The Arizona Republic reported back on May 29 that an Arizona State University professor was arrested on the Tempe campus for assault on a university police officer. The incident involved Assistant Professor of English Ersula Ore and the story, apparently based on police offense reports, stated that she was walking down the middle of the street on May 20 and, when stopped for that reason, refused to identify herself and started a fight with the ASU officer that did damage to the police car and led to the professor’s booking for three misdemeanors and a felony. A rational reading of the story would be that the professor was on a drunken rampage, even though no alcohol or drugs were mentioned, because only some sort of impairment would make sense of the report. (You can view the video here.)
There things stood until June 29, when the feminist blog Jezebel acquired a dash cam video of the incident that, at the very least, put things in a radically different light. Ore was stopped for investigation of jaywalking for walking around a sidewalk blocked by construction.
What ASU officer Stewart Ferrin could not have known is that Prof. Ore’s academic specialty is rhetoric with a research interest in critical race theory, which appears in her faculty directory profile as “Race Critical Theory” for reasons unclear. This means she is steeped in a body of research that shows how the fiction of “race” functions to reinforce a power differential between “white” people and others, most of the “others” on the ASU campus being Indian or Hispanic.
While Officer Ferrin could not know that, many of Jezebel’s readers suggested that people who carry weapons in their employment ought to have a handle on how much force is appropriate in a jaywalking case. Partisans on both sides of this peculiar jaywalking incident have lighted up the comments section under the blog. The side that sees racial profiling and police brutality is circulating a petition calling for ASU to drop charges and apologize, and several faculty organizations have demanded an investigation.
Early on, ASU’s position was as cut and dry as the initial report in The Arizona Republic. Since the video kicked over a beehive of criticism, ASU has promised a review by an un-named as yet “outside law-enforcement agency” on the issues of excessive force and “racial motivation by the officers involved.”
Whatever his motivations or his understanding of the need to investigate jaywalking, Officer Ferrin can be heard on the dash cam advising Prof. Ore that it would be a crime for her to refuse to produce identification. That is not precisely so. The Arizona law requires that a person be informed that failure to identify is a crime before it is required, but the requirement is met by truthfully stating one’s name. And it has been clear since the US Supreme Court decided Brown v. Texas in 1979 that the request (or order) to identify must be based on a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. The Arizona law does comply with Brown in requiring a reasonable suspicion.
Jaywalking is criminal and therefore Prof. Ore was obligated to state her name truthfully, which was not exactly what the officer was demanding. Most facts on either side of this incident are balanced by countervailing facts, but in the monumental clash of egos displayed on the dash cam, Arizona law and constitutional law are almost innocent bystanders.
Because Prof. Ore’s academic rank is Assistant Professor, it is unlikely that she is tenured, and her involvement in this controversy can mean that her lack of subservience will cost her not just a trip to jail and a public body slam, but also her job.
Officer Ferrin is unlikely to face any consequences beyond the public embarrassment of having his lack of professionalism and common sense immortalized on the Internnet.