“Do you think this is the first 6-year-old we've arrested?”
This comment by Avon Park, Florida Police Chief Frank Mercurio to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert easily qualifies as the pull-quote of the day, perhaps of the month. Chief Mercurio was justifying the arrest -- complete with handcuffing, fingerprinting, and a mug-shot – of Desre'e Watson, who was eventually charged with a felony (as well as a few misdemeanors) after disturbing her kindergarten class.
“The student became violent,” Mercurio told Herbert. “She was yelling, screaming – just being uncontrollable. Defiant.” Herbert recalls wondering if he'd somehow materialized inside a “Saturday Night Live” sketch (during one of its better years – say, circa 1981) as Mercurio explained the mechanics of applying police restraints to a tiny child: “You can't handcuff them on their wrists because their wrists are too small, so you have to handcuff them up by their biceps.”
I fully expect that someone in the large and growing community of police state profiteers will recognize this market lacuna and produce a line of Kiddie-Cuffs (tm) – perhaps in an assortment of bright, cheerful colors. The incident involving Desre'e Watson isn't unique, after all.
Last week, 13-year-old Brooklyn middle school student Chelsea Fraser was arrested and dragged away in handcuffs for the purported crime of writing “OK” on her desk. She was seized by four police officers, made to remove her belt, cuffed behind her back, and frog-marched out of the school in front of her friends. Three other students, all boys, were arrested the same day and charged with criminal vandalism for plastering the classroom wall with stickers.
Even if one assumes that the boys were out of control, it seems more than a bit disproportionate to handcuff a student for writing on her desk
Chelsea was taken to the local Precinct station house and detained for three hours, spending most of that time handcuffed to a pole.
Roughly a month ago, seven-year-old Baltimore resident Gerard Mungo Jr. was sitting on his dirt bike (with the motor off) on a sidewalk waiting for his father to come home. He was causing no harm and doing nothing to disrupt the neighborhood. Unfortunately, a policeman wandered by and, faster than you can say “Candygram for Mungo!” the officer grabbed the child by the neck and pulled him off the bike. The seven-year-old was handcuffed and taken downtown for fingerprinting and a mug shot. He was reportedly handcuffed to a bench for two hours.
Despite the fact that the bike's motor wasn't running, Gerard was charged with operating a dirt bike on the city sidewalks.
A few days after Gerard's arrest, which quickly became a huge local scandal, police arrested his mother, Lakisa Dinkins. Following her son's ordeal, Dinkins vehemently criticized the police in media interviews and began to organize protest rallies. After a rally held the Saturday following Gerard's arrest, Dinkins was visiting her sister's home when her 18-year-old nephew, in a panic, bolted into the house, claiming that he was being chased by a robber.
The armed man turned out to be an undercover narcotics officer, who – with a partner's help – forced his way into the house. One officer held a gun to the head of Dinkins' older son, who is 14. Per her account, Dinkins was seized and arrested once she was identified as Gerard's mother: "I told him to get his hands off.... Once they realized who I was, they took action."
Although the police claimed to have seen Dinkins' nephew participating in a drug deal, no drugs were found in the house – and she was the only one arrested. She was released shortly thereafter, and prosecutors determined that the alleged drug offense had been “abated by arrest,” reported police spokesman Matt Jablow. This means, as the Baltimore Sun helpfully notes, that “police had probable cause to arrest her but that no more jail time was warranted.”
A more honest rendering would be this: Dinkins was arrested and detained for no reason, most likely as an act of petty retaliation for criticizing the police.
How did we become a country in which it's becoming common to treat misbehaving children as if they were hardcore offenders? One reason, I suspect, is the “Overkill” mentality now common to law enforcement, a side-effect of militarizing the police: Much of the rising generation of law enforcement officers see the civilian population as an enemy to be subdued, as opposed to fellow citizens whose rights are to be respected and protected.
A related factor is an attitude displayed to me during an interview with influential criminologist Gene Stephens of the University of South Carolina more than a decade ago.
Stephens, who has been active in the World Future Society, has also helped train both federal and local law enforcement. Speaking to me shortly after the 1994 congressional election, which was seen (incorrectly, alas) as a repudiation of big, intrusive government, he explained to me that the roots of our society's crime problem are found in our cultural antipathy to authority: We don't like having the government tell us what to do, which means that we're all criminals.
“It's not a question of `us versus them'; it's us -- we're all criminals,” Stephens told me. This is because "of the way in which people are socialized in this country. The rite of passage for an adolescent is to break the law, or defy authority. As the last election shows, we don't like government, we don't like authority, and we don't like being told what to do."
There is, of course, a vast and important difference between authority – limited, delegated, revocable power granted for specific purposes – and power; as a statist, Stephens either ignores or simply cannot understand that critical distinction. And any American worthy of the name is going to rebel when government claims the power to tell us “what to do,” since our entire system is based on exactly the opposite premise.
Of course, I could be wrong. There could be some gnostic, cryptic subtext to phrases such as “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it....”
Incidents of the sort recounted above illustrate convincingly that the powers of State coercion are in the hands of people who are not only ignorant but contemptuous of the principles explained in the letter our ancestors sent to King George III in July 1776. Their role, as they see it, is to tell us “what to do,” and make us do it, using whatever force may be necessary – even when it is deployed pitilessly against puzzled and terrified six-year-old children.
In case anyone's interested, you can read the arrest report here.