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Vanessa Selbst

Fuck the Police

On July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a world-renowned Harvard University African American studies professor, was arrested outside his own home for disorderly conduct after a verbal confrontation with Cambridge police officer Sergeant James Crowley, who was investigating a call about a possible burglary.  Gates returned home from a trip to China to find the front door to his home jammed.  With help from his driver, Gates forced the door open and entered the house.  After receiving a call from neighbor Lucia Whalen that two men may have been breaking into the house, Sergeant Crowley and several other police officers arrived on the scene at approximately 12:45 PM.  The specific details of what occurred in the confrontation differ between Crowley and Gates, but Sgt. Crowley contended that upon arriving at the scene, he asked Gates to step outside and Gates refused, claiming that Crowley was targeting him because of his race.  He wrote in his police report that Gates was aggressive, yelling very loudly, threatening him repeatedly, and ignoring his warning, which led him to arrest the Harvard professor.[1]

Even if we assume the facts in Crowley’s reports are accurate, is yelling very loudly and threatening him repeatedly on Gates’ own doorstep against the law?  The crime for which he was charged prohibits people from acting out in ways that unreasonably disturb the public.[2] Even a portrayal of the incident most favorable to Crowley’s account (that Gates raised his voice, commented, “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” accused Crowley of racial bias, and stated that Crowley had not heard the last of him[3]) does not support the conclusion that Gates violated this law.  Bloggers across the world criticized Crowley for arresting a black man for talking back, and on his own doorstep to boot.  But despite the outrage of the public, Leon Lashley, the African-American police officer who was present for the arrest, stated that he supported Sgt. Crowley’s decision to arrest Professor Gates “one hundred percent.”[4]

Is this surprising?  It is so clear to anyone with a knowledge of the law that talking back isn’t a crime, but apparently, it isn’t that clear to those who should know – the police.  Criticizing, yelling, and even insulting are not crimes, but they are treated as if they were every day.  People are arrested on their doorsteps for merely challenging an officer’s behavior.  When it’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., we hear about it.  When it’s the untold stories of the every day lives of tens of thousands of Americans, it goes unheard.

I have had the misfortune of trying to assert my rights with New Haven police officers on a number of occasions.  The first instance came at the beginning of second semester, on the first day of classes.  My friend Gabriela and I were walking to class, and we tried to cross the street in a construction zone, where there happened to be no temporary sidewalk.  A New Haven police officer yelled out at us twice, and then on the third time we heard him.  We turned around.  “What the hell are you doing?  Cross at the crosswalk!”  Immediately we walked across the sidewalk onto the south side of Elm St.  As we begin walking up the sidewalk, the cop yells at us, “Are you Yale students?  You must be Yale students.  All you Yale students got thick skulls.  You have real thick skulls, you know that?”  I immediately walked back, despite Gabriela’s pleading with me to just ignore it and continue on.  I’m sick of the tension between New Haven and Yale that I’ve felt here as an undergrad years ago and now as a grad student.  I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a police officer instigate tension where it should not even exist.

“I’d like your name and badge number,” I said.  He looked at me and then looked away.  “I’d like your name and badge number.”  He looked at me and laughed.  He said “my badge number is six-six.”  (Funny as it is, this did turn out to be his badge number, but it sounded absurd to me at the time).  I replied, “please give me your name and show me your badge.  It’s ridiculous that you think you can instigate fights with students for no reason.  I’m not some fifteen-year-old kid who’s going to be intimidated by you just because you’re a cop.  You know, being a cop doesn’t give you a right to be a dick!  That isn’t how it works!”  Those were my words.  Some could say I called the police officer a dick, but as far as I’m aware, that still is not a crime.  He replied, “oh I’ll show you how it works.”  He pulled out his radio, and began to talk to someone.

At this point, Gabriela was pulling me away and we headed up Elm St.  We made it one long block when we were stopped by another officer demanding my driver’s license.  I told him we were late for class, but he insisted that we stop.  I gave him my ID.  I told him that we hadn’t done anything wrong and we needed to leave, but he said that we would be the judge of that.  Before I knew it, there were two more police cars and four more cops with us.  I saw the original cop head up towards us and I told him to do his job.  “What’s my job?” he asked.  “Your job is to protect the community and keep it safe, not to start fights with Yale students.”  “Oh yeah? I’ll show you what my job is!”  He comes up near me and tells me to get in the police car.  I asked him what for and he told me to just get in the fucking car.  I started walking to the car when all of a sudden, he grabs my arm.  I yell at him to get off me.  He squeezes it even harder and I’m yelling at him to get the fuck off me.  I look at another cop for support, giving her a “aren’t you going to do something?” face, but she just says “get in the car.” I was so enraged I would have hit him if he’d held on much longer, but thankfully he released me.

I got in the car and the cops spoke to Gabriela.  I didn’t hear what had happened, but I learned later that they were going to give me a disorderly conduct violation and take me down to the courthouse, but once they got to talking, they found out we were law students.  After twenty minutes in the car, I left with a jaywalking ticket.  I went down to court to fight it and speak my mind, but after waiting in line in traffic court for an hour, one promise that I learned my lesson and would never jaywalk again, and I was out the door.  I’d saved $75 but I hadn’t brought anyone closer to justice.

I thought about filing complaints and lawsuits but life as a busy law student got the better of me.  That was spring of 2009.  Fast forward to the fall, and I’m lucky enough to have had 2 1/2 incidents in the span of a month.

The first one and a half were somewhat minor.  There was the time I was crossing the street and the cop almost ran me over when he ran the red light without looking, and of course without sirens on.  I managed to jump back in time and escape danger.  That kind of driving from a civilian would have landed her at least a sweet ticket, but more likely a reckless driving citation.

Soon after that I was leaving a bar late on a Thursday night on Crown St.  I saw a classmate of mine being hauled off in handcuffs, so I wanted to see if I could get more information.  I was told to “get the fuck off the street” numerous times.  I very calmly let this officer know that I was merely curious as to the whereabouts of my friend and the circumstances surrounding his arrest.  She told me, “he’s going down to holding and if you don’t get the fuck out of here right now, you’ll be there too.”  My friend wound up dragging me away, but before that night I just didn’t realize that standing on a street for thirty seconds or concern for the whereabouts of a friend were illegal.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse, I guess.  I later learned that my friend’s violation for which he was arrested was being snarky to his arresting officer.

Fast forward to last night, three weeks later.  I head to BAR for my weekly rotating law school drinking festivities.  Outside the bar and waiting for friends, I decide to have a cigarette.  I’m standing somewhat near the bar in a huge crowd of people.  There are two people near the door – one is the bouncer, and one is standing near him chatting with him.  Both are in plain clothes.  The guy standing near the door tells me to go smoke my cigarette over by the parking meter (which was about 20 feet away).  I look at him and turn around and take a couple of steps away.  At this point, an officer standing near the door, tells me to go further away.  I then walk to the curb and finish smoking my cigarette and checking my phone.

When some friends show up, I chuck the cigarette and go to follow them inside.  The random dude who told me to leave apparently works at the bar, and even more apparently was not pleased that I didn’t listen to him when he told me the specific place where I should go stand to smoke my cigarette.  He told me I couldn’t come in and join my friends.  I asked why and he said that I was rude to him.  He told me I had to leave the area, and of course I did not immediately move on some random kid’s instructions when all of my friends were inside the bar.  He motions to the cop to “explain it” to me, and the cop informs me that I am not allowed inside.  I told him that it was unreasonable to not let me inside just because I didn’t move a specific place, and he said it didn’t matter (You’re not allowed to discriminate in public accommodations on the basis of sex or sexual orientation, and I’m pretty sure I fit the bill of a woman talking back and challenging the authority of a man.  And even if it wasn’t sex- or sexual orientation-based, you have to have a rational basis to exclude other than “I didn’t like the way that person looked at me.” (Because that’s usually pretextual)).  It’s not shocking to me that he thinks he knows the law better than me (which he decided to tell me multiple times).  If police officers do whatever the hell they want, and they get away with it 999 times out of 1000, then it doesn’t really matter what’s written down in some old dusty book in a library.  Whatever he says is the law.

I remained completely calm while he raised his voice to emphatically explain the reasons why I wouldn’t be allowed inside.  After apologizing to the bouncer and having him deny me entry further, I explained to the cop that I didn’t know he was affiliated with the bar since he was a random guy in plain clothes in a herd of people.  The cop summed it up with catch phrase learned from McGruff the Crime Dog’s “take a bite out of crime” campaign, “ignorance is no excuse.”  If it had been even a little bit relevant, I might have credited him with the 90’s cartoon reference, but he didn’t even get the context right.  Besides, I was only bewildered and speechless when he told me that I had to “leave immediately,” that I just stood in awe for a moment.   I told him that I was going to continue to wait for my friends, and remember, unlike Gates, I wasn’t even raising my voice in any way.  Still, I didn’t leave the sidewalk (we were to the side of the bar at this point, rather than directly in front of the door).  At this point, he pulls out his handcuffs and walks within 1 foot of me.  He commands, “you have ten seconds to leave this area.  Ten.  Nine.  Eight.  Seven. . .”  So I walk away.  I go to the curb where I yell to him that he has no right to do that.  He doesn’t look at me.  I walk up to him again and ask him for his name and badge number.  Detective 514, last name Bullock.  Well, at least he managed to do that right.

I tell him that it’s bullshit how he’s trying to intimidate me for no reason.  Apparently, intimidate was the buzzword that set him off (under police codes in some cities including NYC, police officers are forbidden from harassing and intimidating civilians without suspicion of a crime), and he yells that he wasn’t intimidating me.  At this point, I burst into tears from being so upset, and I ask him what else counting down to ten with handcuffs in my face could mean.  Now there is a scene being formed – the crowd is circling around, seeing me yell at this cop with tears streaming down my face.  Not liking the scene, he gets his handcuffs out again, and walks behind me down the street.  I briskly walk, in tears, back down Crown St, where Detective Bullock finally gets bored of the harassment and walks back to BAR.  I end up in my apartment a few minutes later, in a hysteric state, where my roommate Helen consoles me.

Some Gates critics said that he should have been calmer during his incident with Sgt. Crowley.  “He’s fulfilling the prototypical role of an angry black man.  Only by stepping outside the stereotype will he begin to change minds” is how the story goes.  First of all, it isn’t the responsibility of citizens to guarantee the respect of their own constitutional rights by acting with a certain demeanor.  But even if it were, my experience tells me it wouldn’t have made a damned bit of difference.  In the first interaction I raised my voice out of anger, but in the other two, I made it a point to remain completely calm, without ever raising my voice.  Still, mere disagreement was the citation.  Challenging abuse of authority was the crime.

I’m an upper middle class, privileged, white woman in the best law school in the country.  I get harassed when I assert my rights, but at the end of the day, I walk home a little bruised, emotions a little uneasy, but I’m a better person for it.  I’m starting a career working against police misconduct and government abuse of authority and discretion, and I have these New Haven police officers to thank as the motivating force.  But every time I leave an interaction, I think about all the people who are harassed on a daily basis because they don’t have the means to fight it.  People arrested outside their doorsteps because a cop didn’t appreciate the way they looked at him.  A woman without the means to sleep safely at night given a citation for disorderly conduct because she finally caught some rest on the green past the hours where it was legal not to have anywhere else to go.

Cops do whatever they want, and courts don’t bother to stop them.  “We have to show extreme deference to these people, who have such tough jobs, keeping order in our society.”  But the deference shouldn’t come from courts.  They already get enough of that from every day life.  They honestly believe pulling out their handcuffs and getting within one foot of me is all right.  They honestly believe that arresting a black man for disrespecting them on his own porch is within the bounds of the law.  And they believe this because there is not enough accountability to make anyone think otherwise.  Police misconduct is rarely litigated in the courts.  Every time one illegal random search produces a drug bust and that defendant challenges the search in court, you can bet there were thirty other illegal searches where no drugs were produced, the public never heard about them, but people left feeling like their government and police were out to hurt them rather than protect and defend.  I never wrote about these incidents until there were just too many of them.  Others never write at all.  The real police misconduct is going on in daily life and it creates a conflict-ridden environment where “fuck the police” rolls off the tongue more easily than “love.”  If we want accountability, the least courts can do is recognize that extreme deference ultimately providing a total safeguard is the last thing we need (after all, internal processes don’t usually reprimand the offending officers, and even when they do officers can rely on courts to let them off the hook).

I don’t know what the answer is.  Maybe the responsibility is of the courts in the few cases that make it there.  Maybe it’s greater accountability for individual police departments.  Maybe it is somewhere else.  But wherever it is, all I know is what I have learned.  Officer 66, Detective 514, the other officers who nearly ran me over or threw me off the streets, and everyone else: this shit has got to stop.


[1] Cambridge Police Incident Report $ 9005127, July 16, 2009, available at http://www.samefacts.com/archives/Police%20report%20on%20Gates%20arrest.PDF (last visited Aug. 9, 2009) [2] Mass Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 272, § 53 (2009), states:

Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, common railers and brawlers, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy persons of the opposite sex, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, idle and disorderly persons, disturbers of the peace, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure may be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than six months, or by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

[3] Cambridge Police Incident Report, supra note 1.

[4] Obama Backs Off Words in Scholar’s Arrest, MSNBC, (July 24, 2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32122967 (last visited Aug. 9, 2009)

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