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A guide to protesting in Kansas City and what your rights are

A crowd of hundreds gather beneath trees in a park. They are carrying signs and listening to speakers.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Hundreds crammed into Mill Creek Park in June 2022 to protest the Supreme Court's decision to dismantle Roe v. Wade.

Following national uproar over the shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, protesters are showing up in Kansas City's Northland, the federal courthouse and KCPD headquarters. Here's what you need to know when you're organizing or attending a protest in Kansas City.

The shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl Thursday night in Kansas City’s Northland, and an initial decision by police to allow the suspected gunman to go home after being questioned, have brought protesters to both new and familiar places around the city.

Beginning Sunday, hundreds of people have shown up on the 1100 block of Northeast 115th Street in Kansas City, which is where Yarl knocked on the wrong door as he was trying to pick up his younger brothers.

Students at Staley High School participated in a Unity Walk on Tuesday morning, and local advocates and officials gathered on Tuesday at a rally in front of the downtown federal courthouse.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right of peaceful assembly and to seek a redress of grievances. But that right comes with certain restrictions under state, county and local laws. Noise ordinances, event licensing and other common local laws can all influence what is and isn’t allowed.

Here’s what to know if you’re planning to organize or attend a protest in Kansas City, Missouri.

Where can I protest in Kansas City?

Protests may take place on public land or private property. The rules can be very different depending on which one you’re on.

If your protest is set to occur on private land, you must have explicit permission of the property owner to be there. When a property owner in the Northland on Sunday shouted at protesters to “get out of the yard,” protesters legally needed to heed that directive.

Otherwise, they could have risked being arrested for trespassing.

If you do have permission, organizing on private land can have a few benefits for protest organizers. It is harder to restrict speech that happens on private property, and any counterprotesters must have permission of the property owner, too.

Organizing on public spaces, such as government buildings, sidewalks, streets and parks, offers different benefits. There may be more space for people to gather, and public protests may offer greater visibility.

In either situation, protesters must not overly obstruct others. You cannot block the entrances to buildings, and you cannot prevent people from passing by the crowd.

Hundreds gathered in the Ilus W. Davis Park in Downtown Kansas City to protest the shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Hundreds gathered in the Ilus W. Davis Park in downtown Kansas City on April 18, 2023, to protest the shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl.

Do I need a permit to protest in Kansas City?

Not necessarily.

A permit is required if a protest will interfere with the public’s use of streets and sidewalks. If you are planning a large protest, you can apply for an outdoor event permit through CompassKC.

An event permit will allow you more rights such as reserving space, sectioning off streets and inviting food vendors; however, event permits can be expensive.

Your application for a permit cannot be denied based on what your protest is about, and police cannot use the permit process to block a protest that is caused by breaking news, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. If you cannot afford an event permit, ask for fee waivers, the ACLU recommends.

Can I film a protest?

Yes, if it is in public. If you are on public property, an officer cannot stop you from filming them or others during the protest, according to the ACLU.

The police are also prohibited from confiscating, deleting or demanding to view photographs or video.

If you are on private property, you need permission from the property owner to film.

Protesters often find filming helpful to have a record of what occurred in case there are disputes about it later.

When can the Kansas City Police arrest protesters?

Under Missouri statute, protests in Kansas City become a riot when there is a “clear and present danger of violent and unlawful acts such as destruction of property, arson, looting, injury towards persons, or other similar threats/acts.”

Once seven or more people are committing these acts, the police department can deem an assembly “unlawful” and issue an order to disperse.

The police department can also issue an order to disperse if the mayor, governor or U.S. president has declared a state of emergency.

According to KCPD’s protest guidelines, the order to disperse must be amplified through speakers at multiple locations, loud enough to reach the back of the crowd, and it must include directions for where protesters can leave. Police must “provide a sufficient and reasonable opportunity for all individuals to heed the warnings.”

After this point, the police can legally arrest any protester who refuses to leave, and they may use chemical weapons such as tear gas to disperse the crowd.

KCPD’s protest guidelines discourage but do not prohibit kettling, a tactic used by police officers to surround a crowd and prevent escape.

Protests in public places may draw counterprotesters. They are afforded the same rights as you, and it is important that interactions between your protest and theirs do not become aggressive or violent.

In situations with a protest and a counterprotest, the police may maintain a “buffer zone” between the two groups to prevent violence.

Additionally, Kansas City regulates noise levels, but generally speaking, public assembly is exempt from these rules. However, portable speaker systems are prohibited between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

What if my rights are violated?

If you believe that a government official or police officer has infringed your First Amendment rights, the ACLU recommends writing down as many details as you can.

If you think a government official has violated your rights, make sure you get their name and preferably a photo and a note of what department they work for. For police officers, write down badge numbers and police car license plates. Then contact a lawyer or an organization such as the ACLU that can help you get legal representation.

Do not speak to the police until you have your lawyer and have informed them of the situation.

Finally, if you were arrested and you did violate a city ordinance, you can potentially challenge the ordinance in court. Some cities’ ordinances have been found unlawful in higher courts.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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