Update, October 6, 2016: This post has been updated to include a statement from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City, whose spokeswoman was originally unavailable due to the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
Kansas City Public Library Executive Director R. Crosby Kemper III said off-duty police officers "over-reacted" when they arrested Steve Woolfolk, the library's director of public programming, along with community member Jeremy Rothe-Kushel during an event at the Plaza branch in May.
The incident took place on May 9, but despite the presence of hundreds of witnesses, it gained no media attention until it was reported last week on the Bill of Rights Defense Committee's website.
The story detailed Woolfolk's arrest during a library event headlined "Truman and Israel," featuring Dennis Ross, a special envoy to the Middle East who had served in the Obama, Clinton and George H. W. Bush administrations.
As soon as the question-and-answer session started, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, identified as a local peace activist, asked Ross a question. As Rothe-Kushel tried to reply to Ross, one of the private security guards grabbed him. In an audiotape provided to KCUR by the library, Rothe-Kushel clearly says he will leave voluntarily.
Woolfolk tried to intervene and was charged with interfering with the arrest of Rothe-Kushel, who was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.
Kemper was not at the event. Afterwards, he said, he got a phone call from Carrie Coogan, the library's deputy director of public affairs, explaining what happened.
"I went to bail Steve out and helped Jeremy Rothe-Kushel get bailed out of jail as well," Kemper told Central Standard host Brian Ellison on Monday.
The event was sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the Truman Library. The library was sensitive to security concerns because of shootings at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom a year earlier, Kemper said, and agreed to the hiring of off-duty police.
"They over-reacted. We've had hundreds of events, with much more raucous disputation. Nobody's ever put their hands on a questioner," Kemper said.
"We have tried to resolve it. It happened on May 9, and it's now October 3. We are trying to resolve it with the least amount of damage to everyone," Kemper said, describing the arrest of the questioner at a public event, and the librarian who intervened, as "silliness."
In an arrest report provided to KCUR by the Kansas City Police Department, the arresting officer writes that when Ross tried to move on from Rothe-Kushel's questions:
"The Director of Jewish Community Security, listed Witness #1 approached Mr. Rothe-Kushel and advised him that he was done speaking and needed to leave. Mr. Rothe-Kushel then continued to yell over the crowd and refused to leave. Witness # 1 then began to physically remove Mr. Rothe-Kushel from his location.... I began to assist Witness #1 in escorting Mr. Rothe-Kushel in leaving the facility, and he also resisted my efforts in doing so by tensing up and bracing himself. It was during this time that I advised Mr. Rothe-Kushel I was a police officer and he was leaving now. Mr. Rothe-Kushel continued to actively resist his removal by tensing up, pushing back on Witness #1 and my efforts to lead him out of the auditorium while continuing to yell at the Ambassador."
Meanwhile, the officer wrote, Woolfolk "began to intervene and actively began pushing me away from Mr. Rothe-Kushel in an attempt to keep the Director and myself from removing the actively resisting Mr. Rothe-Kushel. I then pushed Mr. Woolfolk away several times with my open hand on his chest area after identifying myself as a police officer in an effort to keep Mr. Woolfolk physically off of myself and Mr. Rothe-Kushel. Mr. Woolfolk continued to ignore my orders and pushed back escalating the situation and preventing the immediate removal of Mr. Rothe-Kushel. Mr. Woolfolk also took hold of the railing with his left hand firmly keeping grasp in an attempt to keep me from pushing him away from myself, Witness #1, and Mr. Rothe-Kushel."
Eventually, another officer arrived and assisted in Woolfolk's arrest. Woolfolk has said he was not trying to resist arrest.
"At no point is it clear why they would arrest someone in this situation," Kemper told Ellison.
Because the library regularly hosts events with sometimes controversial speakers, staffers have experience dealing with heated exchanges. As Rothe-Kushel's line of questioning became increasingly aggressive, Kemper said, there was a moment in which it became "an interruption to the flow of the event." At that point, Kemper said, librarians turned off the microphone.
Kemper said he didn't know why officers put their hands on Rothe-Kushel.
"I don’t know what instructions the head of security gave to the off-duty police officer," Kemper said, "but he was confused because you can hear him say it's private property and a private event."
In video of the event, Kemper said, "you can see the head of security come out from behind Ambassador Ross and gives a signal that led us to cut off the microphone to begin getting Jeremy to sit down. Right at that moment, the police officer intervenes."
Kemper said the library has a good relationship with the Kansas City Police Department.
"I assumed they would want this to go away," he said, but "the police and the prosecutor's office aren't talking to us. They've just gotten into a defensive mode."
The Kansas City prosecutor's office declined to comment, citing a pending case. Kansas City Police Department spokeswoman Capt. Stacey Graves did not return KCUR's call. But on Friday, she told The Kansas City Star: “If security wants the person out, and the officer saw a person being disruptive at the event, then we would remove the person,” Graves said. “We’re there to keep the peace.”
On October 6, the Jewish Community Foundation issued the following statement: "We take this situation very seriously. We respect and will always support First Amendment rights. In the spirit of encouraging dialogue, the event The Jewish Community Foundation and the Truman Library Institute co-sponsored, included a live question-and-answer opportunity. Although we were not consulted on the charges and are not a party to the court proceedings, for many weeks The Jewish Community Foundation has been engaged in the matter to encourage a resolution that would be acceptable to all parties. We continue to cooperate in this matter. While it is inappropriate for us to comment further because of pending legal proceedings, we will share additional information as opportunities arise."
Though debates about controversial issues are common at libraries, "that particular incident, involving an arrest, is very uncommon," said Meredith Schwartz, the executive editor of Library Journal, who was also a guest on Central Standard.
"Yes, we have to be realistic that libraries are part of the world and security is a concern in a lot of places, particularly on issues that are strongly felt," Schwartz acknowledged. But, she said, "physical safety and emotional safety from upsetting ideas are different. There is absolutely a place in the library to protect people's physical safety and sometimes that means we have to bring in security experts. But we have to be careful also that they're well-trained to understand that discussing difficult issues with passion is not a threat to physical safety."
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.