Police are tasked with keeping the peace and safeguarding the rights of citizens. They are public servants, paid by taxpayers, to perform this function. The most fundamental rights granted to American citizens are contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
These are the rights that safeguard all others in a free society. That's why they came First. Forget the guns. The government and its instruments of force, police included, cannot abridge the right of the people to peacefully assemble and petition that same government for a redress of grievances. You might have some rules about permits and locations and all that, but the burden of justification should always fall on the state and its agents when they try to impose limits on speech and assembly. When police work a protest, they are there to keep the peace, but they are also there to ensure American citizens can exercise their constitutional rights in safety.
Here's a 23-year-old man named Gee Jordan, Jr., exercising his constitutional rights in Charleston, South Carolina this week.
Another one. Arrested for speaking and nothing else. pic.twitter.com/h5n4sEcWU5— Ben Taub (@bentaub91) June 2, 2020
This clip has exploded on social media, and with good reason. Jordan posed no threat to anyone. He was unarmed and kneeling. He was not advancing towards police. He was not threatening them. He was not even confronting them, really. He was offering a message of reconciliation, attempting to build bridges of understanding. "I am not your enemy," he told the officers, who were decked out in riot gear and brandishing nightsticks. "All of you are my family." As other protesters gathered around him, offering support, he added: "I love each and every one of you. I want to understand all of you. I want to. I would love to see the best side of everyone here."
So they arrested him. According to the Charleston Post-Dispatch, Jordan spent the night in county jail.
Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds defended this on the basis that protests had been "tense" and a large crowd had been ordered to break up. But the Post-Dispatch brought the receipts.
“We specifically asked for them, numerous times, to disperse,” [Reynolds] said. “We said if you don’t you will be arrested.”
Reynolds did not say why officers seemed to single Jordan out from the crowd. Jordan said he was arrested around 5 p.m., well before Charleston’s 6 p.m. curfew.
He was singled out because he was speaking out. The men in riot gear didn't like it, so they arrested him. What other explanation is there? There were other people in the exact same spot, but they didn't get arrested.
Jordan was crying out for them to hear him, and to respond with something other than force. Any one of these officers could have taken off the gear—or even kept it on—and come over to speak with him about why he'd come to Marion Square on this day, about why his voice cracked with anguish over and over as he described his life in their city. (They could even have offered some explanation of why it was unsafe for protesters to gather here. That assumes, very generously, that they had an explanation.) We have seen that elsewhere, and the outpouring of gratitude from demonstrators has been striking. It is the reaction of someone who feels they're finally, if only for a moment, being heard.
Instead, the officers marched over and put Jordan in handcuffs and threw him in jail, as if to illustrate every damn thing he's talking about. As has been the case so often across America this week, police responded to criticism of how they do the job by instantly validating that criticism. They did not prioritize his right to peaceful protest, and his was the very definition of the term. The chief had the nerve to suggest to the Post-Dispatch that, in the paper's words, the officers were "on high alert Sunday after a night of unrest Saturday, which included fires and looting," as if this has anything to do with Jordan, and as if that excuses this complete failure to do the job properly.
It's not groundbreaking to point out this would not have happened if Jordan were white. It did not happen to the white protesters kneeling right next to him, but more to the point, it didn't happen to gun-toting white protesters at a state legislature last month. But more than that, this is a statement on citizenship in America—namely, that white Americans have full citizenship, and black Americans do not. Jordan's constitutional right to speak freely and demand a redress of his grievances from the government was functionally nonexistent here. The instruments of that government's power decided he did not have these rights, but it cannot be their decision to make any longer.
You Might Also Like