On a cold Friday night in late October, the Kansas City police are looking for drunken drivers leaving Westport and downtown. The police have set up a sobriety checkpoint in the southbound lanes of Main Street just north of 41st Street, in front of the Community Blood Center. It's the perfect spot, located at the bottom of a dip in the road that shields the cop cars, orange cones and signs from sight. Drivers have little choice but to face police at the roadblock. The only kink in the plan is Michael Mikkelsen.
The curly-haired, 29-year-old activist stands two blocks north of the checkpoint, warning drivers to turn onto Westport Road to avoid the police.
Mikkelsen usually protests alone, but this night three protesters from the Occupy Kansas City encampment, where he's been living and helping organize, have tagged along
From the illuminated sidewalk at 1 a.m., Mikkelsen holds a 2-by-4-foot sign (repurposed from an anti-smoking-ban campaign) that reads, "Checkpoint Ahead." He and his companions shout at passing traffic to hang a quick right. One of the Mikkelsen supporters, in a neon-orange knit hat, hovers around the action using Mikkelsen's battered iPhone to broadcast the tiny protest on Ustream. A police cruiser idles nearby but doesn't interfere.
Several cars heed Mikkelsen's warning and turn off Main. A few shout thank you before altering their routes. The majority continue toward the police.
Checkpoint nights generally go the same way for Mikkelsen. Metro DUI sobriety stops run Fridays and Saturdays, usually between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., weather permitting. Mikkelsen gets on Twitter and waits until checkpoint time. When someone tweets the location of the night's sobriety stop, he goes out.
He doesn't want police to spot his car, so he parks a couple of blocks from the flashing lights. He puts at least one street between him and the checkpoint, giving drivers — sober and potentially drunken — an opportunity to avoid a run-in with police.
Although he brought backup this evening, Mikkelsen often stages one-man, one-sign protests. He's done this since the beginning of the year. It's a cause that he has more time for, thanks to a recently enacted ban on synthetic drugs.
"The government just put me out of business," says Mikkelsen, who was a sales representative for a Columbia, Missouri, synthetic-marijuana company called Pandora. He insists on calling Pandora "incense" and says he sold it to gas stations and head shops. But the ban, which went into effect August 28, killed the once-thriving industry.
"We think that it's unconstitutionally vague," Mikkelsen says of the law, which he hopes will be overturned, although one lawsuit challenging the law was thrown out this past summer by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Until the courts resolve the legality of synthetic drugs, Mikkelsen protests sobriety stops for what he calls a violation of citizens' rights. He also does it because he believes that he was a victim of an overreaching police search at a checkpoint three years ago.
Mikkelsen admits that he was drinking and driving. He had a few drinks during an engagement party for his brother before getting behind the wheel and meeting up with a drinking buddy. They picked up caffeinated beer drinks (the details are fuzzy) and went for a drive.
He claims that he wasn't drunk when he pulled up to a DUI checkpoint. He hid their booze between his seat and the center console before an officer asked him to do a series of field sobriety tests, checking Mikkelsen's eyes and asking him to stand on one leg and walk and turn. He was also given a breathalyzer test and blew a .01, well below the .08 legal limit to drive.