So, among my many character flaws is a tendency to overgeneralize my own reactions—to assume that, though we may disagree along any number of dimensions, other people’s thought processes work roughly the same way my own do. I wrote the post below on the assumption that just about everyone would share approximately my response, which was: “Man, it sure sounds as though these park police overreacted. I bet they’ll be deservedly embarrassed when this excessive response to a benign celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is publicized.” Looking over at the comments on Megan’s blog, I see at least three reactions I didn’t really expect, but probably should have.
The first is that this is one more symptom of the jackboot of the looming police state stamping on the face of humanity. Uh, no. Calm down, have some dip. This is a couple of bullies who, having managed to get drunk on an incredibly small amount of power, flipped out over some kids who chose a very mildly unorthodox way to honor the signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is suggestive of an unhealthy attitude some police apparently have toward anyone who politely asks for justification or explanation of an arbitrary order, but it’s not exactly the outrage of the year.
Incidentally, contra what Peter Suderman implies, I think most of the libertarians I know “hold both police officers as people and police as an institution in pretty high esteem.” As a D.C. resident, I’m usually glad to see them on the street, certainly. What struck me about this is precisely that I can recall seeing many instances, here and in New York, where police handled truly belligerent (though non-violent) people with really admirable restraint and professionalism, defusing tense situations without resorting to the paddy wagon. Nine times in ten, as those cops understood, people who are treated calmly and with respect will (perhaps after venting a bit) respond in kind.
The second reaction was that libertarians in general, and especially anyone who’s friends with Megan McArdle, must be irredeemably evil and deserve whatever’s coming to them. Which is true, certainly, but still probably doesn’t justify police acting like jerks.
The third, and most disturbing to my mind, was that there were plenty of people who seemed determined to go through all sorts of contortions to rationalize the police response. Of course they were justified, the monument was closed! Well, no, as three seconds of Googling would reveal, it’s open to the public 24 hours a day.
Well, but you surely need a permit! Except, as far as I can tell, you don’t. This was a small number of people—apparently you can forego a formal permit application for groups smaller than 25, even in cases where you’d otherwise need one—who’d taken pains to avoid inconveniencing anyone, by using headphones and showing up at a time when their “bopping” wouldn’t interfere with crowds of tourists. Even with larger groups, my understanding is that you need a permit if you’re holding a “demonstration” which is likely to attract crowds of onlookers, which seems unlikely at midnight. Obviously, you don’t need a permit to visit the monument with 20 friends and walk around wearing headphones. I’m not sure I follow the logic according to which this requires a permit because you’re walking around sort of funny in time with the music playing on those headphones.
But they could have anticipated mayhem! There could have been droves of other revelers on the way! They might have been plannign to vandalize the monument! Uh, I guess that’s possible. But it seems like like reasonable people could have walked up to someone, asked “Hey, what’s going on here?”, then rolled their eyes at the weird kids and let them finish with their fifteen minutes of silliness.
What bugs me here is that there seem to be lots of people who—perhaps in recognition of the hard and vital job cops do—want to excuse even pretty clear mishandling of a situation by any means necessary. And this, I think, is conducive to the kind of scenario that Radley Balko so often writes about, where officers who botch things much more seriously, harming, harrassing, jailing, or even killing innocent people, seldom get more than a slap on the wrist. I understand the attitude, but it seems pretty institutionally unhealthy.