River St. James, of El Segundo, performs 'U Smile' by Justin Bieber on the Third Street Promenade on Thursday. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

DOWNTOWN — On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, elevating the most powerful voice of the civil rights movement from leader to martyr.

A week before the 44th commemoration of King’s death, however, the Santa Monica City Council made a quiet change to local law that will allow Santa Monicans to celebrate the orator’s life in a loud way.

As of that Tuesday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will be recognized as a holiday under the street performer ordinance of the Santa Monica Municipal Code, a designation that allows performers to exceed normal noise limitations.

In what Mayor Richard Bloom called an “unfortunate oversight,” the holiday hadn’t made it onto a list of nine others that qualified street performers to play at 107 decibels all day long rather than the usual 97.

Normally, musicians and other noisemakers can only hit the 107 decibel mark on weekends and after 7 p.m. on weeknights.

John Foster, a homeless man who plays a drumset on the promenade for tips, stumbled upon the omission when he set up to play on Monday, Jan. 16 and was quickly told to keep it down.

“On Christmas, one of the quietest days of the year, I can blast on the drums, but Martin Luther King Day seemed to be forgotten on Third Street,” Foster said.

As a general rule, Foster only performs after 7 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends and holidays for fear of violating the ordinance, an act which can come with a stiff fine.

The 10 decibel difference is bigger than most people think.

Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, which means perceived noise increases dramatically with added decibels.

For instance, a 70-decibel noise like a vacuum cleaner is half as loud as one that measures 80 decibels, and a 120-decibel sound is actually 32 times as loud as the vacuum.

Foster, intent on playing some jazz in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning orator, was shocked to find that he couldn’t, despite the fact that the rest of city government, banks and even parking meters were shuttered out of respect for King.

He was happy to hear that the council had rectified the mistake.

“This is really great,” Foster said. “I never thought it was racist, it was just something they didn’t think anybody would speak up about.”

In fact, MLK Day is widely celebrated in Santa Monica.

Darlene Evans chairs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition, a group comprised of representatives from such diverse organizations as Santa Monica College, the NAACP Santa Monica-Venice Branch, Temple Beth Shir Shalom and even City Hall itself.

The group gets together throughout the year to plan for the third Monday of January, which is celebrated and then capped with an involvement fair to get people working in the community.

“What we do in Santa Monica is inspire people to adhere to (King’s) principles and try to make the world a better place through celebration and involvement in the community,” Evans said. “We think of it as a day on rather than a day off.”

She was ecstatic to learn that the council had taken action to recognize MLK Day in another prominent location in the city, although she’d been unaware that it hadn’t made the list alongside such holidays as Columbus Day and Labor Day.

“I think it’s a great move by the City Council,” Evans said.

City Councilmember Kevin McKeown wrote before Tuesday’s vote that the change lined up with an action taken two years ago that made parking free on MLK Day.

“As with the addition of this important holiday to our parking meter exemptions two years ago, our action is a matter of lists buried deep in city code being updated to honor a holiday which this city, in particular, celebrates enthusiastically with annual concerts, speeches and events,” McKeown wrote.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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