The Validity of the Arrest Doesn’t Affect the Message In Baltimore
Oct. 16, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — In a move that on its face suggests that police might not have learned their lesson after recent events, Baltimore police seem to have decided that the best way to deal with people protesting heavy-handed law enforcement tactics is to arrest them en masse:
A small group of demonstrators were arrested overnight for refusing to leave Baltimore City Hall, police said early Thursday, after dozens had camped out in opposition to the appointment of a new top cop.
The municipal building was largely quiet by 5 a.m. following several hours of intense chants.
Baltimore police said the arrested protesters were charged with trespassing, and there were no immediate reports of injuries to them or officers. At least 12 people were seen being taken from the building into police transport vans and other vehicles around 4:30 a.m. ET, The Associated Press reported.
I suppose the silver lining for the police is that no one was injured, as it sure would be embarrassing for Baltimore if a bunch of people demanding an end to police brutality got beat up by police officers. Regardless, it doesn’t look good. That’s especially true given the group’s uncontroversial objectives. The article describes some of their demands:
The members have demanded concessions from top officials, calling for police to avoid using military tactics and chanting the name of Freddie Gray, the black man who died after suffering an injury in police custody in April.
It goes on:
A spokesman for the group said the protesters would not leave until Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agreed to a list of demands. Among them, that police avoid using military-type equipment and only use riot gear as a last resort.
In the interest of constitutional rights, the protesters said, they also want officers to always wear badges and name tags. And they want to be able to protest in larger areas and for longer periods of time than “would normally be tolerated.”
In addition, they are asking police to be “more tolerant of minor law breaking,” such as the throwing of water bottles, “when deciding whether to escalate the use of force.”
Most of these seem like perfectly reasonable demands. The militarization of police is something of major concern for those on the receiving end of it, and no one seems to know that better than the people of Baltimore. Officers who should be protecting and serving end up acting more like an occupying force, and the result almost always seems to be an increased willingness by police to treat the people they encounter like enemy combatants rather than members of the same community. Simply giving the police more tools for violence is bad enough, but the resulting dehumanization is probably the more dangerous part of the situation.
Demanding police use their most violent and oppressive measures only as a last resort also doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Quickly and violently responding to things like throwing water bottles doesn’t exactly foster a sense of community. Furthermore, having officers clearly identified, including their names, seems like the sort of thing everyone everywhere should already be doing. I imagine it’s more difficult to treat someone badly when everyone around knows your name. There’s no cloak of anonymity when that’s the case; people can later point you out to hold you responsible. Finally, not having a badge at all seems like a recipe for disaster. Members of the public aren’t likely to react submissively to orders when they may not realize the person giving them has the authority to demand they obey.
The reasonableness of the protesters’ demands makes this a particularly interesting example of the intersection between effectively advocating for a cause and the criminal laws. A defining part of the Black Lives Matter movement and others like it has been the sense of urgency. Its members have been extremely vocal, demanding change immediately. They’ve even protested people like Bernie Sanders, drawing criticism about how they’re actually hurting their cause because he might be their strongest ally. Regardless, it’s clear they are not sitting around and waiting for a dialogue to develop, and their proposals are sound. They are making their cause front and center no matter who that might affect, and it’s the sort of thing that will probably continue to develop in a way that creates conflicts with criminal laws.
Continuing to hang out in a building that presumably closed hours ago is a hell of a statement. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a stretch to see how what they did was also criminal trespass. It’s not like officers gave a wink and a nod to a bunch of people holding pro-police signs in the other corner of the room while escorting out protestors with a less law-enforcement-supportive message. Authorities will certainly argue that they were enforcing a law that had nothing to do with what the demonstrators were saying. Indeed, they’ll claim their actions had nothing to do with speech at all. Many of the trespass convictions may stick, and that may be the right result. The validity of the arrests, however, doesn’t necessarily affect the message at all.
What’s interesting is that the new top cop seems to have a pretty reasonable approach to the whole thing:
Following the subcommittee’s vote, Davis called Wednesday night’s protest an “act of civil disobedience” that “is just part of this moment.”
“It’s all part of the healing process,” he said. “The fact that this occurred isn’t upsetting. It’s just part of where the city is right now. I understand where they are. I understand their frustration.”
His response suggests he might not be a guy worth protesting. But then again, it was his officers arresting them. Honestly, though, none of that matters much.
The demonstrators probably committed a crime by staying, and I doubt they’ll succeed in their individual cases with any constitutional arguments about the expressive nature of what they did. They’ve already won, though, and a trespass conviction might even be worth it. Davis might be a good cop too, but that’s more or less irrelevant. They got their message through yet again, and in a powerful manner. Whether or not they broke the law is secondary.