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Disorderly Conduct: Conversation About Gates Arrest Precedes Arrest

First Posted: 08/29/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:45 PM ET

Pepin

A lawyer who moments earlier had been complaining to friends about police overreaction in the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., got a taste of the Gates treatment himself after loudly chanting "I hate the police" near a traffic stop in Northwest Washington, D.C.

Pepin Tuma, 33, was walking with two friends along Washington's hip U Street corridor around midnight Saturday, complaining about how Gates had been rousted from his home for not showing a proper amount of deference to a cop. "We'd been talking about it all day," said Tuma. "It seems like police have a tendency to act overly aggressively when they're being pushed around," Tuma recalled saying.

Then the group noticed five or six police cruisers surrounding two cars in an apparent traffic stop on the other side of the street. It seemed to Tuma that was more cops than necessary.

"That's why I hate the police," Tuma said. He told the Huffington Post that in a loud sing-song voice, he then chanted, "I hate the police, I hate the police."

One officer reacted strongly to Tuma's song. "Hey! Hey! Who do you think you're talking to?" Tuma recalled the officer shouting as he strode across an intersection to where Tuma was standing. "Who do you think you are to think you can talk to a police officer like that?" the police officer said, according to Luke Platzer, 30, one of Tuma's companions.

Tuma said he responded, "It is not illegal to say I hate the police. It's not illegal to express my opinion walking down the street."

According to Tuma and Platzer, the officer pushed Tuma against an electric utility box, continuing to ask who he thought he was and to say he couldn't talk to police like that.

"I didn't curse," Tuma said. "I asked, am I being arrested? Why am I being arrested?"

Within minutes, the officer had cuffed Tuma. The charge: disorderly conduct -- just like Gates, who was arrested after police responded to a report of a possible break-in at his home and Gates protested their ensuing behavior.

D.C.'s disorderly conduct statute bars citizens from breaching the peace by doing anything "in such a manner as to annoy, disturb, interfere with, obstruct, or be offensive to others" or by shouting or making noise "either outside or inside a building during the nighttime to the annoyance or disturbance of any considerable number of persons."

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has said that the city's disorderly conduct law is "confusing, overbroad, frequently used by police to harass disfavored individuals" and that it "violates constitutional rights of free speech, assembly and petition."

Tuma spent a few hours in a holding cell and was released early Sunday morning after forfeiting $35 in collateral to the police, he said. A "post and forfeit" is not an admission of guilt, and Tuma doesn't have a court date -- but the arrest will pop up if an employer does a background check.

Tuma filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, alleging a lack of probable cause, a false arrest, and that the officer used harassing and demeaning language -- Tuma alleges the officer called him a "faggot." Tuma has retained a lawyer. He might sue if he's not satisfied after a meeting with the complaint office on Thursday.

"I have an actionable claim," he said.

The Huffington Post obtained a copy of the collateral/bond receipt that lists the charge, but the D.C. Police Department declined to comment and the arresting officer did not answer or return calls to the station.

While the Gates incident has largely been treated as a story about race, many have noted, from the Los Angeles Times to Christopher Hitchens to Maureen Dowd, that the incident said as much about police use of disorderly conduct laws. Tuma agrees.

"People talk about the Gates thing in terms of race, but it's an ongoing problem of police using disorderly conduct to shut people up," Tuma said.

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