I’ve always been pretty much of a standup, law and order type of guy. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse;” “do the crime, do the time;” and similar sentiments have always rang true to me. For example, the police arrested an acquaintance of mine (let’s call him Pete) for growing pot just outside of his trailer, off of the beaten path, in SW Arkansas. In this example, the police had responded, with the fire department, after Pete reported his trailer on fire. The circumstances didn’t stop the police from hauling Pete off to jail, despite the looks of desperation on the faces of his wife and three preschool aged children… oh, I didn’t yet mention that the date was early December, late in the Reagan administration.
It surprised me that in the aftermath, his (Holiness, “never miss a church service”) mother-in-law argued the position that the particular law in question, as well as its application in this context, seemed too rigid. I argued the position that it wasn’t like he didn’t know that it was illegal to grow pot in his front yard — or that he didn’t know of the associated, potential ramifications. As I look back on it now, however, I wonder if the law, the police, and I should have shown more compassion.
Of course, what happened to Eric Garner served as the catalyst that caused me to remember and consider this true story about Pete. Garner died, earlier this year, after a police officer placed him in a choke hold. Garner had resisted arrest after having engaged in a minor, non-violent offence. Like Garner, Pete had broken the law. Also like Garner, Pete had police officers lay hands on him — even though neither of them possessed a weapon. Fortunately, for Pete and his loved ones, he didn’t resist arrest and he wasn’t subsequently killed in the process.
No doubt exists that resisting arrest can result in violence. Many people in U.S. society don’t have a problem with that. In fact, in his Hit & Run blog, on the Reason.com site (4 December 2014), Jesse Walker stated that “… there are other people out there, crawling through hundreds of comment threads, Facebook debates, and twitter wars, all asking variations of the same question: ‘why didn’t he just submit.'”
In that same article, Walker went on to state that: “there are people who think Eric Garner’s resistance means that he’s to blame for how he died.” Similarly, in a recent online conversation, @StitchJonze suggested that: “… when a suspect resists a lawful arrest, the suspect creates the violence and commits a crime.”
Okay, I get it. Resistance equals violence and requires a “hands-on” response. However, if initial offenses don’t constitute violence, do no alternatives exist whereby society can effectively punish offenders? Does the government really have to arrest, convict, and incarcerate people for having participated in conducting nonviolent crimes?
Reportedly, Eric Garner’s initial “crime” in this case, included selling cigarettes on a street corner. He might thereby have cheated the government out of tax revenue on those cigarettes and brought a small part of the income redistribution machine to a grinding halt. He may also have cheated the nearby shop owners out of sales that they might have otherwise made, had Garner not set up shop on the corner. But, do either of those really require arrest; and if so, where does it end?
If he cheated the government, write him a ticket, summon him to court, give him a fine, and garnish his legitimate wages (or seize his assets); but do not arrest or incarcerate him. Those on the left should see this as a more humane (progressive, intelligent, et al.) way to govern. Those on the right should see this as a more economical (conservative, intelligent, et al.) solution; since incarceration of any given individual typically costs between $50,000 and $100,000 per year.
Additionally, in this case, Garner had only cheated the local shopkeepers and thereby put them at a disadvantage, because they had to charge and pay taxes. If no tax existed on the goods he sold, then the affected shopkeepers could also have sold their goods on the corner, right alongside the entrepreneurial Garner.
On the other hand, when I mentioned a solution similar to this to @StitchJonze, he brought up some great questions, like: (a) what violations would require an arrest and (b) since property crime is typically non-violent, if someone steals your car, should the police use force to affect an arrest?
If the accepted premises include that resistance equals use of force and that minimizing the use of force (by all parties involved) represents a desired outcome; then, for theft (of any amount), a possible solution might include: investigate, indict, send a summons, and try the person (in absentia, if s/he failed to appear). If found guilty, send a punishment summons (or preferably, garnish the person’s property or wages, if possible). However, the failure to appear for punishment would equal resistance, and only then might it prove necessarily to employ the use of force to resolve the given situation.
Would this or some similar plan work? I don’t know. However, I do know that putting people in positions where they feel that they have to resist, whenever they encounter the police will result in more, otherwise unnecessary violence. And don’t think for a moment that this problem won’t eventually affect every “civilian” across the country. As the different levels of government continue to geometrically increase the numbers of activities that they criminalize, people will begin to not even realize when they’ve broken the law (after all, who knew that a game warden could arrest a fisherman using the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or that home schooling parents could have their children taken from them, because of keeping a “messy” home?). When they come for any of us, for violating some obscure, arbitrary regulations, it’ll be too late.
Pete was “lucky.” The judge in his case gave him a five-year sentence, then suspended it. Eric Garner didn’t have that chance.
Originally published in ClashDaily (http://clashdaily.com/2014/12/non-violent-offences-time-change/), 8-Dec-2014.