Everyone has to do some serious soul-searching when it comes to dealing with the cops. This is especially true for African-Americans, given that police departments seem to have attracted a disproportionate share of racial bigots to that line of work. But it’s also true for everyone else, given that the police have effectively been given a license to kill citizens with impunity.
No one can escape the possibility of an encounter with the police, especially if driving on streets and highways. As the young black woman Sandra Bland discovered in Texas — indeed, as many drivers have discovered over the years — it’s not difficult for a cop to come up with an excuse for pulling over a driver. In Bland’s case, it was “changing lanes without signaling.” It could just as easily have been “failure to make a complete stop at a stop sign or while turning right at a red light” or “defective taillights” or “speeding” or whatever. In fact, the cop can just make up something if he wants because they all know that most every judge in the land is going to believe a police officer over a citizen.
Even though bigoted cops will never admit it, in the case of African Americans, the real offense is “driving while black” or simply “being black.”
The danger, of course, is that cops are armed and sometimes just having a very bad day emotionally, which means that they are sometimes aching to take out their anxieties on someone else. As we see with the Bland video, policemen oftentimes provoke people into reacting in a negative way and then use that as the excuse for arresting them for “assaulting a police officer” or “resisting arrest.”
The mindset that cops have toward citizens — that they are the masters and we are the servants — clearly poses grave risks to the citizenry. If a person attempts to clarify that it’s the cops who are the servants and the citizens who are the masters, he might well find himself in jail or even dead. Like I say, everyone — but especially African-Americans — has to do some serious soul-searching on how to deal with the cops: Will I assert my rights and demand to be treated with deference and respect or will I keep my mouth shut and submit to abuse, insults, and mistreatment?
Most people are now familiar with the people who are refusing to submit to questions posed by federal officials at U.S. immigration checkpoints on U.S. highways. An entire cottage industry of YouTube videos has developed about these encounters.
There is no question but that these resisters are morally right. Such checkpoints have no place in a free society. They are inherent to totalitarian regimes. I know this from personal experience from having visited Cuba, where the communist regime in that country has the same types of highway checkpoints that the U.S. government has here.
But as some of those videos show, these acts of civil disobedience comes with big risks, including having your car window shattered by immigration gendarmes, thereby exposing yourself to being blinded or cut by flying glass, violently dragged from your car, beaten up, and incarcerated for hours or even days.
Is it worth it? That’s the question that every person must answer as part of his soul-searching exploration.
Permit me to share a personal encounter I had with a cop last October. I was returning from a playoff game between the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants that went 18 innings, which tied a record for the longest postseason game in history. By the time I was driving home, it was about 1:30 in the morning, and I was practically falling asleep at the wheel.
About a half-mile from my home, I noticed a deputy sheriff at a stop sign. The cop turned and came up behind me and then turned on the flashing lights as I was on the crest of a hill about ¼ mile from my house. At that point, the road is four lanes, with no parking lane at all. Moreover, people love to speed on that section of the road and there have been several accidents at the next intersection.
So, I decided to keep driving until I could take a right turn on the first side street, which was in the direction of my house. That took couple of minutes. I kept driving, made the right turn, and then stopped.
The deputy sheriff exited her car and came up to me screaming, “Did you see my flashing lights back there?”
I calmly responded, “Yes.”
She screamed at me again: “Then, why didn’t you pull over when I signaled you to pull over?”
I calmly responded: “I figured it would be safer to drive further and pull over on this side street.”
She screamed, “You pull over when I order you to pull over, do you understand me?”
Now, at this point I had to make a quick decision. Do I tell her, “No, I don’t follow your orders. I answer only to the law”? Or do I defer to her army-like mindset?
I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. It was obvious that the woman was highly agitated and extremely angry. And, of course, I knew that she was armed. I decided simply to respond with “Okay.”
She told me that she had pulled me over because I had been changing lanes without signaling. She asked if I had been drinking and I said no. She asked where I was coming from. Rather than respond, “None of your business,” which I was tempted to do, I said the baseball game.
After checking my license and registration, she said her computer reflected that I had a concealed-carry permit. She asked if I was carrying a weapon. I said, “No.” She then asked if I would give her permission to search my car. I said, “No.”
Well, suddenly, her demeanor changed completely. I don’t know what it was but maybe she figured out that maybe I had saved her life by not parking over the crest of that hill. Maybe it was because she had assumed I had been drinking and realized instead that I was completely sober. Maybe it was because I hadn’t given her any “lip.” Whatever it was, she said, “Mr. Hornberger, you may proceed to your home.” She issued me no ticket and not even a warning.
Did I feel good about being deferential? Nope. The experience was demeaning. As a libertarian, I know the rightful relationship between government officials and citizens is one in which the official is the servant and the citizen is master. But the reality is that we have all been born and raised under a massive welfare-warfare state in which government officials are the masters and we are the serfs. And as part of that system, cops have been inculcated with a mindset that sees citizens in the same way that an army sergeant looks at recruits in boot camp.
That obviously was the mindset of the cop who ordered Sandra Bland to extinguish her cigarette. He expected her to obey his order, just like an army private is expected to obey the orders of his drill sergeant. And like drill sergeants, cops become extremely agitated when their serfs fail to obey their orders. You can also see this phenomenon in the immigration checkpoint videos.
But the question remains: At what point does a person refuse to submit and instead engage in civil disobedience? That’s a question that each person has to answer for himself. The stakes clearly can be very high.
A few years ago, I noticed a young libertarian activist engaged in repeated acts of civil disobedience, getting arrested, prosecuted, and sometimes acquitted. I wrote her and said, Look, you’re fighting them on their terrain. You might beat them from time to time but they are going to wear you down with time, attorney’s fees, and the like. Consider not fighting them on their turf. Fight them on your turf — like with articles, letters to the editor, interviews, Internet blogs, videos, speeches, books, political activity, or even lawsuits. That’s where you can beat them, especially in intellectual matters.
She responded: “That is the soundest advice anyone has ever given me.”
What can people, especially African Americans, do about the cops? Given the fact that the state owns the streets and highways, the state’s traffic cops will continue to wield the power to arbitrarily detain people who are driving by concocting ridiculous or bogus traffic or vehicle violations.
But here is the best thing that people could ever do remove much of the cops’ legal ability to stop and detain people and to infringe on their rights and freedoms: Legalize drugs. The drug war is the bigoted cop’s best friend. It’s also the friend of every cop who loves to lord it over people by stopping, detaining, searching, harassing, haranguing, and arresting them or busting down their doors and shooting them, their family members, or their pets. It also enables the cops to stop innocent people and steal their money under asset-forfeiture laws.
What can people do to end the drug war? Talk it up. Write articles and letters to the editor. Pressure political candidates to end the drug war. Post videos depicting drug-war abuse. Give speeches. Hand out pamphlets. Forward articles to others. Ideas matter. They have power. They can shift the course of a society.
That’s how we have come so far — to the point where the drug war is now teetering. More and more people are coming around to the libertarian view on the drug war. We are getting closer and closer to bringing an end to this deadly and destructive war. Everyone should redouble his efforts to bring this pathetic chapter in American history to a close.
No, ending the drug war will not end bigotry among the police. But it will deprive cops of the legal justification they use to do many of the bad things to people, especially blacks. What better way to rein in the cops than to end the failed, deadly, and destructive war on drugs?
Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.