At least once a week, I find a new headline about some person that is arrested illegally after exercising their legal rights. Maybe it’s the story about the passenger of a car that’s been pulled over who refused to show his ID to a cop. Maybe the story is about a person who keeps taking pictures of a public area, while in a public area, after being ordered to stop by a security guard or cop. Whatever.
I see one of these stories at least once every week or so. Chances are, so do you.
It shows up on Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Fark and every news site on the internet. People start blogging about it, start tweeting links and, pretty soon, practically the entire world has read the story. And then the visitors of those sites start talking about it.
And what they say fills me with despair for the future of the Human race.
Without fail, the majority of the discussion is not about whether or not the person was right or whether or not the people that wronged them should be run up a flag pole in their underwear. Most of the discussion usually is not about whether or not the person broke the law or whether or not the law is fair or unconstitutional.
Every time this sort of thing happens, people start banging their fist on the table and bellowing some variation of “he wouldn’t have been arrested if he hadn’t been such an ass about it!” This always happens. Always.
They berate the subject of the story for causing a scene. They yell at them for not cooperating and for getting themselves arrested. A small number of people will even side with the police or security guards (or whoever) because they personally dislike the person that was wronged. The more generous of commenters might grudgingly admit that the center of attention may possibly have been right, but that they still were a dick and brought it on themselves. Why cause a scene and get yourself thrown in jail over it just because you’re right?
Let’s take a look at the story of Shane Becker, which I discovered and wrote about yesterday. While standing in line at an outdoors outfitter store a few days ago, Becker refused to identify himself to a Loomis Armored security guard. Becker snapped a picture of him with his iPhone and the rent-a-cop got a little riled up about that. The rent-a-cop, who was carrying a firearm, threatened to physically assault Becker if he tried to leave the store.
Then, for reasons known only to the Seattle Police Department, Becker was handcuffed and taken to jail. He was released half an hour later, after being forced to sign a trespass admonishment form. The manager of the store where this took place denies requesting that Becker be trespassed and that he is still welcome there, but the police report shows otherwise.
Nobody, including Becker himself, has been able to figure out exactly on what grounds he was arrested. The police report mentions “Suspicious Circumstance / Trespass / Obstruction” but does not say that this is why he was arrested. Becker so far has not been notified of any charges.
“Suspicious Circumstances” sounds vague enough that it might mean anything at all. Sounds like one of those bogus catch-all “crimes” the cops cite when they want to arrest you to show you who’s boss but can’t think of a legitimate reason for doing so.
He broke no laws and Washington no longer has a law requiring a person to identify themselves, so I can’t imagine what he obstructed. He wasn’t trespassing, since he was told rather bluntly that a large man with a gun would attack him if he tried to leave. Truth be told, you can make a pretty good argument that he was illegally abducted in the store by Cueball, The Amazing Rent-A-Cop.
I did a bit of Googling yesterday and today in order to see how people are reacting to this story. I have read or skimmed through several thousand comments about what happened to Shane Becker (yes, I was bored).
Before I get into what I found, let me pause for a second to describe Shane Becker. Becker is a scrawny, neck-bearded, hippy-looking geek, vegan and self-proclaimed anarchist (an anarchist with an iPhone, a job and a van mind you). Take a look. That’s him on the right. Yeah, I’ll admit he looks a little dodgy. Not exactly Martin Luther King.
I saw a large number of people who had no sympathy at all for what happened to Becker, based on nothing other than what he looks like and how he describes himself. According to these people, Becker deserved to have his rights spit on because he looks like a neckbeard or because he’s a vegan and an anarchist.
Now that is simply pathetic. Would it really matter if he was as clean-shaven as George Clooney in E.R., was treasurer of the local NRA and had a humongous American flag flying over his front yard? Does that change his legal rights in any way?
Quite a few people say that he should have acted more calmly and rationally with the rent-a-cops.
How about this: the next time a man three times your size, with a shaved head and carrying a loaded, semi-automatic pistol threatens to attack you, let’s see how cool, calm and collected you are about that. Let’s see how clearly you’re able to think in this situation, shall we? I bet you don’t do half as well as Becker did.
It is very easy to sit back in a comfortable chair long after the excitement is over and dream up a nice little fairy tale of exactly how YOU would handle the situation. That is called armchair quarterbacking. Armchair quarterbacks think they are pretty clever. Ask any military officer who has led troops into combat what they think of people who do that. But, uh… stand back first.
Nearly half of all those thousands of comments and blog posts were some variation of “he acted like a douche bag and should have just cooperated with them”. Even the people who concede that the law was on Becker’s side say that he should simply have cooperated and not caused a scene.
The Constitution does not say “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, unless you plan to be mean to somebody”. The Fourth Amendment does not say “The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, unless doing so will cause a scene”.
It doesn’t work that way. Our rights do not go away because we are impolite about exercising them. But you know what? They just might go away if we don’t speak up to defend them. Want an example?
The blog I just linked, while talking about armchair quarterbacks, was written by someone that was personally involved in protecting Second Amendment rights in Minnesota. Three years ago, that author and some of his friends discovered that a certain county government in Minnesota was deliberately violating a state law related to the Second Amendment. The county was illegally posting signs on public property saying that people could not carry their firearms there.
One of them decided to challenge that. He nearly got himself arrested in the process. Their rights were being violated and they refused to let it happen. Because of them, that county stopped violating the law.
In their case, the man who challenged things was extraordinarily polite the entire time, despite having to deal with a couple of extremely rude cops. He even sent a box of muffins to a pair of hapless librarians caught in the middle of his protest. But the point is, he did not just sit down and shut up about his rights being violated. He did not cooperate with the illegal signs. He stood up and did something about them, even though it led the cops to make a scene.
I am sick and tired of people screaming on the internet that people should just shut up and not cause a scene. I am sick and tired of seeing people being called idiots for standing up for their rights, even if it leads to their arrest. I am sick and tired of this cowardly attitude.
Standing up for your rights does not make you a douche bag or an attention whore. It makes you right.
If it causes a scene out on the sidewalk because you don’t allow a cop to search your backpack, the cop is the one causing the scene, not you. If it causes a scene in the parking lot of Wal-Mart because you won’t show your receipt to the little old lady at the door, the little old lady is the one causing the scene, not you. If you have not committed a crime, then neither of those people have any legal right to search you without a search warrant, unless you voluntarily give up your own legal rights. Stop being sheep and stop being too embarrassed to stand up for yourselves.
I gave a couple of examples right at the top of this rant: someone who doesn’t want to hand over ID during a traffic stop and someone taking pictures in public.
Because Dudley Hiibel stood on principle and refused to hand his ID over to a policeman who could not explain his reason for wanting to see it (I’m investigating an investigation!), the US Supreme Court has ruled that the police cannot arrest you for not providing them with an ID or your drivers license (unless you’re driving the car, of course). You do have to identify yourself if you are in a state that has passed a law requiring it, but you no longer have to hand over your papers to the man with the gun.
Since the 9/11 attacks, a large number of people have had very public run-ins with police and security guards while snapping photographs. The awareness of this problem has caused people – police, security guards and photographers – to realize that we all have a constitutional right to take photographs of anything we see in public, except for rare, narrowly defined exceptions relating to national security. It has not completely stopped the harassment of people taking pictures, but it has cut down on it sharply.
This one is nearly won. As long as every person who is harassed about taking pictures refuses to cooperate and flexes their rights as loudly and as publicly as possible, more and more cops and security guards will realize that they are the ones breaking the law, not the photographers. Keeping quiet on this one simply is not an option.
One of the cops that arrested Shane Becker incorrectly thought somehow that taking photographs of security guards or ATMs was illegal. Probably so did Cueball the rent-a-cop. They were all incorrect, as they probably are beginning to realize by now. They thought they had legal grounds to demand that Becker provide identification. They were all incorrect, as they are probably beginning to realize.
Change does not happen when people stay quiet. Change does not happen when you try to avoid making a scene. The quieter people are when their rights are violated, the more often those rights will be violated.
If you don’t stand up for your rights, you are going to lose them. If that means that someone has to make a scene, then so be it. Better that than the alternative.