Activist claims rights violations after encounters with police at city halls in Waveland, Ocean Springs
SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - Videos showing a self-proclaimed civil rights investigator having tense interactions with police officers in Waveland and Ocean Springs last week are causing a stir online. WLOX News caught up with Florida resident and Army veteran Jeffrey Gray, the man behind Honor Your Oath Civil Rights Investigations.
More than 211,000 subscribers follow Gray’s YouTube page where he regularly posts videos standing in front of government buildings across the United States exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. He’s typically holding a cardboard sign with the message, “God Bless our Homeless Veterans.”
In some cases, his interactions with police have resulted in lawsuits, including one against the City of Alpharetta, Georgia. and two of its police officers, and another against the police chief of the City of Blackshear, Georgia.
During the last week of May, Jeffrey Gray stopped in South Mississippi. The first video he posted from that trip shows his encounter with two Waveland police officers.
“I went to the city hall there to do my thing, spread my message of ‘God Bless our Homeless Veterans’ and try to raise awareness and compassion for our homeless veterans,” Gray told WLOX News. “A large part of the homeless population are veterans and I think people should show compassion, love and support to homeless people, especially if they’re veterans.”
The video shows a tense back and forth between Gray and Waveland Police Sgt. Joseph Joffrion.
“Sir, I’m standing on a public sidewalk participating in a constitutionally protected activity,” Gray said.
“Correct. But I’m letting you know you’ll go to jail, no questions asked,” Sgt. Joffrion responded.
“Even if I’m standing on a public sidewalk?” Gray asked.
“How many times do I have to explain it to you?” Sgt. Joffrion asked.
“They approached me, didn’t want to have a conversation, didn’t want to do any investigation or ask what I was doing. Just demanded my ID and told me I was going to jail, no questions asked, if I didn’t give ID and trespassed me out there under threat of arrest,” Gray told WLOX News.
About an hour before WLOX News aired this story Monday evening, Waveland Mayor Jay Tripani released a statement giving his side of the story about Gray’s visit. The mayor said he asked police to investigate because Gray was making city workers uncomfortable “as he stood just outside the main door and occasionally stared in through the window while they were working.”
A day later, when Gray took his sign to Ocean Springs City Hall, he had another run-in with police.
“Ocean Springs was just as bad of a train wreck as it was in Waveland, if not worse,” Gray said.
Ocean Springs Police Chief Mark Dunston told WLOX News, “We’re doing an internal review of our officer’s actions right now. We’re certainly going to remedy any problems that we found with the officer’s actions.”
But Gray said not all of his interactions on the coast were bad. In fact, he told WLOX News he made stops in Gulfport and Pascagoula where he had positive interactions with police. And his stop at Gautier City Hall might even be described as heartwarming.
“He introduced himself, asked who I was,” Gautier Mayor Casey Vaughn said. “He was very polite to our staff. We had citizens come and go past him. He never really interacted other than ‘Pray for a homeless vet’ is all he asked and said to them. He didn’t harass the citizens on city property. He was very civil and bringing awareness in front of our veterans tower.”
While there, Gray also had a conversation with a city code enforcement officer who brought him a bottle of water.
“Every city hall should do it how Gautier did it,” Gray said. “I would hope that that’s the way they would react and do the right thing. Be respectful of our civil rights and respectful of our homeless veterans. Gautier is the way. That’s what it’s at.”
WLOX News asked Gautier Police Chief David Bever if Gray was doing anything that would have caused his officers to step in.
“No, he was just holding a sign,” Chief Bever said. “You got the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the freedom of speech in a public setting, public space, like our city hall. Everyone has a right.”
Chief Bever stressed the importance of first impressions between officers and the public.
“Police departments in our communities, we are usually the public face of the community. Most people have interactions with us, compared to other staff. Kinda like ambassadors. People’s perception of the city is going to be based off our interactions.”
In Mississippi, vagrancy laws were struck down by our State Supreme Court. The only way a person can be legally removed from public property is if they’re threatening someone. And what about when the officers asked Gray for his ID?
“No, in the state of Mississippi, the only time you have to have ID is when you have a license and operating a motor vehicle,” Chief Dunston said.
While police in Waveland and Ocean Springs conduct their internal investigations of what happened during Jeffrey Gray’s visit to the coast, these police stations and city halls are being bombarded with angry calls and messages from Gray’s online followers and others who watched the videos. Chief Dunston is asking for those folks to show the same patience and courtesy they want from police.
“When hundred and hundreds of the same people keep calling over and over again, it’s not helping. It’s just complicating matters. And the language being used against the young ladies who answer these calls is not appreciated,” Chief Dunston said.
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