role.

    We want an interesting Charlottesville and if we don’t nurture the weird, the DTM will become that other kind of mall, which is not what we want.

    • belmontDude

      He’s performing the solo version of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”
      If it’s music when a group does it, it’s still music if a single person does it isn’t it?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSlve5cn8B8

    • Bilbo

      Shaman, eh? So I bets there is another shaman out there who appreciates quiet and not disturbing the little birdies and old folks and soon these two shamens are gonna duke it out like Gandolph and Sauraman, right on the mall. Watch out, once magick is in play it is going to be baddd.

  • stew

    if hes clapping and asking for money it seems logical to just make him go through whatever hoops any other busker has to go through to make noise on the mall and then leave him be as long as he follows the rules.

  • max

    With his record and intimidating manner, he is a menace to public safety. He can clap in the parking lot by McDonalds. But the City Council has to realize that it is, above all, responsible for the safety of the general public.If he gets to harass me, I get to harass him.

    • belmontDude

      Fenwick has certainly been a disappointment as a city councilor and may have tired to intimidate the clapping guy, but I wouldn’t say that makes him a menace to public safety. That’s just a bit extreme. You are also welcome to disagree with Mr. Fenwick and should feel free to do so publicly but harassing him is out of line no matter what.

      • max

        I was not referring to Fenwick. I was referring to the clapping guy. Fenwick stands out positively from the rest of the Democrat wimps on the City Council. Fenwick is the only one who says sometimes what needs to be said.

        • lovinggunmaker

          Obviously you missed his joke. By only using the words “his”, “he”, “him”, etc, you never specified who you were referring to.

          I don’t find Clapping Man intimidating in the least. Curious as to why people do.

  • alibama

    worked with mike for a few years when he was with bat masonry… pretty gentle giant… I’ll never forget the time a pepsi machine started tipping over while some merchant guy was refilling it. It hadn’t been situated well to begin with and was about to fall over when Mike saved the day – lifted the machine up and put it on to solid ground.

    mike got fired that day for putting down his wheelbarrow load of bricks while helping another person. so yeah – if he wants to clap and sing on the mall I’m on his side.

  • Evan Knappenberger

    Fenwick should take a course on conflict mediation and resolution. Surely there is a better way to deal with this mental health and free speech issue than more government intervention and angry political maneuvering.

  • Rick Martin

    I was there last night … Jones came by twice while we were sitting at Miller’s. To me, it is just part of the eclectic nature of the mall. What was cool, people started clapping with him as he past by i guess in support! Seriously, if he bothers you … you need to look in the mirror!

  • Sean O’Connor

    Honestly, I thought this guy was hilarious… until I moved above Bagby’s/BRCS. Imagine hearing clapping at all times throughout your house. It’s not funny anymore, and it honestly isn’t fair. This is unnecessary, preventable noise pollution. The Downtown Mall is an amazing place to live, work (SNL Financial), and be, but there’s got to be some law we can use to stop him. Between the homeless people drinking outside my office behind Lucky 7 during the day and being menaces at night, and this guy, it’s seriously devaluing the benefits of living on the mall. At least winters can get fairly cold here.

  • worldtraveler007

    If only I lived there, I’d practice MY first amendment right and go stand next to this dude clapping and chanting about the devil as loud as I could. Wonder how he’d like THOSE apples!!! Beat him at his own game!!

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