Leroy Jones does not play the game by the rules.
Not when he believes the game is fixed.
As a driver for Yellow Cab when it went into receivership, he quickly recognized that the court-appointed receiver was taking everyone for a ride. And so Jones started protesting--loudly and often--that the receiver should be ousted.
If enough people had listened, Yellow Cab might have remained a cooperative run by its cabbie-owners--and Denver's District Court might have been spared an embarrassing and costly debacle.
Instead, Yellow Cab was sold, Judge Lynne Hufnagel was rebuked by two federal bankruptcy judges, her appointment to the bench was overturned by voters, and Jones, who'd already lost his job because he'd dared to speak out, gained a reputation as a troublemaker. When he applied for driving positions with the other companies in town, they said he was too hot to handle.
Jones was hot, all right--so hot that he decided to fight the unfair rules that gave Denver's three cab companies a virtual monopoly on the market. He started protesting--loudly and often--that the Public Utilities Commission had to change the way it did business. The battle lasted several years and went all the way through the state legislature, but today Jones's Freedom Cab is on the road with 48 cars.
Freedom is important to Jones. "This is supposed to be a free country," he says. "That means economic freedom. Why is this country trying to control my economics so I can't be free? I'm not cheating anybody on anything. I'm not asking anybody for anything."
Except, maybe, for the right to stand on a small section of sidewalk near Coors Field--and take a bite out of another monopoly, the Colorado Rockies.
Jones is not one to go with the flow. When he sees things going in the wrong direction, he can be a major impediment.
And he certainly did not like the rules the city came up with to regulate vendors outside Coors Field. In addition to driving a cab and lobbying the legislature (and working as an exterminator and a postal worker and a cable splicer, but those are other stories), Jones had run a vending operation in New York City before he moved to Denver in 1982. He decided to get in on the ballpark business--but then learned that the city had cut vendors out of all action within a block of Coors Field, the stadium built with taxpayers' money.
This was the "enhanced enforcement zone" that buffers the ballpark--and gives the Colorado Rockies a corner on the market. Within this area, no permits are issued to vendors who want to set up shop; peddlers, who are required by the city to sell only those wares that they can carry, are not allowed inside it at all.
Jones decided to challenge the rules. It was a fight, literally, over peanuts.
So Jones, who has a peddler's license, would start selling within the zone--usually just inside it at 19th and Blake--and sure enough, someone from the city would come by and give him a ticket for obstructing a public right-of-way, even though Jones says he was always careful to place himself next to a permanent obstruction like a dock, so that he wouldn't block traffic. Or he'd establish a beachhead just outside the zone--across the street at 19th and Blake--and sure enough, someone from the city would come by and give him a ticket for obstructing a public right-of-way, even though he'd placed himself next to another permanent obstruction, like a newspaper rack. "He was very friendly," says Thee Harrell, an official with the city's excise and licenses division who's ticketed Jones. "He said he was in protest of the law as written, in open defiance of the law."
Two of Harrell's tickets, along with a slew of others, brought Jones to Denver County Court on Monday. He could have just paid a fine, but he wanted a jury to decide if he was guilty of obstructing a public right-of-way. Three of the charges were dropped immediately because the police officer who'd issued those tickets didn't show up in court--although vendors later reported that he'd been spotted working off-duty for the Rockies on Monday. But three counts remained.
On April 18, Jones had been just outside the "enhanced enforcement zone," across Blake Street, standing by a newspaper rack and selling pop and peanuts from two tubs when Harrell ticketed him; those two tubs went counter to the rules that required peddlers to pack all their wares. And never mind that the rack already obstructed the sidewalk.
On April 30 and again on May 6, Jones was ticketed across the street at 1901 Blake--the future home of Dick's Last Resort. On those occasions he'd set up several tubs, all in the shadow of a dock that jutted into the sidewalk. Whether this setup impeded traffic is a matter of dispute; whether it impeded traffic on a public right-of-way is also debatable. Last spring, it turns out, the city issued a revocable permit for that very spot to Dick's, which allowed the restaurant to use the former sidewalk space to build a handicapped ramp. Although the space allegedly belonged to the public, we didn't get to vote on whether we wanted to turn it over to a joint that serves its beer in buckets and prides itself on being rude to patrons.
But the question of whether the city had given away a public area, and the question of whether the city's permitting process is fair, and the question of whether the Rockies are so greedy that they will fight over every inch of economic turf--these were not questions that were going to be answered in this courtroom. The three jurors, one wearing a Rockies hat, deliberated about an hour before coming back with a guilty verdict. "They just couldn't get around the fact that he was blocking the right-of-way," says Jones's attorney, Michael O'Malley.
Lately O'Malley has been spending a lot of time on public rights-of-way; last month the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of another of his clients, one of two publishers who'd been prohibited from distributing their publications within that enhanced enforcement zone. "We find," the court declared, "that the ability of the Rockies to generate revenue in these disputed areas is not more significant than that of the publishers."
But then, the publishers were pushing the First Amendment as well as free enterprise.
Unlike the Rockies, who'd appealed that issue to the Supreme Court, Jones doesn't plan to fight Tuesday's verdict. Not in court, anyway. He's going to reinvigorate the peddlers' association he started this spring, and he's going to work to change the law. If he could win over the state legislature, how hard could it be to fight City Hall--and win?
"People avoid obstructions," says Gordon Brown, the architect who testified on Jones's behalf. "It's very simple. It's the law of least effort."
And that, too, is a rule that Leroy Jones does not observe.
He is not willing to go with the flow. "I'm just tired of having to fight the city for my rights, the government for my rights," he says. "The city extends its power to such a degree that it imprisons people's economic activity.
"Are we free, or are we not free? And if we are free, then get out of our lives until we get in the way of the public good."
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