With the rise of violent crime around the United States, especially when it comes to police brutality, many students are concerned about how to handle potentially dangerous situations. This is especially relevant to people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, women and anyone who is involved in public protests that might end badly.
Dr. Sonja K. Birthisel, an Orono town council member and director of the Wilson Center is very involved in civil-rights-related issues.Birthisel has been at protests that have ended with police interruption before and she encourages students to be armed with information about how to handle run-ins with police and de escalate conflict.
“As someone who’s been arrested and dragged through the courts more than once for participating in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, I’ve personally found it essential to know my rights and be ready to exercise them,” Birthisel said. “I will also say that perhaps even more important than memorizing facts about the law, it can be helpful to think through scenarios in which you’d want to know and use this information. For example, it’s easy to know that you have a right to free speech, but how would it feel to be at a protest where someone is trying to intimidate you out of exercising this right? How could you respond under pressure in a way that was a grounded, compassionate, exercise of your rights?”
Knowing these rights is vital to giving yourself adequate protection. Birthisel recommends getting familiar with your constitutional rights and checking out the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU, which has a helpful page on knowing your rights.
On the ACLU’s helpful page, they share what to do in several different scenarios. If stopped by police in public, they remind individuals of the right to remain silent. In certain states you may have to identify yourself by name, but you can tell the officer you are exercising your right to remain silent and then do so.
In addition, if you get pulled over, don’t make sudden movements and keep your hands on your wheel. You don’t have to let an officer into your home or let them search your car or house unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. Simply and politely informing them you don’t consent without a proper warrant is the best course of action.
If your rights have been violated by the police, write down everything you can remember — badge numbers, patrol car information, names, descriptions. Contact any witnesses, take photos of any injuries you may have sustained, seek medical attention, and file a written complaint with the agency.
“I also think it’s important to acknowledge a pressing need for criminal justice reform in this country. There are major systemic inequalities baked into our policing and court systems,” Birthisel said. “I see raising public consciousness about our rights as an act of harm reduction to help protect people — especially those with marginalized identities — against injustices that are, unfortunately, all too often perpetrated by the state in our names and using our tax dollars.”
Birthisel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries for resources on this topic. She also directs students to talk to on-campus attorneys with questions.