Saturday, August 1, 2009

Freedom of movement in the United States

Sometimes it strikes me as kind of funny the way that most of us who live in the USA tend to take our freedom of movement within the United States for granted. We freely travel from city to city with little to no interference by the government. Our biggest concern regarding the state is usually getting pulled over and ticketed, and rightly so, for breaking the speed limit. Private concerns, such as other drivers and the distance to the next gas station, are typically far more vivid in our minds. This freedom from government interference in where we go and who we associate with did not come about by accident. It arose as one of the first freedoms sought by early American colonists. The Pilgrims were caught and prevented leaving Britain three times before they escaped first to Holland and then to the new world. In some parts of Old Europe, getting caught without one's papers being in order could result in arrest or worse even if one were not leaving the country but simply walking about the city where one lived.

But in the American tradition, the conscious decision was made that individuals should not have to seek from the state permission to reside here or travel there. Consequently, as the modern era evolved into post-modernity and the present, the US never adopted the type of national ID card that one sees in much of the world. Nor does the US require individuals to prove to the state apparatus who they are or that they have the right to be here or there. The idea is twofold. Our founding fathers held that the public good is served to a far greater extent by the exercise of such freedoms than it would gain by additional `security' of requiring individuals to register with the state. But this understanding of what benefits the common good is secondary to the conception of certain freedoms being inalienable rights. Even if the public good was not served by the exercise of these freedoms, many (if not most) of the founding fathers would argue that the state has no right to take them away unless a particular given individual violated the social contract by breaking the law.

Few things strain this American tradition to the extent of having one's home town filled to the brim by policeman in riot gear in preperation for expected protests against a conference on global trade. A year after the 1999 protests over globalization that turned large swaths of downtown Seattle into a tangle of rioting and tear gas, Cincinnati played host to another trade conference, the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD). With images of shattered store fronts and violent protestors throwing rocks dancing in their heads, the Cincinnati city council and chief of police mobilized a large police presence and filled the downtown streets with police in riot gear.

For the person I was back at the turn of the millenium, the global trade meeting was a non-issue. I ignored the repeated email warnings at my job that were issued by my employer at the time advising about possible disruptions. I ignored the headlines in the local muckraker rags about massive protests being held. The only thing on my mind at the time was an acute case of bronchitis that left me barely able to stand. After a week filled with uncontrollable coughing fits and the inability to take deep breaths, I called my doctor and she told me to come in that very day so I hopped on the bus to seek out the medical care I needed.

I had forgotten all about the planned protests. When I got off the bus, I was greeted with the by the sight of clusters of ten and twenty punk rocker types carrying around signs about sticking it to the man and stopping animal testing. (To this day, I'm stiill not quite certain what animal testing has to do with global trade.) Being sick, not having bathed in a week, with my hair standing up and staggering around due to being short of breath, I looked like I fit right in with the crowd. I did my best to ignore the protesters and make my way toward the office building that housed my doctor. More than once I was stopped by a young street punks who asked me where everyone was. It was then that I realized my unfortunate situation and foresaw a problem that was about to unfold. 

As I turned the corner to get to the office building where my doctor's office is located, the same office building complex that the TABD was meeting in, I was faced with a sidewalk filled with iron police barricades and public safety officers in riot gear. But my concerns were allayed by all of the people walking right past the barricades and into the complex. So despite my fears, I crossed the street at the corner (being careful not to jay-walk in front of dozens of uniformed police officers wearing body armor and holding plexiglass riot shields) and moved toward the building door.

I was greeted by a loud voice, "Hey, you! You can't go in there!"

`Please,' I asked, `I'm sick. I want to go see my doctor.'

"No one is allowed in," the police officer said sternly, "Haven't you heard that the TABD is meeting today?"

It was kind of obvious that the police officer was lying. Even as we spoke, half a dozen people had walked right past us and into the building. The difference between me and them was that those people were wearing suits and ties and I was looked like something a cat had just coughed up.

I begged the officer to let me in. I could barely stand. I could barely breath. My head was spinning. I just wanted to see my doctor in the hopes that she could do something to make my illness go away. But my pleas fell on the policeman's ears like seeds on stoney ground. The officer blocking my route was unwilling to even go so far as to escort me to the front desk and call up to verify whether or not I had official business in the building. So I gave up and walked away, staggering around the block, reaching the other side of the complex even as the police officer in question was congratulating himself on stopping whatever nefarious plot he thought I was attempting to hatch. Fortunately, for me the police on the other side of the building were not so diligent in their profiling and I made it inside where I proceeded to visit with my doctor and received a prescription for very strong antibiotics. Over the course of the next few days, I quickly recovered.

Fortunately, no lasting harm befell me. It certainly isn't difficult to imagine my illness being just a bit worse and me collapsing in the street after the first police officer turned me away. Nor is it difficult to imagine that the officers on the other side of the building mirroring the behavior of the first officer I encountered and turning me away. But that is neither here nor there. Police in the United States more often than not simply do not infringe on the rights of the general public in the way that the first officer I met that day did on mine. I had broken no laws. I had not acted in any way that would have given the police a reasonable suspicion that I was about to commit a crime. I was selected for different treatment simply because of the way I looked.

And, to be fair, this wasn't the first time something like this has happened to me. Many times in my life, I've been pulled over for no other apparent reason than driving a beat up car through an affluent neighborhood. I've been asked to leave shopping malls for no other apparent reason than I didn't look like the type of person who would buy anything. But here's the rub. All the times I've been profiled have been because of lifestyle choices that I have made. And while I certainly think it un-American to stop a person because of the clothes he or she might be wearing or the lack of grooming he or she might display, there are no small number of people who experience the same thing sort of harassment because of things they did not choose: their ethnic heritage, the color of their skin, the language they speak. In fact, the week after my run in with Cincinnati's finest,  I told my story to a young woman who occasionally rode the same bus I did. Upon hearing my plight, she chuckled and informed me that now I knew what it was like to be black and live in America.

So it is with no small amount of sympathy that I see recent incidents such as the July 2009 arrest of Professor Gates on the very land he owns as abuses of power by the apparatus of the state. When Officer Crowley responded to a 911 call about a possible break-in by asking him to show photo ID to prove that he owned the house he was presently in, Gates became beligerant and argumentative and was eventually led away in handcuffs by Crowley. Whether or not Officer Crowley arrested Gates because Gates is black is neither here nor there. Gates, who has lived a lifetime of police questioning his very right to have the same freedom of movement as all the white people moving about the United States, simply had had his fill and blew his top. Had I not been ill when prevented by the police from seeing my doctor, I might have had the same reaction. And the last time I checked, blowing your stack isn't a crime. It might be counter productive. It might not be a good idea. In fact, it might even be rightly considered to be stupidity. But it isn't something for which one should be arrested and certainly it isn't something for which someone should be arrested for while standing on one's own property.

Yet, one of the things that gives me hope for America is that the Gates/Crowley affair has blown up into such a media brouhaha resulting in an invitation extended to both men by the president of the United States to share a beer at the White House. Thirty or forty years ago, it probably wouldn't have made the news at all. Fifty or sixty years ago, the unreasonable charges against Gates would probably not have been dropped. Seventy or eighty years ago, Gates probably would have gone to trial, been convicted and served time for the crime of being upset that in his own house, he was asked to prove that he had a right to be there. But this is America. Neither you nor I should have to prove that we have a right to be here, wherever it is that we are. So long as we aren't breaking crimes by our actions, we should be free to live our lives, exercise our freedoms, and pursue our happiness.

[Portions of this essay were adapted from an earlier piece I published on the web as One World Order comes to the Midwest US.]

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