If You See Something, Say Something – and Flowers

I’ve long been both a fan and a critic of the “report unusual activity” types of anti-terrorism programs.

How can I be a fan and a critic?  It’s simple.  First, I’m a fan because I used to work for government implementing physical and logical security for computer systems.  If you have trained personnel, reporting unusual activity can be extremely helpful.

But that’s why I’m also a critic.  Note that above I mentioned trained personnel.  Most people simply don’t know what is normal.  I don’t say that as a joke – I really mean it.  Just because something is unusual doesn’t make it abnormal, and, even more importantly, unusual is not the same as dangerous.

A few months ago, my wife was placing some flowers around our church’s sign.  She chose to do this – wisely – at night.  She has light skin which burns easily and is extremely sun-sensitive – enough so that she can get very ill by being exposed to sunlight for long periods.  Of course there is nothing wrong with planting flowers at midnight – even if it is a bit unusual.  Unfortunately, while she was doing this, a city police officer was doing a routine patrol.

Normally, one would think that it would be a good thing for law enforcement to be keeping the peace – particularly when a disabled person (who may be more vulnerable than others) is out and about doing something like planting flowers.  And, yes, that should be a good thing.  But when officers receive poor training and are trained “investigate unusual activity”, problems can occur.

The officer stopped his car, asked for my wife’s ID, and proceeded to quiz her on why she would be attempting to beautify her church’s property.  She was asked if she had permission, if she was a member of the church, and generally just bothered unnecessarily – there was never any suspicion of a crime!  She was “planting flowers while disabled”, which, apparently, is unusual and thus suspicious.

Now, I can hear some people saying, “The officer may have just been checking that she wasn’t stealing things” or some such.  True, that could have been what was going on.  But a simple casual and non-invasive (passive) observation while driving past should have been enough to make it clear she wasn’t spray painting the sign, trampling flowers, or stealing anything.  An officer who was still unsure could have pulled up and asked, politely, about the sign and flowers (“Are you the person who has been putting the wonderful flowers up here?”) – and would have immediately been able to tell the difference between a sign-keeper and a thug by the response.  But, instead, something unusual was going on, so it prompted an intrusive investigation in the eyes of this officer.

She was also told, when she asked why she was being asked for ID and questioned, that her information would be kept on file in a contact report.  It’s a very scary thing when police start tracking the whereabouts of law abiding citizens.

Unusual isn’t dangerous.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  Really.  And while my wife’s rights were only slightly violated (yes, her right to be left alone by police and to be secure on her person and papers was violated), we do need to stand guard and watch against this policing of normality.  I’m not going to say this was a gross abuse of police power.  It wasn’t.  It was a slight abuse of police power.  That said, it was still an abuse.

It’s not only police that sometimes take things a bit further than they should (or, in some cases, a lot further).  Private security is in on the act too.  Read this NPR story about the Mall of America’s private anti-terrorism force, implementing “if you see something, say something,” in a dumb way.  Turns out “seeing something” is a lot more common if the something is being done by someone who is not white.  And the “something” can be something as simple as taking video in Minnesota’s top tourist destination!

Our genetics and socialization have trained us that terrorists, criminals, and just plain bad guys are not like us – and further, someone not like us is a possible criminal.  So if you see someone doing something unusual, not like you would do, they are a potential criminal or danger.  But, really, unusual is not dangerous.  Even if you feel threatened, that doesn’t actually equate to being threatened.

Disabled people – especially people with neurological, mental, or intellectual disabilities – are seen as dangerous.  We’re not.  We’re far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. You don’t need protection from us.  We need protection from  you (or, rather, from the often non-disabled people who attack and abuse us).

What can be done?  It’s simple.  People who are going to respond to reports of “unusual” behavior (police come to mind, as does private security; likewise, emergency medical personnel, school staff, and, really, anyone that deals with the public) need to be exposed to the wide variety of human experience.  I’m sure my wife isn’t the first to plant flowers at night – even if it was unusual to the police officer.  Likewise, I’m sure the man referenced in the NPR story wasn’t the only one to take video of Mall of America!

Until then, we need to require those in governmental authority to respect our rights.  And we ourselves need to remember that there’s a huge difference between someone harming others and someone doing something unusual.