Walking is not a crime

Dwight, IL – Pontiac, IL   19.9 miles

For the second time in my cross-country journey I have found myself interrogated by police simply for being a person with a backpack.

Now I have no problem with a police officer asking me if I am OK. There was just a tornado in Dwight, the location from which I’d come, and certainly there are not a lot of people walking. And I am used to explaining to people that I do not need a ride, that I am intentionally walking. But, I fail to understand how simply walking down Old Route 66 justified the police officer to turn on the squad car’s lights and pull me over.

There is a lot of talk about this being a free country. For sure we have more freedom than most places in this world. Yet, I don’t find it so free to be required to show a police officer identification–and not just show it to them, but to allow them to run your name through their database to ensure you have no outstanding warrants.

Standing on the side of the road, with a thunderstorm approaching in the distance, my options flashed through my mind. I could stand by my morals, refuse on the grounds that it violated my civil rights, and risk arrest, or I could provide my ID and feel like a sellout, but avoid arrest and hopefully stay ahead of the storm. Under similar circumstances in Greensburg, Pa., I allowed myself to be arrested rather than provide police with identification–in that case I refused to tell police my date of birth and was put in the back of a squad car, taken to the police station and charged with disorderly conduct as a result. (And yes, the charge stuck as the judge refused to change the court date to a time I could be present so I was found guilty in absentia.)

In the end I provided my identification but made it more than clear to the officer that I found her request highly objectionable and a violation of my rights. I told her I was only providing my ID, “because you asked nice.”

“I have a right to ask,” the officer said. Her excuse was that a couple weeks earlier a homeless woman had been walking down the road. Apparently the woman had a master’s degree. “I don’t know why she didn’t just get a job in her field,” the officer said.

I don’t know what was most objectionable. It was bad enough that the officer found it OK not only to assume that the homeless woman was guilty of some crime, but that since I was also walking down the road I might be homeless and guilty of some crime. But it was difficult to comprehend how the officer could be so naive about unemployment. I’m quite certain the homeless woman would have loved to get a job in her field–now why didn’t she think of that.

Perhaps the officer was accustomed to only seeing people at their worst. But far too often the poor and the homeless are victims of harassment. A joint report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, found that cities across the country target the homeless by creating laws that make it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, ranging from loitering or eating in public to sitting in certain locations and begging. And apparently walking, if you appear to be homeless that is, could also be a highly suspicious act worthy of police scrutiny. The moral of the story is that, if you are going to be poor or homeless, it’s best to have wheels.

As I continued down Route 66, and the squad car pulled away, I found myself increasingly angry. Never before this journey have I had any such interactions with the police. The police had won today. But I vowed to continue the battle another day.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper