Under Arrest

September 2002


We used to teach people how to get arrested for their convictions and we were proud to know people who had been arrested. Aspiring to courageous acts of ethical bravery is sadly out of fashion today.

A friend of mine was arrested at the State Fair. My friends don't usually get arrested these days. There was a time, when most of my friends had been arrested at least once, and when most looked forward to getting arrested again soon. Most folks were proud of their arrests 30 years ago. They wore their arrest records like badges of courage -- they proved that you really believed in the cause and were not just supporting principles with your mouth. We accepted the idea that disagreeing with the establishment carried with it certain consequences, one of which was arrest. Most people, even those with lengthy rap sheets, did not actually do serious jail time.

I was never arrested. Not for want of disagreement with the government, but I was just a kid and I was never in the right place at the right time. I participated in a lot of workshops that told people what to do and how to behave, if they were arrested. That kind of workshop grew out of the civil rights movement, when marches and demonstrations were organized with trained people, called Marshals, stationed on the edge of the crowd. It was not uncommon for marchers to get yanked into alleys and beaten up. Marshals were trained in non-violence: they were trained to get beaten up without resisting. Theoretically, if you resisted, the mob just beat you up until you didn't resist, which could mean killing you. If you never resisted, you got beaten up less because you weren't any more fun to beat up than a sack of potatoes.

The marshals were also trained in how to talk to police. We taught people, in potentially violent confrontations with police, how to make them less violent. One example was to look for a name tag on the officer's uniform and to say something like, "Hey, I got a brother named (first name of the officer), his wife just had a baby girl. You got any kids?" Of course, in violent altercations, we also taught people when it was best to just shut up and listen -- and how to listen to what the cops were meaning, as opposed to what they were saying. In high stress situations, people often say things in unusual ways. It can be difficult to understand what is being said if you listen to the words. I will always remember seeing a young officer screaming at people not to move and to stay right where they were as he clubbed them around the head with his night stick to make them move into a paddy wagon.

Police officers are sometimes forced by their bosses to do things that they would never do, if they had any choice. In those circumstances, the public is the most at risk. Many times, an officer who hates some wrong thing he is forced to do will do that thing especially wrongly so that the bad things that result will reflect on their boss. They are having a hard time reasoning through their own motives, and have little room left for listening to you and your arguments. Cops are human.

A few months ago, I heard about a black activist group that was advocating a much different stance with police. The spokesperson for this group disagreed with the notion that one should be as polite and non-confrontational as possible. He said, in part, "if you don't stand up for your rights and demand them, you won't have any rights." I can see his point. Certainly, if you are one individual, as opposed to a job lot of demonstrators, showing that you know your rights and that you are articulate and unafraid may make police more cautious in handling you than if you accept a passive role and allow the cops to do anything they want. However, some police interpret resistance as aggressive defiance and respond with aggression to enforce compliance.

Sometimes I wonder about whether it is my friends who have changed, or whether it is me. There are certainly no fewer reasons for being arrested today than 30 years ago. If anything, I object to more that the government does today than I did in years past.

Of course, I like to think that the biggest reason I don't know a lot of people who are always getting arrested is that today I don't select my friends and associates on the basis of their political activism. I distrust any group of people who seem to agree with me completely. You never really understand your own convictions until you defend them against the opinions of others. The same things are wrong with the world today as in years past and it is discouraging to note that we don't seem a lot closer to real solutions. That is the challenge of an ethical existence: to do what is right even when doing the right thing is at best unnoticed and at worst abhorred by the world at large. Doing it anyway takes courage and character that seems to be sadly lacking in a lot of ordinary people these days.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.