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Friday, May 29, 2015

Arrested for Criminal Manspreading? The Crackdown on Rudeness

We can't enforce courtesy at gunpoint


The NYPD is now arresting men for “manspreading” on the subway. For those of you who have, as yet, managed to remain blissfully unaware of this neologism, it refers to the way some men sit — slouched, with legs spread wide, taking up more than one seat on public transportation.

It is, indeed, rude.

And subways can be unpleasant places.

They’re crowded, sometimes too hot, and often in disrepair. Everyone is cranky. We have a lot of laws, and a lot of social rules, that we abide by to make them somewhat more bearable.

Pets aren’t (generally) allowed on public transport because they may cause cleanliness issues. Loud music is forbidden. Food can’t be brought onto most public transport.

And most of the time, if an older or disabled person or a pregnant woman can’t find a seat, someone will offer to stand. We should all do the best that we can to behave politely to one another, to minimize the externalities we subject them to, and to not act like idiots.

But surely, not all of these are matters for the police?

I well remember my embarrassment at being scolded ferociously by a gentleman of about my father’s age when I unthinkingly put my foot up on the seat on a bus late at night, as I headed back to Hyde Park on the #55 Garfield line.

“This is a working people’s bus,” he said to me. “How do you think we feel watching you come in here and get your messy boots all over it? Show some respect.”

I’ve never put my foot on a bus seat again.

It was extraordinarily effective. And I didn’t spend a night in jail.

The Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) puts together a report called “How They Get You” which chronicles, in infuriating detail, the kinds of arrests that get made when the public expects the police to do what that gentleman did for me.

People (mostly young non-white men) are arrested and held for hours, or overnight, or for several days, for trivial charges.

PROP’s report, which you should read if you can bear it, records arrests of people for putting stickers on scaffolds, for dropping a dog’s leash long enough to scoop dog poop from the sidewalk, for standing in the hallways of buildings where they live, and for swerving a bike to avoid being hit by a car and landing on the sidewalk.

And to that proud list of protections, we can now add arrests made for “manspreading.”

You can’t really blame the NYPD for adding this triviality to their list of other arrest-worthy trivialities. They didn’t invent it; we invited them to do it.

When we refuse to take responsibility for the rudeness we see around us, and when we refer every single instance of less than ideal behavior to an outside authority armed with guns and clubs and the full power of the state, of course they’re going to take us up on it.

These are easy arrests. They are low risk. They help fill quotas. They may bring in some revenue. We told the cops there was a problem, and they’re setting out to solve it with the tools they have — power and force and intimidation.

So I think we’d better ask ourselves — before PROP has to report on arrests for nose picking, or body odor, or flatulence — exactly what we think we’re doing.

We don’t have to pretend that “man spreading” and other minor subway offenses aren’t rude. They are. But we can be that guy on the #55 bus and start telling each other to shape up, instead of inviting the state to interfere.

Because as the folks in the PROP report can attest, once they’re invited, they don’t leave.