Strip Searched for Jaywalking

The strange way we justify harming others for "law and order."

Posted Feb 24, 2014

I was glad to see that the video of an arrest of a University of Texas student, out on a jog, had gone viral. This, to me, means that most people still aren't in agreement with what I'd estimate to be about 15% of the commentators on the arrest. For 85% of us the video is disturbing.

For about 15%, however, it is not. It seems like 15% of commentators are like the people you meet in life who think that anyone arrested by police deserved it. They think what is depicted above is perfectly appropriate, and that we need a society in which a young woman out jogging can be grabbed from behind and put in handcuffs for a charge she doesn't understand. Then four officers, safe from her now that they've cuffed her hands behind her back, should shove her into their car and take her to jail (for jaywalking or for not producing ID, it doesn't seem to matter to the commentators).

The Supreme Court, of course, decided that we can all be strip searched while being processed for jail, so she very likely had that experience, too. I imagine the 15% are fine with that. Her fingerprints will be on record now, she has a mugshot. And according to research gathered in a forthcoming book by Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver, we can anticipate she'll likely have some resentment towards, well, the rest of us.

"Punishment and surveillance by itself causes people to withdraw from political participation — acts of engagement like voting or political activism. In fact, the effect on political participation of having been in jail or prison dwarfs other known factors affecting political participation, such as the impact of having a college-educated parent, being in the military or being in poverty." (This quotation is from a recent Op-Ed by Jason Stanley and Velsa Weaver in the NYTimes)

As a colleague put it, if this can happen to a young, pretty, white college student who is clearly just exercising, it can happen to any of us.

And yet the 15% who support these types of societal tactics for control must have a reason for wanting this.

It can't be protection of the young woman, of course. She had it coming, as they colorfully explain. ("It" being punishment not protection.) She's called an idiot a lot. One commentator said she could only be screaming like that because she had something to hide. On even the feminist website Jezebel commentators are writing they have no "empathy" for her because of her "horrendously obnoxious and belligerant wailing." Another commentator on that site says she seems like an "asshole," and blames her for overreacting. 

Commentators on more standard news sites are writing "the law is the law" (what law it is that explains her treatment—jaywalking or a requirement to identify—is almost always left unclear).

But are people thinking these views through?

As is also making the news, the Austin Police Chief said he would have been tougher on the young woman and that we should count ourselves lucky that she wasn't sexually assaulted by the officers. (His words were: "She’s lucky I wasn’t the arresting officer, because I wouldn’t have been as generous. … In other cities there’s cops who are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas." ) He later said he merely meant to put this woman's arrest "in context" by suggesting that other jurisdictions have assaulted women they arrest.

Ask yourself: How was the young woman to know Austin is unusual in not having this problem?

On police news sites like this one, you get similarly explicit suggestions. One person wrote he would have just searched her for two hours and then let her go. Another person on the site wrote this:

"If you zoom in real close, you can see the officers pulling the silver spoon out of her ass!"

As an ethicist, I'm usually tasked with finding the rationales people have for various wishes. The officers on that site are making their interests very, very clear. But I am stuck on the case of the 15%. I'm assuming they are just members of the public, commenting on a story. They don't just want young university students to be treated this roughly, but anyone who jaywalks, so I don't think sexual titilation or silver spoons are their motivation. I also don't think it is a matter of "well, it happened to me so why not to her," because (correct me if I'm wrong) those who have been manhandled by police do not regard it lightly or with bravado. 

So why would anyone wish to see this student treated this way?

Is it for the good of society? Is it because jaywalking is so harmful? The UK has not made jaywalking illegal and has far fewer pedestrian deaths, so it seems like there's no good data on the impact of our laws (let alone police approaching enforcement the way they do here).

I also think most people are "guilty" of having jaywalked. I am nearly certain this must be true of anyone who has spent some time in a city. (If I am wrong let me know.) So here is where, ethically, I get confused. Who wants someone else to suffer humiliation and life-long consequences for behavior they themselves have engaged in? What motivates the wish to punish this student? To pluck her out of society, strip her naked, and give her a record, when she has done nothing that has harmed anyone?

She's violated people's desire for order or the submission and control of others, is the best I can guess. But can I understand this desire? No, I can't.

I try to pay attention when philosophy fails me and I need the help of someone who does research in psychology. I figure this is clearly one such case. Any help appreciated.