On the evening of May 21, a professor at Arizona State University, Ersula Ore, was walking in the campus area. She was approached by a university police officer, Stewart Ferrin, who stopped Ore and demanded to see her identification. She refused, and after numerous requests and warnings the officer handcuffed her and attempted to take Ore into custody. She allegedly resisted arrest and assaulted the police officer. At least that is how the story was reported.
At the time Professor Ore insisted that there was much more that happened that evening, but her story was not taken seriously and certainly it appeared nowhere on the news. But just a few days ago a Phoenix television channel released a video of the incident that appears to back up Ore's story in essential ways and also offers a unique and vivid sense of the mood and tone of that confrontation.
The video seems to corroborate much of Ore's story. One portion of the exchange between her and the officer is recorded thus:
"Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID," Ferrin says.
"Are you serious?" Ore asks.
"Yes, I am serious. That is the law," Ferrin replies.
"I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. Everybody has been doing this because it is all obstructed. That's the reason why," Ore says to the officer. "But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over and ask me, 'Do you know what this is? This is a street.' "
"Are you aware that this is a street?" Ferrin asked.
"Let me finish," Ore said.
"OK, put your hands behind your back," Ferrin said.
"Don't touch me," Ore said. "Get your hands off me."
He then warns her will be slam her against the car; she calls to his attention the fact that she is wearing a skirt and that this will expose her, but he proceeds anyway, throwing her to the ground. He then pulls her up and starts to touch her leg, at which point she kicks out at him.
As reported in the 3TV story, Ore's attorney, Alane Roby, says Ore is claiming self-defense.
"She was exposed, told officer she was exposed," Roby said of her client while she was on the ground. "Her dress was up; the officer was reaching toward her anatomy. She felt uncomfortable with hands going there."
The police report acknowledges that Ore was following instructions set forth by the construction signs. So what is the problem? It appears clear from the video that Ore is in no way acting oddly; it appears clear that, as she says, others are doing exactly as she is doing. It also appears clear that she is civil and communicative with the officer, if frustrated and getting increasingly so. But what she says falls within the realm of what many of us in similar circumstances might say or indeed may have said at some point in our lives. In any case her behavior does not seem in any way threatening. Especially important is that Ore even seems to warn Ferrin that he will embarrass them both if he tries to subdue her in the way he is threatening to do, as she is wearing a skirt. He ignores that warning, and what follows is clear on the video.
All of this would be bad enough were it not for the remarkable statement issued by Arizona State University as its response to the events. It reads, in its entirety:
"ASU authorities have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved. Should such evidence be discovered, an additional, thorough inquiry will be conducted and appropriate actions taken."
"Because the underlying criminal charges are pending, there is not much more we can say at this time. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has reviewed all available evidence, including the police report, witness statements, and audio and video recordings of the incident, and decided to press criminal charges of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, refusing to provide identification when requested to do so by an officer, and obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare."
Let's take a moment to unpack this. First, its blanket exculpation of the officer for any "inappropriate actions," none whatsoever. But here's where it gets incredible. "If" new evidence is discovered, "an additional, thorough inquiry will be conducted." ASU is saying that the first inquiry was thorough. Yet if new evidence is "discovered," ASU will once again do a "thorough inquiry." So its investigation is at once both thorough but may be proven to be less than thorough, and which point "another" thorough investigation will be launched.
But more important than this twisted logic, let's look at another leap of faith ASU is asking us to take. Consider the curious way the university has decided to list the sequence of events -- exactly in reverse order of what happened. This suggests that ASU reached its "conclusion" first. It matters not what the actual course of events was.
Look at the actual sequence. The public thoroughfare was already obstructed by the construction. This is a point graphically illustrated on the Facebook site Ore's supporters have set up. On it one can find photographs of the area in question, showing construction and detour signs.
Ore did exactly as instructed by the signage, which directed traffic away from the obstruction. Second, an officer may request identification but is it really the case that he or she is not required to explain why? But more to the point -- why stop Ore at all? She was not lingering in the street, and if public safety were the officer's main concern he could have simply asked her to move in a direction that was to his judgment safer. Furthermore, why stop her and no one else?
The video then shows her querying the cause for his demand, since she cannot imagine what she is doing wrong. She is incredulous that he would simply bypass that legitimate question, as if she presented an immediate danger and taking the time to answer it would present a problem. She asks him repeatedly to hear her out. It becomes clear that what is most troubling to the officer is that his authority to act any way he pleases is being questioned by someone he has no respect for. His response is to act with force and violence. And yet it is Ore who is charged with assault.
Academics are notorious for asking troublesome questions of police officers. Especially those who study race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Who does not recall the famous case of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was accosted at his Cambridge residence, asked to identify himself, and then arrested?
We all remember how that one ended up, over beers at the White House with the arresting officer and President Barack Obama. Let's see if the White House makes a call to Professor Ore. Somehow I doubt it -- ASU is not Harvard, Ore is not a prominent and well-connected African American intellectual with a huge power base. To get her story out requires grassroots organizing. And it's working.
One group, Arizona Critical Ethnic Studies has taken the lead. The statement published on their website has been shared widely and reached 35,000 people on Facebook within two days. As of the morning of June 29, seven other organizations have cosigned, including the National Council of Teachers of English/Conference on College Composition and Communication Latino Caucus and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association Working Committee, with many others in the works. Along with this action, a Moveon petition was started by Professor David Ikard independently, amassing more than 3,000 signatures within a day
AZCES gave me this statement for inclusion in this blog:
"Campus policing across the nation is becoming increasingly punitive, as evidenced most recently in Arizona, a state well-known for its use of racial profiling. As ethnic studies faculty and scholars from across the state, we are especially concerned about institutional accountability for campus law enforcement policies and practices regarding racial profiling and use of force. We are troubled by the ASU administration's response to this incident and we have asked for a full investigation into the details of the arrest that led to Dr. Ore's charges, and for detailed information about how ASU police officers are trained and held accountable for protecting the rights and dignity of every member of the ASU community. We released a statement to the public outlining our concerns and sent it to the offices of the ASU President and Provost. Since the release, we have received a tremendous response from individuals and organizations across the country expressing concern for Dr. Ore and support for our statement. So far, we have received no response from ASU administrators. As we await ASU's official response to our call for a thorough investigation into this matter, we will continue to bring visibility to this incident and demand that the University is accountable for the conduct of its police force."
Ironically, in a state where studies in race and ethnicity have been under attack and rooted out of school curricula, this case and the work of AZCES show how much learning about the dynamics of race is crucial to our understanding of the United States. From this we also can appreciate just how much grassroots activism, complemented by social media, is necessary to secure any semblance of social justice.