March 5, 2010

Point–Counterpoint: Civil discourse on an uncivil incident

Columnists debate race, legality, and details surrounding Dawson arrest

» Dear Andrew,

I’m not sure if you went to Tuesday’s open forum regarding the student arrest on the A-level. But if you did, you would have heard Divinity School student Paul Ford say, “I am sick and tired of black students being racially profiled at the University of Chicago by their own police department.”

This is a serious charge to make. In the present case, there is no question that the police officer did not profile Mauriece Dawson. The officer (who is black) was called by a library staff member (who is also black) to remove a student whom she deemed unruly. Now, without knowing all the facts, it seems to me quite unnecessary for the policeman to have put Dawson in a chokehold and placed him under arrest. But this was not profiling, which is when an officer assumes that someone is “suspicious” because of his or her race.

This is not a semantic point. On the issue of race, the worst that the officer can be accused of is giving Dawson harsher treatment because he is black. There is no evidence of that; however, it’s not hard for me to imagine an officer doing the same thing to a white student whom he deemed was “mouthing off.” We’re examining the wrong problem here: It’s not one of racism, but rather of excessive force, and an assumption, it seems, by some officers that “contempt of cop” is an arrest-worthy offense.

Similarly, the library clerk may have been guilty of poor judgment. It seems a lot more likely to me that she held some personal grudge against the specific students. This is not an insignificant personnel problem, but it hardly seems worth extrapolating much further than that.



» Dear Matt,

I guess we’re just two white guys talking about racial profiling. Our ignorance isn’t that bad in this situation, though, since the students’ charges are nothing more than speculation (the officer treated Dawson differently because of his race) or anecdotal (black students were stopped by the police on occasions X, Y, and Z). Without further evidence—e.g., the officer called Dawson an epithet while arresting him; aggregate statistics about profiling and discriminatory treatment—such claims don’t contribute fruitfully to the discussion.

To draw a comparison: If Dawson were speeding and the police had pulled him over, would he have also refused to cooperate on the assumption that racial profiling was involved? After all, giving over his driver’s license isn’t a guarantee that the officer would write a ticket, because the officer perhaps just wants to make sure Dawson has no outstanding warrants. Similarly in the A-level: The UCPD officer may merely have wanted to make sure that Dawson was a student before bringing him upstairs to be lectured by the librarian.

Anyway, why refuse to show identification? Is the cost of cooperating with the police really so great? (Keep in mind you’ve already given up anonymity by swiping your card to gain access.) Would you feel as safe working late in the library if you did not know that there was a staff member making sure that every library patron was actually a student? Even if showing your UCID to staff is some invasion of privacy, isn’t it worth the enhanced security?

Earnestly awaiting your reply,


» Andrew,

I’m genuinely thrilled that we can agree that the argument-by-anecdote that these types of discussions seem to always devolve into is unproductive. I would argue in fact that such arguments are destructive, serving only to further polarize both sides.

Our agreement, I regret to say, ends with your analogy. It is reasonable—so says the Supreme Court and I happen to agree—for a police officer to demand an ID if he has reasonable suspicions of wrongdoing. A traffic stop is an example of this. But if an officer were to ask me for a state-issued ID without stating any cause, then I think I would decline (if I had any guts).

Such a situation is different, though, from one in which a university police officer asks for a university ID on university grounds, which seems quite reasonable. By accepting this ID we agree to present it “on demand,” after all.

Does that mean it’s all Dawson’s fault? No, of course not. What it does mean is that he can perhaps take some responsibility for the situation, without, it’s worth adding, excusing any police misconduct that might have occurred. In other words, I think I agree with you: He should have presented his ID upon the officer’s request.

My guess—and let me emphasize guess—is that Dawson was asked by the police officer to show his ID, and Dawson assumed some sort of racial animus, made this apparent, if not by words, by actions and by tone, and that this set the officer off. This is what, it seems to me, occurred with Henry Louis Gates. Instead of focusing on how to stop all these supposedly racist cops, we need to talk about breaking such a cycle: dropping the assumption of racism and ensuring that police officers don’t criminalize disrespect, perceived or real.



» Dear Matt,

I’m not sure that I understand your point of disagreement about my traffic-stop comparison; it seems to be quite similar to the A-level incident. In both cases, the officer is entitled to quell his suspicion by verifying Dawson’s identity, and my view—albeit layman—is that he doesn’t have a justification to refuse in either case.

Of course, the applicability of my comparison depends on the officer actually requesting Dawson’s identification, admittedly a point of dispute. If the police officer merely ordered Dawson to “come with me,” should he still have refused? Doubtful.

To be frank, I’m embarrassed by several things about this incident: first, that a student thinks that breaking library rules is acceptable because everyone else is; second, that these students refused Ms. Franco’s direction to keep it down, despite her warning of police involvement (Ms. Franco’s explicit warning—supported by witness reports—effectively destroys Dawson’s later claim that he didn’t know why he was being asked to leave); third, that students think they have an inherent right to be in the library regardless of their illicit conduct (Do I have a right to work out at Ratner if I am too loud?); and fourth, that a student would physically resist arrest just because he thought the arrest was unmerited.

Each of these is apparently undisputed by witness reports, and each is contrary to my ideal of intellectualism. There exist grounds for disobeying unjust police requests—most notably, in the course of civil disobedience. Dawson lost whatever moral superiority he had when he resisted this arrest.

A tout à l’heure,


» Andrew,

Fair enough about the analogy. I think looking back, I may have been a bit too nitpicky with it.

I’m surprised, though, that you’ve saved all of your embarrassment for Dawson, and none for the police officer. You ask whether Dawson should have refused the officer’s request to “come with me”; I would ask whether the officer should have declined to answer Dawson’s perfectly reasonable reply: “Why?” (You say that his right to ask why was “destroy[ed]” by the clerk’s warning. I disagree. It’s one thing to be told to quiet down by a library employee; it’s quite another thing to be asked to leave by a police officer.)

I agree that Dawson—like many of us might have—probably didn’t handle the situation perfectly, but you seem to have no anger for the officer, whose job it is to handle such situations. Couldn’t the situation have been avoided if only the officer had been more forthright? Did Dawson’s noise, which by most accounts was not notably loud for the A-level, really merit his removal from the building?

Yes, Dawson shouldn’t have resisted arrest (if indeed it’s true that he did). But should he have been arrested? I think you need to engage that question as well.



» Dear Matt,

The reason the officer’s alleged impropriety doesn’t embarrass me as much is that I am not a fellow UCPD officer, whereas Dawson is my fellow student.

The question “Why [must I leave]?” can be interpreted as either “Under whose authority am I being requested to leave?” or “On what basis am I being asked to leave?” Both answers are obvious: “On the property owner’s authority” and “For refusing to follow library rules.” If Dawson thought discrimination was afoot, he should have simply complied and then filed a complaint of disparate treatment with University administrators ex post.

We don’t know how forthright the officer was in this situation, do we? After all, the UCPD says Dawson was asked for his identification, but witnesses dispute this. Hence, it’s difficult to say whether or not Dawson or the officer acted improperly. My points earlier were based on facts that I thought were undisputed.

Regarding Dawson’s unfortunate arrest, the statute is clear: “A person who knowingly resists or obstructs the performance by one known to the person to be a peace officer . . . of any authorized act within his official capacity commits a Class A misdemeanor” (720 ILCS 5/31-1(a)). So, yes, by refusing the officer’s lawful request that he leave, Dawson should have been arrested.

This has been fun,


— Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology.

Andrew Thornton is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy.