|Ken Groves, King of the Cajun|
The Portland Saturday Market was poised last week to kick out one of its only vendors of color, but a last minute appeal by an unlikely duo changed their course.
Gourmet seasonings master Ken Groves, who has presided over Ken's King of the Cajun Gourmet Brand at the market for 11 years, was accused by market site manager Doug Archer of twice closing down the spice booth five minutes early, and parking in a loading zone several minutes before loading time.
The case came to the attention of two noted community activists who joined forces for the first time: former NAACP President Skipper Osborne, and former Libertarian gubernatorial candidate – now Tea Party activist – Tom Cox.
Archer had written Groves up for four "infractions" in one year – all in April and May — which would have resulted in Grove's family business losing its coveted booth.
"The appeal was partially successful because it protected Ken from one to four days of suspension from the market," Cox told The Skanner News. "Three of the citations were upheld, and that gives us the opportunity of appeal to the board of directors."
Cox said his and Osborne's research on rules of operation at the market indicates they're not as clear as they should be, and he intends to work with Groves, Osborne and the market's board of directors to tighten their operations in the interest of fairness.
"If rules are vague then you can never prove they're being applied unfairly," he said. "In the absence of clear rules, both conscious and unconscious bias can thrive."
Groves, who also sells his line of MSG- and corn syrup-free Louisiana-style spices and sauces at Fred Meyer and New Seasons, argued that the charges were simply the result of poor communications.
He hadn't taken his booth down, Groves said, he had simply sold all his product and folded up the tablecloth; he didn't realize his vehicle loading routine was against the rules.
A committee of market vendors who met last Friday to hear Grove's appeal of the citations first tried to exclude journalists from the meeting, then relented and allowed them in if their cameras were left at the door. "We have a set of rules for how our meetings go," a committee member said.
Then the vendors balked at allowing participation by Osborne and Cox, who sought to represent Groves. "We'd like to have no interaction between you guys and the market," the committee member said.
Soon, however, the panel and the activists launched into a lively discussion of market management, race and punishment – all strictly timed on an electronic device, with the activists limited to 15 minutes of speaking.
First Cox and Osborne pointed out discrepancies in the evidence against Groves, including the backdating of the last infraction by an entire month.
There was also a series of photos purporting to show that Groves parked in the loading zone before 5 p.m. – but the time stamp of the pictures clearly read "5:01."
Then Cox and Osborne presented an unofficial poll of 16 market vendors approached at random the previous weekend, in which a majority said rules were not well explained and unevenly applied.
"It really looks like you gave Ken two citations, and then when he asked for an appeal you immediately hit him with two more to take him over the top to where his entire business is jeopardized," Osborne said.
The fourth infraction, ostensibly based on an incident that occurred April 10, was dated May 10.
Archer explained that he typically fills out citations and the market secretary mails them out – they are never given directly to the offending party at the time the infraction occurs.
"We try to avoid confrontation," he said. The back-dated citation was just a simple error on his part, he said, as he had injured his hand at the time.
"You understand that really looks bad, it could look like Ken was singled out because of his race," Osborne said.
"I reject any accusations that I'm racist or bigoted or biased or anything like that," Archer replied. "I think it's just the ploy of a desperate person."
Committee members scrutinized photos of the barbecue seasonings booth, carefully examining the placement of signs, jars, the tablecloth and skillet Groves uses to steam cook boneless chicken breast slices used for free samples.
"This is just five minutes before loading?" Archer said. "Who would believe there is not product in the crates? I think it's just ludicrous."
After 15 minutes were noted on the timer, the appeals committee closed the meeting to press and Groves, his family and supporters. They said Groves should expect an email with their decision.
"As far as racism is concerned?" Groves told the committee. "I'm just doing the best I can."