How do jays walk?

There was a rather wonderful story this week about a British academic being wrestled to the ground by an Atlanta cop for crossing the road in the wrong place.

The bespectacled professor says he didn’t realise the “rather intrusive young man” shouting that he shouldn’t cross there was a policeman. “I thanked him for his advice and went on.”

At this point, some words were exchanged and things got somewhat more physical, with Professor Fernandez-Armesto being handcuffed and taken away, the cops even going so far as to confiscate his box of peppermints, and the good professor spending eight hours in a cell. It’s truly an incident of which P.G.Wodehouse would be proud.

The jaywalking rules, I think, are rather sensible in the context of the grid-like road layout of most American cities, and I flout them only rarely, usually when I’m walking in situations where any sane native would expect to drive, and the road system has been designed accordingly.

But what’s delicious about this story is its revelations about the nature of policing, and the public’s expectations of it in different countries. Having been stopped twice by police in rural parts of the U.S. (for the more serious offence of speeding, I regret to say), I have found them to be polite and professional, and tolerant of batty Englishmen who didn’t know the speed limit on the open road. I have witnessed incidents which suggest that their urban colleagues are rather more hard-line. But at least they were present, visible, and taking action, which is something we could probably do with rather more of here in the UK, where crime rates are generally higher.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto seems, in retrospect, rather to have relished his experience. In a Sunday Times article he says:

… I remain lucky to be in America, in a gloriously liberal university with wonderful students and colleagues. So it grieves me to see the anti-Americanism with which I grew up renewed around the world. In a small way my own story, much to my regret, is reinforcing resentment of America. After being the surprising quarry of the cops, I became the almost equally surprising quarry of the world’s media.

Almost all the reports concentrated on the excesses of police zeal, and dwelt on the crudities and savageries of life in US cities, without mentioning any redeeming features. I would like the world to understand America better, just as I work hard in my classes and my writing to help Americans better understand the world. But the licensed brutality and barbarism of so many security agencies over here — from the Atlanta police upwards — keeps making the task harder.

Will all the outrage my case generated make any difference? I want to think so, but fear the force of official defensiveness, intransigence and incapacity for self-criticism. The mayor of Atlanta has announced an official inquiry into the way I was treated; but inquiries mean delay and delay is the deadliest form of denial. The best way to reassure visitors would be to issue orders to the police, reminding them that visitors may not always know state laws.

See What every Brit should know about jaywalking for more information.

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1 Comment

This is the first that I have ever heard of anyone being arrested for jaywalking; I didn’t even know such a thing was possible (I’m an American). Previous to this piece, Seattle had the strictest jaywalking laws that I’ve come across; in eight years I know two people who have received tickets for jaywalking. Each city has a different balance between pedestrians and traffic, and both parties generally know who has the upper hand. When several dozen pedestrians begin crossing in NYC, cars have to stop, even though the traffic lights give the cars the right of way. In Washington, D.C. pedestrians know that a lot of cars will drive through an intersection while people are crossing. It’s just something to watch for.

Maybe I’ll have to try this “cross wherever I feel like” next time I’m in England.

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