For months, an Aberdeen man who says he’s motivated by First Amendment freedoms has been testing local governments by showing up in their offices with no apparent business to conduct, then filming people with his phone camera. Typically, it has made people uneasy and sometimes police have been called.
Last week, a version of one of his tests resulted in him being escorted from an Aberdeen City Council meeting.
Mike Nelson, who is sight impaired and sometimes refers to himself as “Blind Justice,” has been a watchdog of local governments since at least last spring when he protested Aberdeen’s ordinance to restrict sitting and lying down on sidewalks. That protest went several months with Nelson sitting on sidewalks around Aberdeen every day to make his point. Nelson films every council meeting he attends, using his phone or a GoPro camera strapped to his chest like a body camera.
Over the past couple months, Nelson has filmed and posted dozens of videos of what he calls an “audit” — visiting public agencies all around Grays Harbor County. He might enter the front office public space of a finance or police department, for instance, to see if they allow him to stand there and film. When asked by an employee if they can help him, he often says he’s “just checking (the office) out,” or “no, we’re good.” Some of the videos are very popular, with over 130,000 views on YouTube and most of the comments are in support of him.
In an interview Friday, Nelson said his goal is to test if public officials understand First Amendment rights, particularly his right to film them in a public place and to peacefully assemble. He said he also checks whether places are accessible to people with disabilities.
“It’s really just testing if the staff are familiar with the rights of the people, and if they’ll respect the rights of the people,” said Nelson. “If they’re unaware, it’s a chance to inform them and know people have a right to assemble, a right to the press, you can’t ban cameras in a public place.”
Nelson uses a white cane to help him navigate and wears dark glasses, but some of his detractors are skeptical of his sight loss.
The targets of the tests are often agitated by the filming.
In a video where he makes a long walk around the Port of Grays Harbor facilities, an employee confronts him at an entry gate, and suggests Nelson “can clearly see him” as he moves around.
Nelson told The Daily World he’s not totally blind, and can see some color and light. He described it as most things looking like amorphous blobs, like a blurred kaleidoscope.
Nelson said he served in the military for 11 years and suffered multiple brain injuries from explosions and falls that resulted in his blindness. Nelson said that after swearing an oath to protect the Constitution, his time in the military made him question whether what he was doing helped uphold it.
“Those years in the military, I never really processed what that meant, or looked at the Constitution to ask, ‘Am I upholding it? Are my actions here in war protecting the rights of the people?’ I never really considered it until the end,” said Nelson. “I had to come to grips with, ‘I’m not, what I’m doing is in violation and making it more dangerous and less free for people.’ That’s why I sympathize, because I did it, and did horrendous things after swearing an oath. Likewise the people here who swore the oath are oblivious to the Constitution.”
Nelson said he hopes what he does helps shift public officials’ perception to better respect the rights of the public.
“Hopefully, the average person walking into a government facility will have less orders, less restraints on their freedom, and won’t be told to put their cellphone down,” he said.
Here are some examples of the “audits” Nelson filmed and posted on his YouTube page recently:
• He went to the state Child Protective Services office in Aberdeen and filmed the waiting room. Nelson asks what specifically the agency’s services are. A few minutes later, two office workers come out and tell him he doesn’t have permission to film.
“We have children up here, and they need to have confidentiality,” one employee tells him. The two refused to speak with Nelson about the office while the camera is filming, and they called the police.
A police officer arrived and told Nelson he informed the workers that it’s a public place and he can film.
• Another time he visits the Grays Harbor PUD building in Elma, where he enters a fenced-in parking lot that appears to be for employees’ vehicles. An employee comes out and says it’s restricted for workers only and that he needs to leave. The worker asks why Nelson’s there, to which he responds “just checking it out.” The employee leaves, and Nelson continues to walk around the lot.
Several minutes later some employees walk past him into the building before Nelson realizes they closed the gate behind him and locked him in. An elderly woman walks by, and she gets the PUD employees to come back a few minutes later.
“Are you going to leave if I open it up?” the employee asks Nelson as he unlocks it.
• In one video he visits a permit center in Ocean Shores and stands with his 11-year-old daughter next to the counter. When asked what they’re doing there, the two say they’re “checking out” the offices, and an office worker asks them not to film. They leave and go into a finance office nearby, and Nelson wraps a scarf around his nose and mouth in response to a strong-scented candle. The cameras and Nelson appear to unsettle the workers, who call the police.
“They didn’t know if someone was trying to rob the place or what was going on,” the officer says to Nelson outside. “… You’ve got to be careful going into places freaking people out.”
• In the most recent incident, Nelson spoke at the first of two public comment periods at Wednesday’s council meeting. The first session is reserved for comments on that night’s agenda items and the second one is open ended.
Nelson said he wanted to talk about recalling several council members and justified using the first comment period because their names came up when a roll call was read and the roll call was part of the agenda.
He said he attempted to contact council members for an individual meeting, and that council members who either turned down to meet with him or didn’t respond are the ones he wants to recall.
Mayor Erik Larson cuts in to say a recall petition wasn’t on the agenda, and that Nelson would need to wait until the second comment period to discuss it. After some discussion between the two, the mayor says Nelson will be asked to leave the meeting if he refuses to leave the podium, and Larson adds that he “will enforce that.”
Following more back and forth between Nelson and the mayor, Police Chief Steve Shumate gets up and walks over to Nelson at the podium. Larson says Nelson must either leave the meeting or Shumate will escort him out. Nelson protested that it’s not the right procedure and mentions a policy that says the mayor “shall preserve decorum and order” and may order for the entire council chambers to be cleared if there’s disturbance or disorderly conduct. Larson later told The Daily World he was surprised Nelson mentioned this rule, “as it seemed to imply premeditation regarding his actions and the likely consequences.”
Shumate tries to convince him to leave and says, “Mike, I don’t know why you want to keep doing this stuff.”
Shumate tells Nelson to move, and puts his hands on Nelson’s arm and his phone, attached to a selfie stick. Nelson tells Shumate to stop touching him, and Shumate started pulling Nelson toward the door.
Instead of following him to the door, Nelson collapses to the floor, inciting groans from multiple council members and people in the audience who viewed it as Nelson exaggerating Shumate’s actions. It appeared Nelson fell to the floor on his own, instead of resisting or walking to the door.
As he lies on the ground, Shumate removes Nelson’s camera, and City Attorney Patrice Kent asks Larson if he’d like to clear the room.
Larson orders the chambers to be cleared, and Nelson speaks with Shumate and Deputy Chief Dave Timmons for a while in the hallway. Nelson asks Shumate who he should contact about filing assault charges and Shumate responds that it wasn’t assault and that he can talk to the Sheriff’s Office.
Timmons told Nelson that the mayor said he was welcome to come back into the meeting. Eventually, he did. In the second comment period, Nelson said he would also like to “recall” Shumate and Timmons from service.
Another video on Nelson’s YouTube page shows a Sheriff’s Office deputy speaking with him that same night, outside City Hall after the meeting. The deputy is watching the video of the incident with Nelson and tells him he doesn’t think it was an assault but that Nelson can file a report at the county prosecutor’s office.
In an email, Larson told The Daily World that he finds it “absolutely ridiculous” it was necessary for him to have Shumate remove Nelson from the meeting, “but it was.” Larson added that he views Nelson as someone who seeks to “expose” those who don’t uphold his personal beliefs, particularly government agencies and officials.
“While I am not a fan of provocation and vigilantism in general, there is a strong message in the beginning of the Public Records Act: The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them,” said Larson. “I think the question Mike Nelson is trying to raise is whether ‘the people’ refers to a single individual, or our citizens as a whole – I believe it is the latter.”