Updated Feb 12th, 2016
Originally posted on Evernote. (We reposted it here because you need to register on Evernote to read it)
This afternoon I received yet another call from a media outlet. This one was from a reporter who stated “The Prosecutor’s Office says you didn’t show up for a meeting on Wednesday and that they will close the investigation into your arrest if you don’t reschedule in the near future.”
My first response was to be upset. I wasn’t a no show! I’d called and asked to postpone the meeting Although I honestly can’t be certain that this information was communicated to me correctly, it felt like yet another effort to discredit me. Then I thought to myself: That’s ok, I’m fine with the investigation being closed. So be it. That wasn’t the point anyway.
I shared several tweets about my experience being arrested last week. The arresting officer told me he was arresting me for a three year old parking ticket. I am an African American female professor at Princeton. As a result, the episode soon spiraled into a media event, which I attempted to avoid engaging at every turn. So I wrote a public statement rather than accepting the countless requests for interviews. And yet the stories kept growing far beyond my intention or message. I tried to respond here and there. However, I want to return to the two major points of the statement I wrote as I end my discussion of this event. They are:
1. I do not believe municipalities should generate revenue by using the police power to arrest. Taxes and fines should not be executed through physical coercion. As the justice department challenges Ferguson, Missouri to cease such practices– ones that create modern day debtors prisons in poor communities– it is worthwhile to raise questions about the practice generally, including in affluent suburbs.
2. I was terrified when I was pulled over, and then when I was arrested, because in this country police practices are racially discriminatory. There is a mountain of research to support this assertion. It isn’t up for debate. Moreover, over the past year and a half as a nation we have watched the footage of multiple deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police officers. The majority of the time there is no remedy for these deaths. This effectively grants police the authority to act with impunity. It may be hard to imagine for people who are not Black and/or Latinx, but this social reality produces terror for many of us when we encounter police officers, regardless of how they behave.
While I disagree with a number of the statements made by the Princeton Police about what transpired, and the video footage that the police chose to share with the general public failed to show most of what I objected to, a dispute over details is a distraction from the focus I have had from the start. I am removing myself from all engagements that sustain that distraction. Additionally, the officers have emphasized that their actions were consistent with standard protocol. But I don’t disagree with them on that point. I never did.
My point is this: regardless of whether it is consistent with standard procedure and protocol, I should not have been handcuffed to a table for a parking ticket. Moreover, if it were five parking tickets I should not have been handcuffed to a table. A parking ticket is not an indication that a person poses a physical threat. The “pat down” for weapons that I experienced at the hands of a male officer also did not make sense as I did not pose a physical threat and I was not stopped on suspicion of posing a violent threat to anyone.
And here is the point that goes far beyond my story: Perhaps if police officers were not authorized and encouraged to arrest people for small violations then Eric Garner and Sandra Bland would still be alive. The fact that state legislatures and municipalities and even many citizens approve of these forms of arrest acceptable does not mean they are wise. The evidence to the contrary is readily apparent. We must ask: Does selling loose cigarettes warrant a death sentence? What about a moving violation?
Procedures and protocols are tools not gospel. Their value is not an abstraction. Their value is only realized by virtue of what they can produce. It is not enough for something to be “the rule” for it to be counted as morally right or consistent with democratic principles. It was once against the law for my ancestors to read, to own property, to sit in the front of the bus. Hence, rules must be evaluated as to whether they meet standards of justice. Warrants for parking tickets do not meet such standards.
We have evidence that warrants for violations are issued across the country in racially discriminatory fashion. This makes it even worse: it is both unjust and unjustly applied. Note: I have never said that in my case that there was necessarily racial bias at work. I could not possibly know whether that was at issue. But I do know that I belong to the racial group to which this happens more frequently than any other.
Moreover, as a consequence of the attention my words received in the media I have been subject to hundreds upon hundreds of racial slurs, gender slurs, threats and insults on social media, by telephone, on conservative blogs, and via email. I have witnessed this happen previously to social justice activists and public intellectual. Sadly I’m sure I will witness this happen to many others in the future. The far right cyber-mob follows a choreography of obsessive attack that steadily moves from one target to another. And while we have a rather robust conversation about bullying when it comes to children, the concerted bullying efforts engaged in by members of the far right goes generally unchecked in our public sphere. While their actions might formally be consistent with principles of free speech, they are completely inconsistent with the ideal of open and healthy political discourse. Instead their actions chill speech.
I titled this note “The End” because I do not intend to speak on this incident in public any longer. In the past several days I have found myself hampered in my regular political and intellectual engagements as a result of the public focus on this incident and in particular the focus on me. This is not an orientation I embrace. I’m a thinker and a writer, not a celebrity.But, at the risk of sounding like I’m giving an awards speech I do want to thank some people. I want to thank the Princeton University community, and in particular the extraordinary faculty and staff of the Department of African American Studies, President Eisgruber, Dean Prentice, my amazing past and present students, and the many colleagues and University staff who offered words and deeds of support and circled me with protection. In addition, I was sustained by the supportive letters and notes of hundreds of professors at other universities as well as many activists, writers, lawyers, artists, members of my various communities, as well as friends and family.
I also want to thank members of the Princeton Township and broader Central New Jersey community who shared stories of similar circumstances to mine with different outcomes, as well as observations of racial disparities in policing.
But I especially want to say a word for the dozens of people who sent me their stories of being arrested. Many people shared that they were afraid or ashamed to tell others what happened. I do not blame them. I thank them for entrusting me with their vulnerability and for simply saying “I’ve been there too and I felt the same way.”