Thursday, June 14, 2012

In Ohio, guerrilla marketing for 'Crippled Girl' comedian results in arrest

From The Cincinnati Enquirer:

Forest Thomer walked up to a small group of people at a May 23 Party in the Park event, pointed to a slight, wheelchair-bound woman next to him and asked, “Do you want to laugh at the crippled girl?”

The politically incorrect question wasn’t intended to demean Ally Bruener and her battle with congenital muscular dystrophy but rather to promote her next gig as a comedian. After Thomer asked the question, Bruener wheeled her chair up to the group, told them a joke and where she next was performing.

Thomer’s guerrilla marketing, though, erupted into such a to do that he was arrested by Cincinnati police and charged with disorderly conduct, punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Now, Thomer (pronounced Toe-mer) and Bruener insist they are in a free speech fight.

“The police are trying to censor us. They’re trying to tell us how we can or can’t promote my comedy,” Bruener said from her Alexandria home.

“I don’t know when it became a bad thing for just saying words,” said Thomer, 25, of Cold Spring.
Bruener, 23, wants to break down the stigma the word “cripple” connotes and engage those who think because her body confines her to a wheelchair she’s mentally deficient.

“They assume I have no common sense,” she said. “There’s a lot of harsh stereotypes against people with disabilities.”

After graduating from Campbell County High, Bruener received an academic scholarship to the University of Louisville. She dropped out seeking a career in comedy. She’s appeared in several clubs and comedy events in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, making her disability part of her act.

“I want to open the door to the conversation,” Bruener said. “People don’t expect the crippled girl to talk about it. When I bring it to light, it makes me more comfortable.”

Her self-mocking website is replete with references to and jokes about muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that usually affects voluntary muscles, and her life in a wheelchair.

The Party in the Park marketing was going well, once those approached got over the shock of “the crippled girl” question, Bruener said.

That’s when, she and Thomer said, a member of the event staff told them to move on. Within minutes, Cincinnati police were on the scene.

Court documents show police accused Thomer of “walking into people and shouting obscenities at them” and when told to stop “persisted in yelling and shouting causing annoyance and alarm to others.”

“We don’t allow anyone to hand out promotional materials at our events,” Chris Kemper, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber spokesman, said. Kemper was told Thomer “disrupted the event because he was videotaping our guests without their approval” in the public park.

That’s not true, Thomer and Bruener said. When Thomer asked police why he was asked to leave, he said they gave him no reply. “They never made any effort to find out what was going on,” he said.

Thomer was arrested, threatened with a Taser and being walked to the cruiser to be taken to jail, he said, when he told police he was Bruener’s only ride home. They released him but ordered him to court.

“They told me I needed to be more selective about who I associate with,” Bruener said. “I gave my business card to the cops and they looked at it and laughed.”

“They talked to Ally like she was mentally challenged,” Thomer said.

Police wouldn’t explain their actions. “I’m not going to try this gentleman in the media,” Cincinnati police spokesman Lt. Anthony Carter said, declining to talk about the case.

Bruener and Thomer believe the police response was typical of those exposed to a wheelchair-bound person who fights against being labeled and demands to be treated like any other.

“I will not sit back and allow anyone trample over my right to show and tell the world that I am proud to be crippled,” Bruener said.

Thomer’s court case is scheduled June 20 before Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Russell Mock.