The Arresting Music of Zack Parrish

Zack Parrish, a 27-year-old guitarist specializing in old country blues, has played the streets before. He's played the markets of Seattle, Washington Square Park in New York's Greenwich Village, and Memphis' Beale Street.

Of them all, the streets of his hometown Salt Lake City like his music the least. Not many musicians have played to an audience hostile enough to serve them with three criminal misdemeanors. Then again, not many musicians would take the right to play their music seriously enough to risk arrest.

On Oct. 8, Parrish was playing his fingerstyle brand of blues outside the east entrance of Crossroads Mall. "Crossroads Blues," a standard by the legendary Robert Johnson, is one of Parrish's favorite tunes for this location. Salt Lake City Police weren't amused by the pun, and told him to take his guitar, and his music, home. When Parrish refused, the police booked him into the Salt Lake County Jail where he was held for seven hours.

His arrest casts questions around the issue of free speech in public places, even if there is nothing in city regulations prohibiting live music on the street. The rules, according to the city's department of business licensing, are simple: stay out of the "public way"; leave no messes afterward; and do not explicitly request donations.

Parrish's offense was blocking the sidewalk. He denies doing anything of the sort. For Parrish, it was clearly a question of his First Amendment rights. So, refusing to move, he submitted to what he calls a "peaceable arrest." Or, if you will, an act of civil disobedience.

"I didn't resist arrest, but when they asked me to move I asked 'Why?' I felt I was standing up for my rights," he says. "I was pretty adamant about it."

After police finished writing him class-B and C misdemeanors for disturbing the peace and obstructing the sidewalk, they added one more class-B misdemeanor. Parrish's 3-inch pocket knife apparently qualified as a "concealed weapon." Parrish's pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Nov. 14, a date he plans to meet without an attorney.

In the end, it may all come down to Parrish's words against those of the arresting officer. Only city regulations regarding disturbing the peace and loitering on the sidewalk could warrant his arrest. Disturbing the peace includes "maliciously or willfully making an unreasonably loud noise" and "obstructing pedestrian traffic," while loitering constitutes "standing, lying or sitting on any sidewalk for a period longer than two minutes" in a way that obstructs sidewalk traffic. Both are against the law, and both are subject to police interpretation when it comes to enforcement.

Parrish says his music was within the volume range comfortable for most ears. A police officer with a preference for Muzak or Mozart might be free to disagree, though. Parrish also maintains he never tried to prevent anyone from walking into the mall.

Scott Fisher, a Salt Lake City prosecuting attorney, is not familiar with the particulars of the Parrish bust. He is, however, equipped to comment on city regulations.

"Depending on the circumstances, I suppose these regulations could apply," Fisher said. "Police do have some discretion, it's just an inevitable part of enforcement. They do need to base their decision on evidence, though."

But if an officer of the law asks you to move, it's best to honor that request, Fisher says. "Generally, the remedy for people who disagree with a police order is not to resist a request, but to file a formal complaint later on," he says. "What's unfortunate are the instances where people take a civil disobedience approach, which escalates the situation."

For Parrish, the cause is worth the prospect of future dialogue about street musicians. "I see the need for regulation," he says. "But I also hope I'm paving the way for other musicians. My only agenda is playing music on the sidewalk."

Ben Fulton
Salt Lake City Weekly
November 1998

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