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Discord of the Dance

April 13th, 2008 · 15 Comments

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.

Tags: Washington, DC



15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joe Strummer // Apr 13, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Yeah. My problem is with McArdle, who will go through all manner of contortions to explain away libertarian objections to the war (and other attendant aspects of the war on terror), but who sees this little episode as an obviously bad act by the gov’t. Well if you just use a little imagination (not contortions at all) you can justify the Park Police (maybe not their specific conduct, as I have not seen the video) arresting someone who is part of a group that, without a permit, gathers to hold some sort of event (organized on Facebook, by the way) that in this case was a bunch of dancing.

    Yeah, sure, the police overreacted. But in the grand scheme of things, this is small beer, and it’s a little silly for McArdle to give a crap, given how little exercised she is about the horrors we’ve visited on the Iraqi people.

  • 2 Joe Strummer // Apr 13, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Oh two other points. McArdle can’t get her facts right: what the Park Police have to do with investigating murders in the District is beyond me.

    And there’s a very simple answer to all this. Don’t congregate at national monuments where for years the park police have acted like thugs. You’re kind of asking for it to go down there, which I think was the point of this whole exercise: hence the cameras, and video by people prepared for a Park Police overreaction.

    I’d have a lot more sympathy for the view that a great trampling of rights had taken place if they had been protesting the war or something. As it stands, they’re going to get their little lawsuit.

  • 3 Greg N. // Apr 13, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    This is right fucking on, Julian. Nailed it, brother!

  • 4 John Markley // Apr 13, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    The phrase “drunk on an incredibly small amount of power” immediately made me imagine Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall, wearing a police uniform and gleefully tasering some guy.

    The desperate need some people have to come up with a justification for the actions of the police here is indeed bothersome, but sadly this is a comparatively benign example- I routinely see commenters turn out in droves to defend police actions far more outrageous. If this incident had ended with a cop beheading one of the revelers with a samurai sword, there would probably still be a sizable number of apologists insisting that the headless guy had it coming.

  • 5 Megan McArdle // Apr 14, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Thanks, Joe, for keeping the focus where it belongs . . . on me.

  • 6 southpaw // Apr 14, 2008 at 10:53 am

    What strikes me is that everything I’ve read about this incident suggests that the abuse of power here was not insitutional. That is, the officer made what is probably an improper arrest because–most likely–he’s a jerk or he didn’t want to be hassled that day or he was pressed for time or whatever. It’s not institutionalized abuse . . . or at least it’s hard to spin up a theory where institutional problems lead to consistent false arrests of ipod wearing libertarians at monuments.

    And there are institutional mechanisms whose purpose is to correct these isolated abuses of power (Internal Affairs Boards, prosecutorial discretion, etc.) that haven’t come into play yet. So I’m not sure it’s worth playing up the incident as a grand injustice, though I don’t deny that it was an injustice

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Apr 14, 2008 at 11:14 am

    I agree; this was largely one guy’s overreaction. To the extent there’s an “institutional” issue, it’s more that the reactions show that people tend to fall into two unhelpful camps when incidents like this happen: One starts throwing around overblown cries of “fascism,” the other assumes that police are always right and anyone who’s arrested must have had it coming.

  • 8 Megan McArdle // Apr 14, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Like Julian, I’m mostly just sort of astonished. But I do think it’s worth making a fuss about.

    The police shouldn’t feel like they have the power to arrest people for, basically, annoying them. The way to curb these sorts of abuses is to make them very costly. The way you make it costly is to embarrass the hell out of the Park Police, so that every time they contemplate throwing their weight around, there’s a voice in the back of their head going “But what if this gets on the internet?”

    The thing in itself is not a sign that the dark night of fascism is descending on America, but it does bespeak an attitude towards the citizenry that should be discouraged wherever possible. And petty abuses are relatively easy to fix; no one is looking at those photos and silently thinking “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire . . . “

  • 9 southpaw // Apr 14, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    You’re certainly welcome to make a fuss. And, in fact, it’s awfully nice of you guys to stand up for your friend like this.

    But I think this is where we get into traditional critiques of privilege. If a policeman harasses an ipod-wearing hipster who associates with widely read libertarian bloggers, he’s in for a round of public embarrassment. If he harasses me, well, no one reads my blog, but I’ve got enough money that I could probably hire a lawyer to make a stink. By contrast, if a policeman screws with a kid on the streets in South East, or a homeless man sitting on a bench in the FDR memorial, it’s likely to be largely invisible from a media standpoint.

    In other words, it may be that the message you’re sending, however well-intentioned, only reinforces the policeman’s view that certain groups of people are not to be screwed with. Robust institutional safeguards, rather than ad hoc reactions, are less likely to have that kind of disparate impact.

    So, if it were up to me, I’d like to see the focus directed at making sure those institutional safeguards are working properly (from the park police to the department of defense and the CIA), rather than teaching cops to avoid the media savvy as well as the politically powerful. That’s where I’m coming from . . .

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Apr 14, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Fair point, though I have to say some versions of this objection seem to dance awfully close to “poor people and minorities have it a lot worse, so shut up and take it.” What I’d like to see, as a supplement to the institutional safeguards, is the sense that as more and more Americans–including traditionally marginalized groups have access to cell phone cameras and the Internet–bullying or abusive behavior toward *anyone* could end up on the front page of YouTube, so best not to treat *anyone* in a way you wouldn’t want a spotlight on.

  • 11 Christopher Monnier // Apr 14, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    > By contrast, if a policeman screws with a kid on the streets in South East, or a homeless man sitting on a bench in the FDR memorial, it’s likely to be largely invisible from a media standpoint.

    But that’s the thing…those people are less likely to know that such police harassment is illegal and/or less likely to have the resources to publicize their mistreatment. So if people less likely to be hassled (upper middle class [probably] white people) go out of their way (to some extent) to provoke such reactions by police, since they have the resources to publicize it, by making a big stink about it they may be able to effect beneficial change. Imagine if this leads to a law ensuring the rights of all citizens at all times to record the actions of law enforcement. That would probably make the type of harassment that causes actual harm less likely to occur.

  • 12 southpaw // Apr 14, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Right, that would be ideal. And to be clear, the last thing I think anyone should do is shut up and take it.

    Still, I think there are major hurdles to that utopian vision. In addition to lacking access, lots of people with stories to tell lack identification with the power centers of American life. There’s a reason why Laci Peterson and John Walker Lindh are big stories in the national press, while Tamika Huston and Yaser Esam Hamdi are not. So while I would like to see a world where better distribution of technology will allow anyone to stoke outrage about government abuse, I don’t think we live there yet. That’s why I tend to put more faith in building robust institutions that can bring constitutional scrutiny to bear on the executive branch. If focusing on this incident helps to achieve that end, I’m on board. If it’s about giving the park police what for because they’re jerks, I wish you and your friends luck (but there are bigger jerks to pursue at the moment).

  • 13 Brian // Apr 15, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    “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.” ”

    While I tend to agree with you, the YouTube videos of this incident feature a young man who most definitely doesn’t give that impression.

  • 14 Ashley // Apr 18, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    I agree; this was largely one guy’s overreaction. To the extent there’s an “institutional” issue…

    Ah, but when the institution has a deeply ingrained culture of protecting its own at any cost, as many do and cops perhaps the most strongly of all, one guy’s overreaction implicitly is an institutional issue.

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