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Healthy protest or dangerous vigilantism?

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

For years sociologists have been studying how public indignation can often morph into mob action. As WHYY’s Chris Satullo remarks in this week’s Center Square, its often too easy to cross the boundary between a healthy protest and dangerous vigilantism.


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You probably heard what went down in Philadelphia’s Kensington section last week. Neighbors’ rage boiled into a street corner beat down of a rape suspect.

Hearing how an 11-year-old girl has been horrifically abused can make people crazy. I get that. But linger, if you will, on one word: Suspect.

It’s scary when people forget the most crucial distinction in all the law: the one between “suspected” and “convicted.”

Take it from a guy who was once, wrongly, a sex crime suspect. Here’s the tale:

In college, during spring break, I had a job back home to Cleveland, delivering license plates. Yep, in those days Ohio made people buy new plates every year – and some folks were happy to pay extra to avoid standing in line.

One day, I was inching along a leafy sidestreet in my red Rambler Rebel (oh, yeah!). My head was on swivel, trying to spot an address.

Next thing I knew, sirens were howling and I was hemmed in by four cop cars.

Questions, the cops had questions: Who was I, what was I doing, why was I driving so slow, where had I been two days before at the same time. On that last one, I had no clue.

Not good. Down to the station I went. Turns out someone who looked like me, driving a red car, had tried to grab and molest a little girl from a grade school near where I’d been nabbed.

They questioned me for hours. Being 19, and thus an idiot, I failed to take my predicament that seriously. This annoyed the cops all the more.

Finally, they took me in for a “lineup.” The local police must have missed their Bill of Rights refresher course that year, because the “lineup” consisted only of lil’ old me standing on this side of the one-way glass, the little girl and her parents on the other.

Staring at the mirror, I finally grasped my predicament. I didn’t look as transparently innocent as I felt. In fact, with my acne, long hair and granny glasses (cut me a break, it was 1973), I looked plausibly guilty. Imagined the parents on the other side of the glass. “Is that him, honey? Is that the bad man who tried to hurt you?”

After an eternity packed into two minutes, the detective sauntered out with a grin. “You’re OK, pal, she didn’t recognize you, you’re free to go.” Free to go. But never free to ignore again what a slim membrane separates the law-abiding life from the nightmare of being tabbed as “the suspect.” It’s simple, really. American works better when justice happens in courtrooms – not on street corners.

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