I don’t give activists unsolicited advice, except: don’t talk to the police

I have previously criticized universities and news outlets for their handling of racism on and around campus (and sexual assault, too). But I’m not in the business of giving activists advice. So I’m speaking out of turn on one side point here, to recommend: don’t talk to the police. (Nothing personal.)

The campus police at UW have released body camera video of them escorting a student from class and arresting him for allegedly spray-painting anti-racist graffiti. (For critical commentary on this situation, here’s a statement from faculty at staff, including a bunch of sociologists; and a letter of support for students from the faculty and staff in Afro-American studies.) Several things are disturbing about this; I’d like to call attention to the conversation. Here’s the video, with my comment below:

(Other videos from the police department, showing other parts of their interactions, are here.)

I have no idea whether this man has broken any laws, and know nothing about his motivations. I’m also not against spray-painting statements in public spaces in all cases; it may be effective and justified, for example in this case at the University of North Carolina:


Sometimes good people do illegal things, for good reasons, and we shouldn’t be surprised when activists get arrested for it. But that’s not relevant to this point, which is just that there is no good reason to talk to the police in a situation like this — at least no good legal reason (there may be good political or other reasons).

From the moment the cop says this (at 1:00), he’s lying continuously:

Alright, man, here’s what’s going on today. We have some information… Is it you, or is it somebody else, because I have information, I just want to get your side of the story…

This is such a generic statement that there’s no need to consider the facts of this situation. He does not want to get your side of the story, he wants to arrest you and make it easy for a prosecutor to get a conviction in his case. This is the clearest real-life example I can remember of this crucial lesson: don’t talk to the police. This is not unique to activists, everyone should know this.

If you aren’t one of the 6 million people who’s watched it already, I highly recommend this video (especially if you, like many activists, are at heightened risk of arrest and prosecution).

Of course, standing up to a trained, armed, police officer who has done this many times is difficult, and I assume I would blow it (again), but I think the more you prepare yourself for the possibility the more likely you are to pull it off.

7 thoughts on “I don’t give activists unsolicited advice, except: don’t talk to the police

  1. “I’m also not against spray-painting statements in public spaces in all cases; it may be effective and justified”
    Who should judge whether such spray-painting is justified? What if those would be republican activists spray-painting some slogans you disapprove?


  2. “He does not want to get your side of the story, he wants to arrest you and make it easy for a prosecutor to get a conviction in his case.”

    Well, not knowing precisely what information the officer actually has I’m not sure that statement is entirely fair. The officer does want to get the man to talk. Getting the man to talk will provide information of some value (either to build a case with this person or to spotlight other people of interest). I mention this because these tactics are often the *only* way investigators can get reluctant witnesses to talk. Why should a good liberal care? See Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside for a compelling answer.

    This does not invalidate your broader point which is that this man had no business talking to the police. These officers immediately pulled some power moves. “Get your hands out of your pockets!” Why? “For our safety”. [he should have rolled his eyes at that]. That tactic is designed to initiate and sustain compliance. The officer’s refusal to return the ID was also a power move. He had no legal justification for doing so. The ID confirmed details which the officer could have easily written down. By not returning the ID he was trying to get the gentleman to come back to the department where they would have even more leverage. These moves worked, insofar as the young man followed them outside and kept talking to them.

    From a legal & situational point of view, he should have asked if he was under arrest. Most officers will respond with some sort of delaying tactic, trying to get the person of interest to keep talking… “no, do you want to be?”. The answer should be: “Am I free to go?”* and/or “Am I under arrest?” Don’t engage in any further dialog. Just repeat those questions and respectfully comply with any reasonable request (keep your hands out of your pockets if they’ve asked you to do so. Give them your ID if they ask for it, etc). But don’t just go with them. This would have clarified the interaction context and either allowed him to go back to class, or allowed him to invoke his rights under the 5th and 6th amendments ( i.e., to speak with counsel before answering any further questions). His rhetoric about being a captive, etc, while possibly true was not helpful to him in this situation and actually worked against him.

    *If you are not free to go, for all intents and purposes you are under arrest and the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments apply (i.e., the police must demonstrate probable cause, you have a right to remain silent, and you have a right to consult with an attorney before making any statements).

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