Alex Blaze

Can we say the police acted stupidly here?

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 31, 2009 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Henry Louis Gates Jr, lesbians, penin tuma, police, rhode island, violence, Washington, Washington D.C.

We already knew expressing your opinion was an arrestable offense. I just thought the police would be a little less blatant about it, but I guess the fact that the media has fully turned them into "the troops" this past week, beyond any sort of criticism or reproach, has only emboldened them.

"That's why I hate the police," Tuma said. He told the Huffington Post that in a loud sing-song voice, he then chanted, "I hate the police, I hate the police."

One officer reacted strongly to Tuma's song. "Hey! Hey! Who do you think you're talking to?" Tuma recalled the officer shouting as he strode across an intersection to where Tuma was standing. "Who do you think you are to think you can talk to a police officer like that?" the police officer said, according to Luke Platzer, 30, one of Tuma's companions.

Tuma said he responded, "It is not illegal to say I hate the police. It's not illegal to express my opinion walking down the street."

According to Tuma and Platzer, the officer pushed Tuma against an electric utility box, continuing to ask who he thought he was and to say he couldn't talk to police like that.

"I didn't curse," Tuma said. "I asked, am I being arrested? Why am I being arrested?"[...]

Tuma filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, alleging a lack of probable cause, a false arrest, and that the officer used harassing and demeaning language -- Tuma alleges the officer called him a "faggot." Tuma has retained a lawyer. He might sue if he's not satisfied after a meeting with the complaint office on Thursday.

More after.

I've been hesitant to post about the Henry Louis Gates incident from last week, mainly because the Rev. Irene already posted about it and, while the issue at its heart is about police thinking they own the world and can arrest pretty much anyone they want, has more complicated layers when it comes to classism, racism, and elitism than I was willing to unpack.

Like Henry Louis Gates, Tuma's case isn't all that uncommon or extraordinary. He's just a lawyer and knows that he can sue the police department for arresting him and pushing him around for doing nothing more than expressing his opinion. In Gates's case, I doubt we would have heard about it if he weren't a Harvard professor, with the governor on speed-dial and journalists as his buddies and other well-connected professors as his colleagues. It doesn't make the arrest any less wrong, but it doesn't make it any more wrong either.

I suppose we could just say that Gates and Tuma are both lucky they didn't get Tased. With the way police are using them now, as an alternative not to gun use but an alternative to having to listen to people they're dealing with, people who shouldn't be Tased are getting a little shock, and many are getting seriously injured or killed in the process.

Considering how many people I've seen justifying Gates's arrest because he was being an ass (I agree that's what it sounds like happened, but being an ass isn't illegal), here's another, completely unrelated incident from Rhode Island:

The salsa and eggs stopped flying, but the police continued to investigate. Now four young women face charges of assault and disorderly conduct. They're accused of hurling food and drinks and spraying pepper spray at a group of men who stood in the median on Bald Hill Road and East Avenue Tuesday afternoon carrying signs supporting traditional marriage, Capt. Robert Nelson said Thursday morning. The men all gave the police an address in Spring Grove, Penn. -- 1358 Jefferson Rd. -- that's the location for the Foundation for a Christian Civilization Inc., a group that's in the midst of a caravan along the East Coast. The group states on its Web site that they make themselves "visible to motorists by engaging them to support traditional marriage." [snip]

Thursday evening, the police arrested four women: Melissa Migliaccio, 22, Amanda L. Zangrilli, 23, Kristen A. Scungio, 19, and a 17-year-old female from Pontiac Street in Warwick, whom the police have not named because she is a juvenile. All are charged with at least one charge of battery or simple assault, and with disorderly conduct. The 17-year-old faces a more serious charge as well -- felony assault with a dangerous weapon or substance, according to the police.

Some women were being insulted in the street, and they decided to throw food at the people doing it. Honestly, getting food thrown at you isn't as bad as being arrested, put in prison, and having to carry a permanent record that renders you less employable for the rest of your life.

But do any of us think that they should have done it? Here's JMG's response, which I'm putting here not because he's wrong, but because he's 100% right:

As I did in yesterday's first post on this incident, again I must condemn the actions of these women, regretful though they may feel. We MUST always, always, always take the high road in these situations. No matter how hateful or hurtful the words, a physical response to offensive speech, no matter how justified it may feel in the moment, does absolutely nothing to further our cause and usually ends up providing the other side with anti-gay campaign talking points and fundraising opportunities. How many times did we have to hear about that miserable styrofoam cross woman last year? You can bet the story of the Warwick Four (or however the Christianists will dub them) will become yet another burdensome obstacle to marriage equality in Rhode Island and elsewhere in the nation. The entire situation is a fucking disaster and we can do better. We have to.

It's true - the people we're working against will relate this incident ad nauseum, and we'll hear plenty of "I'm OK with gay rights, but what gay activists do...." Even people on our side, if they discuss this incident at all, will condemn the women and, by extension, LGBT activists generally. It's considered completely unacceptable, horrendous, and, by many, a good reason to continue to discriminate against us.

On the other hand, the police get insulted in the street and arrest someone, and people are rushing to their side to support their over-reaction.

The root of the problem isn't the police - it's the fact that they always get cover for their actions. They overreact to these situations, respond with violence when none is necessary, abuse their discretion when it comes to "disorderly conduct charges... and in the few cases when they get called out for it the media and people generally are willing to cover for them saying that "It's a few bad apples" or the victim "deserved it" or "The police have to be able to do their job."

And, like that, we move into a police state, without much protest, in which people are being arrested for expressing their opinions and we support a two-tiered system of justice that allows people with a little bit of power to get away with what would be viewed, in a sane world, of illegal conduct.

(I don't have time to write any more, but I pretty much agree with what digby said on this topic.)

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Angela Brightfeather | July 31, 2009 11:54 AM

Here is a thought.
With all the modern and sophisticated means of recording things now a days, like handy little cell phones and such, abuse or non abuse can be recorded as a matter of record and form the cruxt of a lawsuit.

An example:
At a yearly Pride parade there were a large number of right wingnuts gathered on a streetcorner, shouting at people in the parade and calling them names. A group of at least ten GLBT security people formed a line on the curb between the parade people and the wingnuts. Hand held cameras recorded every moment of it. The GLBT people in between stood their ground as they were cursed at and condemed by wingnut protesters. All their venon was directed towards the people that got between them and the parade. When they moved, the GLBT people moved with them and stood their ground. Finally, one of the wingnuts pushed a GLBT person. The police were called over and told about the "assualt" which was promplty shown to the officer on replay and he arrested that wingnut and then about five others that started to shout at him about their "freedom of speech" rights.

The following year, the same wingnuts were applying for a permit to protest at the Pride Parade and they were denied based on the evidence presented on tape from the year before and on the basis that they were unruly, insulting and a danger to the safety of others.

The police do a lot of things wrong, but when they know they are being watched and recorded, they do a lot of things the way they should do them, for obvious reasons, they don't want to be the center of a lawsuit and put on probation.

What comes to mind is the movie V for Vendetta and the scene where everyone marches on the police lines all dressed and looking the same. When people act together and with one mind, it is very difficult to stop them without being violent. If the people are non-violent in the process, then it usually goes their way in court.

I know a lot of things happen spontaneously, but that doesn't mean that we cannot be better prepared and aware that a picture says a thousand words and that two to ten cell phones recording an incident of abuse by the police isn't of any use.

If the police and government are going to set up cameras at every intercection and building to record our actions, I don't understand why that should not work both ways.

Well, in my experience the overwhelming majority of cops need therapy and went into the job so that they could feel powerful.

christophe | July 31, 2009 3:12 PM

The people who become police offers are insecure people who thrive on having the power to do anything they want or feel like doing to anyone. Never are they helpful, as they are presented to be, never are they fair, they WANT to entice you so that they can get a hostile reaction from you so then they have an excuse to arrest you. Society and the Government needs to look at "these type of people" because police work attracts a certain Breed of people, and if they were more scrutinized then maybe things could get better. But I doubt that will ever happen, people simply need to complain about them much more than they do. Only problem is, the cops will FLAT OUT LIE, about whatever assault they commit.

They were both wrong in my opinion. The prof. shouldn't have gone off about racism when a cop showed up after he'd been seen breaking into his own house. It's probably a rich neighborhood, and if it had been a real burgalur, he'd have said thank you. But the cop was wrong too. Can we drop it now?

You wrote:
"In Gates's case, I doubt we would have heard about it if he weren't a Harvard professor, with the governor on speed-dial and journalists as his buddies and other well-connected professors as his colleagues. It doesn't make the arrest any less wrong, but it doesn't make it any more wrong either."

Actually, I find it offensive that the police harassment of minorities has become so routine that it takes an incident such as this to be notable at all -- and then everyone looks for diversionary justification. Sure, Gates' reaction might not have been my reaction (then again, I'm not a notable figure), but that occurred after things had already grown to a level of inevitability.

Here, walking while Native is one of the major offences (although I don't deny that other racial prejudices still exist), and while I've escaped a lot of it (skin privilege, I admit it), I've seen and known people touched by it enough that I'm offended that a large segment sees existence as justification for an assumption of guilt, while the remainder doesn't care enough to question it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not offended by you personally, but the societal attitude that allows this to become commonplace.

Rev. Donna tara lee | August 1, 2009 9:44 AM

Police need a full course on both racial, other minorities, gender expression and sexual expression sensitivities. In most cases your typical policeman is white, middle class from an authoritarian background, rooted strongly in a church. In northern cities many officers are catholic and we all know that churches record on womyns and gay rights.
They are usually from a white ethnic neighborhood and have had long exposure to prejudice towards people of color. Hence the need for multi culture diversity training. And those that are guilty of 2 proven examples of allowing their prejudices get in the way of doing their jobs should be fired.
How do we accomplish this? Start at the top and let the brass know their jobs are on the line. Too many proven cases of harassment based on sexual and gender identity and cultural differentia in their force and their heads will roll. it's time to get rid of the authoritarian bordering on fascist police that unfortunately are out there.
And yes, it was stupid to arrest professor Gates. A simple," sorry, sir for the inconveniance. We were acting on a neighbors tip of a possible break in. have a nice night and leave!!!! Incident defused and over.

Marja Erwin | August 1, 2009 6:55 PM

I think that can be a distraction from the real issues here. The police are encouraged to assert their authoritae.

For example, one San Diego Police Department draft Use of Force Guidelines explicitly authorizes the use of impact weapons, control holds, and "pain compliance" (which can include torture) in response to "passive resistance behavior" (or anything which is not "compliant behavior").

They define:

"Compliant Behavior – Behavior that complies with the officer’s verbal commands.

B. Passive Resistance – Behavior that consists of a refusal to comply with verbal commands and does not convey a threat to the officer or another person.

C. Active Resistance – Behavior that consists of a refusal to comply with verbal commands and conveys a threat to the officer or another person, or consists of physical opposition to
attempts of physical control by the officer."

So failing to comply with unlawful, impossible, or unheard demands is enough to legitimize "pain compliance." In my experience, officers sometimes skip the orders and immediately move to beating and gassing people. I have PTSD from being grabbed and tortured at one anti-war protest. One individual was handcuffed to a wheelchair and waterboarded with pepper spray in the Seattle jails during the 1999 WTO protests.

the gates case is easy; a local columnist wrote that each of them should have recognized the nature of their situations and left things alone. gates should have known the cop was simply doing his job, and the cop should have realized, having discovered that it was gates' own home, that it made no sense to pursue anything further. just say good night to each other and let it be.

as for the four women, undoubtedly it's annoying to have slurs hurled against you. being disagreeable is one of the things that could be counted among our first amendment rights, though. to react as they did was foolish. to incur the wrath of the police (it was an "assault" after all) and end up being arrested did no one any good. they should have written off the anti-gay protestors as loudmouths with nothing better to do and moved on with their lives.

there's a lot of similarity in each of these cases, and, unfortunately, a somewhat less than desired result as well.

yes, we need to react to fools as intelligent beings, rather than taking up with them. it'll benefit us in the long run.