EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is adapted from A Colony in a Nation (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).
When a cop tells you to do something, do it. You hear this folk wisdom a lot, and it basically comes in two varieties. The first version is the central lesson of “the Talk” that so many African-American parents give their children about how to survive a police encounter: Keep your hands on the wheel. Don’t make sudden movements. Say “Yes, officer. No, officer.”
The other version isn’t merely practical advice but reflects a deeper belief about the sanctity of police authority. It’s what lies behind the question you so often hear: Why didn’t she just do what the cop said? That inquiry comes unbidden every time an incident of police violence is captured on video. Even when the citizen in question is, say, a 16-year-old foster child sitting at her desk in her classroom in Columbia, South Carolina, refusing to leave, only to be body-slammed and dragged across the room. Why didn’t she just comply? None of this would have happened if she’d just listened.
Section 29-16(1) of the municipal code of the city of Ferguson, Missouri, codifies this principle. It is a crime to “[f]ail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties.” As the Department of Justice would later show, the police much abuse this statute. Ferguson cops routinely issue orders that have no legal basis and then arrest citizens who refuse those orders for “failure to comply.” It’s a neat little circular bit of authoritarian reasoning.
One video captured during the Ferguson protests in August 2014 encapsulates the absurdity of this abuse of police power. In it, Ferguson police order protesters who are standing in their own yards to go back inside their homes. When they refuse to comply, the police shoot tear gas at them, as one of the men protesting shouts, “This is my backyard! This is our home! This is our residence!”
Can the police do this? Don’t you have a right to stand in your own yard? Thirteen years before the Declaration of Independence, British member of Parliament William Pitt defended the rights of Englishmen to privacy in their own home. He declared: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter—all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”
The events on the streets of Ferguson in the days after Michael Brown’s death didn’t outrage black people alone—they spooked people of all races. People who’d never had occasion to personally distrust the police wondered what the hell weapons of war were doing on the streets of this small St. Louis suburb. Politicians from both parties raised their voices to express concern, and to urge restraint, as the nightly news carried images of the kinds of disorder—tear gas, riot gear, clashes with police—that we normally associate with countries where the government sends in armed troops to put down dissidents, or where the possibility of all-out war does not seem remote.