The Robed Get Robbed

Krishnas brought music and chants to downtown's Government Center. Then someone stole their thunder.

Sankarsana had just finished chanting outside the Metro-Dade Government Center last month and was talking to some passersby, ready to pack up for the day. The Hare Krishna devotee didn't notice that someone else was also interested in him just then - though not for his chanting of the ancient mantra or for the religious literature on the table nearby. Moments later he turned around and realized he had a lighter load than usual to carry home. A 350-watt Honda generator he used to power a keyboard, drum machine, and amplifier had been stolen.

"I was playing a tape through it and I knew as long as I could hear it, it was okay," recalls the 31-year-old Sankarsana. "But I was talking to this older lady and couldn't hear her, so I turned it down and forgot to turn it up again. We just kept talking to some people, and then we continued packing up. That's when we noticed the generator was gone."

Twelve months ago Sankarsana, a Delaware native whose given name is Alec Boyer, began carting the generator, Korg keyboard, and other equipment from the Hare Krishna temple in Coconut Grove to the Metro-Dade building at 111 NW First St. On the courtyard at the southern entrance of the building, he and fellow Krishnas spent several hours each day playing music and chanting the well-known mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

The Krishnas originally applied for a permit to chant and sell books, T-shirts, tapes, and incense at the Metro-Dade building in early 1990. After months of legal review, the county agreed to the request in October of last year. "In this case, it looked like there was going to be a conflict," recalls Peter Rouse, head of the county's Division of Facilities Management, "because some people could raise the whole issue of the separation of church and state, and the other side could counter and say it was a violation of the First Amendment to not let them set up. It spent quite a bit of time in the legal department. But in the end, because of precedents set mostly in other cities and at places like airports - including our own - they decided to let them set up there."

The permit was issued for one year, with the option to renew for another, which the Krishnas did this past October. But after the second year, such permits (usually issued to vendors seeking to conduct private business on county property) cannot be continued and must be sent out for competitive bids. Because the Krishnas are not running a "business" on county land, Rouse says, there remains a question regarding what will happen when the permit expires. "How do you bid out something like this?" he asks. "You really can't. So we'll have to see what happens."

Upon receiving their permit, the Krishnas began chanting, answering questions, and distributing informational literature. From December to February, Sankarsana played background accompaniment on the keyboard and chanted into a microphone, while other Krishnas played flutes, violins, or hand cymbals for up to five hours most weekdays. A hand-lettered poster spelled out the words of the mantra.

After leaving Miami for a few months - he joined a Krishna band in Washington, D.C., last summer - Sankarsana returned in August and played until November 4, when the generator was stolen. (The cops have no leads and little hope of recovering the equipment.) He says that despite the occasional heckling, the amplified chanting had been well received in the bustling environment of Metro-Dade's headquarters. "There's a lawyer who walks from this building to another building down here," notes the eleven-year Krishna veteran, "and he stopped to tell me how much he appreciated what we're doing because of the mood he's in from the tension of his job."

However, the amplifier occasionally worked too well, says facilities manager Rouse, and a couple of times the Krishnas were asked to turn down the sound. Originally the county and the religious group agreed verbally that the volume had to remain low. When the Krishnas renewed their permit, the provision was included in writing. But now, without an amplifier, that isn't an issue. The group is trying to raise money to replace the generator, and in the meantime continues chanting without amplification, occasionally with the help of a taped drum beat played on a small cassette recorder. The sign spelling out the mantra has been replaced by another message: "Miss our music? Donate for a new generator. Our previous one was stolen. Donations tax-deductible. Please help. $380 needed." So far they have collected $25.

 
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