Mimesis Law
29 March 2017

Cappuccino Jaywalker Charles Harrell Is Every One Of Us

Mar. 9, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — If the video Charles Harrell took is to be believed, the Cincinnati police take the crime of jaywalking with a cappuccino while black very seriously:

There are so many fascinating things about the encounter that it’s almost hard to know where to start. One of the most notable, however, is surely the simple fact that Harrell offers commentary about being stalked and harassed, a common occurrence in his world, apparently, before the officer proves that Harrell really is being stalked and harassed.

Sure, it does seem pretty obvious from the “Don’t Walk” sign growing smaller over his right shoulder that Harrell probably did jaywalk, but how many old white men in business suits did bicycle cops cite for jaywalking that day? How many did cops follow for some time beforehand? Of those they did stop, how many had to put down all their things? The experience of having an officer ominously ride his bicycle behind you is probably a completely foreign experience for the average old white Cincinnati resident in a business suit.

Harrell’s explanation for why he might have jaywalked is quite plausible. The officer’s presence and the fact he was quite obviously targeting Harrell clearly bothered Harrell enough that he felt the need to record it. That alone should say something pretty powerful. That Harrell was preoccupied with the officer, who may well have found some other reason to contact Harrell if he hadn’t jaywalked, and inadvertently crossed the street despite a sign telling him he shouldn’t, seems like the most plausible version of events.

Every time a clearly identified officer is anywhere, people do crazy things. Drivers fixate on cops, at the very least slamming on their brakes to reach dangerously slow speeds, and often times nearly ramming into other motorists as they stare at the cop. DUI lawyers have for years even had a name for the fact that people tend to drive drunk around cops whether they are or not; it’s called “black and white fever,” and it’s like a goofy human behavior version of the observer effect, the idea that the act of observation changes what’s being observed. If you’re a cop, follow someone long enough, and your presence is going to make them nervous enough to break the law. That applies the same whether the subject is driving or walking.

After Harrell told the cop, “you were scaring me,” and explained he didn’t know why he was being followed, he tried to get his ID. That suggests it wasn’t Harrell’s first rodeo and that he was trying to deal with the current situation in the best way possible. More often than not, after all, the first thing an officer does when contacting someone for a minor violation is to ask for ID. Handing it over as quickly and smoothly as possible is a good thing. Of course, Harrell trying to show his ID to the cop may have been a hint to the cop that Harrell has had police contact before. And regardless, the cop wanted Harrell to put his stuff down, not to show him his ID. It’s all about control. It wouldn’t be surprising if, had Harrell wanted to put his stuff down, the officer might have demanded his ID.

To a large extent, Harrell’s was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He knew he was going to be cited for something, and his nervousness, and probably his videotaping, gave the cop that something. He then knew he was going to get in some sort of trouble, so he was proactive, which pissed the cop off more. Upset that he was being harassed, he lost his cool, which rapidly escalated the harassment. “Why are you touching me?” evolved into yells of “you are violating my constitutional rights” as the officer demanded that he put his hands behind his back. It culminated with an under-arrest Harrell saying “fucking pig” and “I didn’t even do shit.”

It’s easy to sit back and watch the video while wondering why Harrell didn’t just put down his cappuccino and his phone and sit on the ground like a good boy, but if you’re doing that, you’re part of the problem. How much harassment should Harrell have to take? Is he supposed to just sit there with a smile as he receives a ticket a white man likely never would’ve gotten in the same situation? What could black men and women in this country be doing right now to change things that they aren’t already doing? Maybe protests like Harrell’s are what we need.

The video is probably a litmus test. Some may see a cop harassing a black man for drinking a cappuccino and trying to enjoy his morning. As one article explains, Sgt. Daniel Hils of the Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police has a different take:

“I saw Mr. Harrell cross against the light,” Hils said after watching the video. “I am also aware Officer Osterman smelled burned Marijuana before Mr. Harrell crossed against the light and that is what caused Officer Osterman’s attention towards Mr. Harrell. Mr. Harrell was heard being belligerent and Officer Osterman remained professional. I did not witness any police misconduct.”

The same article provides some other important information:

Harrell was charged with jaywalking, obstructing official business, resisting arrest and drug possession from the Feb. 6 incident. He entered a guilty plea for the drug possession charge and not guilty pleas to the other three charges. Court records show his lawyer, who did not immediately return ABC News’ requests for comment, tried to get those charges dismissed but was denied.

Harrell now faces a charge of indirect contempt after being reported for taking photographs inside the Hamilton County Courthouse on March 1, and that charge, as well as the four others, will be addressed in a March 8 hearing. He is being held without bond until the March 8 hearing.

Taking everything into account, the most interesting part of all of this is that, ostensibly, Hils might be correct. It looks like Harrell did jaywalk. Harrell apparently did have marijuana on him too. Those are no doubt some big factors that make this particular situation so complicated, but they are also the same sorts of things that are going to continue to prevent the Black Lives Matter movement from accomplishing all of its goals in the near future.

The courts are not going to suddenly say that a cop can’t contact someone walking down the street if the cop has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or has witnessed a violation of the law. Cincinnati is not going to take its jaywalking laws off the books, and we aren’t going to fully legalize marijuana nationwide. Not in the foreseeable future, at least. The courts also don’t appear likely to change their minds anytime soon about the legality of a frisk or demanding someone drop what they’re holding in circumstances like those with Harrell.

The reason things aren’t going to change soon is because things never change quickly. Plus, we’re just so damn scared of everything and so powerfully predisposed to think that, if we didn’t have each of those things, we would live in anarchy as everyone everywhere would jaywalk constantly while stoned to the gills, getting away with who knows what else because cops couldn’t contact, identify, and safely frisk them. It’s a theoretical worry, but a strong one. The problem with what we have now, on the other hand, is perfectly illustrated by Harrell’s real life situation.

Most indicators seem to suggest that ours is a society with a fair number of bigots. They also seem to suggest we have a serious authoritarian streak. The former without the latter would make life a whole lot better not just for Harrell, but for every black man and woman in this country. The latter without the former is so completely unrealistic and unseen in the entire history of mankind that it isn’t even worth considering as an option. Plus, any plan to reprogram people’s thinking is sure to result in the worst offenders digging their heels in even deeper. It may even breed new bigots.

Watching Harrell get arrested sucks. Knowing he’s in custody right now sucks more. A serious solution to what got him there, however, requires some drastic changes to our laws and some faith that we won’t all instantly kill each other. Seeing the laws play out exactly the way they’re supposed to against exactly to whom they’re bound to apply more often than not should make that solution seem both more urgent and more realistic. Our only other option, after all, is the status quo, and thanks to Harrell and the magic of video, we’re finally beginning to see just how badly it’s working for us.

4 Comments on this post.

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  • dm
    9 March 2016 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    How many people accused of an indirect contempt get held in custody until the hearing date? I’ve never had a client held in custody while waiting for a hearing on an indirect contempt. For taking a picture no less? WTF?

  • James Gordon
    9 March 2016 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    You seem to be assimilated ng the reason the officer followed the coffee drinker is because of bigotry. Is it not just as likely that the officer saw conduct that made him suspicious coffee drinker was dealing? My understanding is that coffee drinker had 3.5 ounces of marijuana on him — which is far more than personal use (I.e., drug dealer amounts). The officer followed until coffee drinker violated a law which allowed officer to effectuate a legal detention. Without any reason to choose officer bigotry over observant officer, I don’t see any reason to assume the officer acted inappropriately. If the 3.5 oz. of marijuana is accurate, then it would even seem to shift the balance in favor of observant officer. We pay police to entice laws, we might as well expect them to do their jobs.

  • Chris
    28 August 2016 at 11:42 am - Reply

    My name is Charles Harrell and I am the Jay Walker and no I did not have 3.5 ounces on me I had a half of a piece of a joint and I was on my way to work for your information I am not a dealer

    • shg
      28 August 2016 at 12:08 pm - Reply

      Not to be a stickler for consistency, but perhaps you could have chosen a more suitable handle than “Chris” under the circumstances? And assuming you are who you claim to be, this was a sympathetic post toward you. Why be a dick about it?