It starts with the little things close to home. It’s a very bad day when Sun columnist Gregory Kane and I agree on something. But as City Paper staff writer Edward Ericson Jr. pointed out in his Aug. 17 Mobtown Beat about “quality of life” arrests—a subject Kane has written extensively about—when police officers start arresting people and throwing them in jail overnight only to not prosecute them for the crimes they allegedly committed, it’s an “abuse of discretion.” And you begin to wonder.
Despite having always been a pro-police type of person (live in a real police state sometime in your life and you will be too), this writer has always been wary of cops who abuse the position of power in which they are placed. Interactions with this sort of officer become the equivalent of a junior high school playground fight—the bully always has the upper hand:
“What are you looking at?”
“You calling me ‘nothing’?”
“No—I didn’t say that.”
“Well, then, what did you say?”
Except in this case, it works like this:
“I said move along.”
“I’m not doing anything—I just asked . . . ”
“I told you to move. If you say one more word, I’m arresting you.”
“That’s it—come with me.”
That’s one of the ways someone ends up spending the night in jail, only to have his or her so-called crime “abated by arrest.”
When this writer moved to Baltimore 15 years ago, this scenario was re-enacted almost word for word between your humble correspondent and a city police officer in Fells Point, with the exception of the actual arrest. It caused me to look up the Supreme Court ruling on City of Houston v. Hill (1987), which imposed limits on law-enforcement agencies’ use of disorderly conduct statutes to arrest for speech. In the court’s opinion, written by Justice William Brennan, “contrary to [the city of Houston’s] contention, the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”
Houston v. Hill was decided 18 years ago. Since then, after Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, the pendulum has swung so far in favor of authority that the nation has sanctioned almost anything in the name of safety and security. Three people were thrown out of a March 29 public town hall meeting in Denver, dealing with George W. Bush’s alleged Social Security reform, by a man masquerading as a Secret Service agent. The three had done nothing wrong—they hadn’t even revealed themselves as protesters. Someone on the president’s advance team saw that they had arrived in a car bearing a no more blood for oil bumper sticker.
Now, according to the Rocky Mountain News, federal investigators are refusing to prosecute the fake agent. “The Secret Service has said the man was not an agent” but “refused to name him because he was not charged,” the News reported in a July 30 article. This precedent means that the president of our country can travel around the nation, holding what he bills as “open” town hall meetings, while tossing out anyone who even gives the appearance of disagreement, using staffers who carry the authority of law-enforcement officers yet bear none of the responsibilities.
Think about it.
Now think about the last time you flew on a plane. The Transportation Safety Agency keeps “watch lists” of people who cannot fly because they are considered terrorists. Never mind that Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts ended up on one of these lists (probably because of some juvenile political prank), but think of the frustration the average citizen deals with when he or she (or someone with the same name) ends up on a watch list for some unknown reason. Transportation Security officials at airports refuse to give names, reasons, justification, or logic behind their decisions : They tell you their ruling, and that’s that. You do what they say, or you don’t fly.
An Aug. 15 Associated Press story detailed how infants—1- and 2-year-old children—ended up on terrorist watch lists simply because these children’s names are the same as or similar to names on the Transportation Security watch lists. Attorney Timothy Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union told the AP that “there’s no oversight over the names. We know names are added hastily, and when you have a name-based system you don’t focus on solid intelligence leads. You focus on names that are similar to those that might be suspicious.”
The California National Guard is under investigation for suspicions that it created a domestic spying unit. As soon as it was called on it, the California Guard began destroying evidence.
Bit by bit, the lack of discretion and the abuse of power and authority begin to paint a picture in this free country of ours. It makes you wonder at what point our freedoms will exist only in the abstract.
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