Column, 690 words

Breathing While Black

Strip searches are now legal after arrests for violating leash laws or riding a bicycle without an audible bell.

Donald Kaul

The radical conservative majority of the Supreme Court delivered yet another bizarre opinion the other week.

It ruled that police and jail officials can strip search anyone arrested for anything, no matter how minor the violation or how upstanding the suspect.

In doing so it agreed with the rulings of lower courts that have found strip searches legal after arrests for violating leash laws, driving without a license, falling behind in child support payments, failing to use a turn signal, or (my favorite) riding a bicycle without an audible bell.

Are these guys nuts?

Crime Watch, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Crime Watch, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

The case that triggered the ruling involved a man who was a passenger in a car stopped for speeding. A background check revealed an unpaid fine on his record, so the cops took him to jail and forced him to take off his clothes, bend over, and the rest of it.

He spent the better part of the following week in jails, where he was strip-searched again, before police discovered that their information was wrong, that he’d long since paid the fine.

That was fine with the Four Horsemen (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) and their faithful companion Anthony Kennedy. Apparently, you can’t be too careful. That seems to be the paranoid Right’s mantra.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Albert Florence, the guy arrested — a finance manager for a New Jersey car dealership — was black?

The Court didn’t seem to mention it either. It acted as though it hadn’t mattered. I’ve got news for them.

Being black in this society always matters. Always.

I’ve been driving for some 60 years and I’ve never been pulled over by police in a random check. It happens to black men all the time, particularly to those who commit the crime of driving a nice car. To be black in our society excites the presumption of guilt.

Some people are still arguing over whether the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin had something to do with his race.

We’ll never know what actually happened that February night in Sanford, Florida. We have the version of the shooter, George Zimmerman, who was finally jailed more than six weeks after the bullets went off. But Martin is, well…dead.

I must say, Zimmerman’s story seems far-fetched. He asks us to believe that his sense of duty as a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch guard prompted him to follow Martin and confront him, despite a warning from a 911 dispatcher not to.

Then, he says, Martin jumped him as he was walking away, causing him to fear for his life. So he shot the kid. In self-defense.

That sounds like a dog-ate-my-homework alibi if I ever heard one. Martin was a tall, skinny 17-year-old. Zimmerman’s a 28-year-old man on the stocky side.

I don’t know how it was in your neighborhood growing up, but in mine, tall skinny kids didn’t go around committing unprovoked assaults on older, heavier guys. It just didn’t happen.

Following the Feb. 26 shooting, the Sanford police released Zimmerman on the grounds that he was protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people who feel threatened to shoot their assailants. That’s where racism really begins to rear its unlovely head.

Had the young black man been armed and, feeling threatened, turned and shot this hulking white stranger following him, do you imagine that the police would have let him go? In Florida?

If you think that, give my regards to the Tooth Fairy the next time you see her.

With or without Zimmerman’s potentially racist motive, this kill-at-will statute is a monumentally stupid law. It raises every altercation — every bar fight, every fender bender — to the level of a potentially lethal encounter.

Whatever happened to the good old days when you could have a fist fight with someone without one of you ending up dead?

Remind me not to go to Florida the next time it gets cold up north.

And while you’re at it, remind me to get the bell on my bicycle fixed.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. otherwords.org