When fun snowballs into anger

Participants in Saturday's snowball fight at 14th and U streets help push a police car that was stuck in the snow.
Participants in Saturday's snowball fight at 14th and U streets help push a police car that was stuck in the snow. (Photo By Matthew Bradley)
By Daniel Schramm
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The last place I expected to find myself the weekend before Christmas was detained by police as a crowd of incensed citizens shouted for my release. Apparently, that's what can happen when you answer a text message inviting you to join hundreds of people for a snowball fight at a busy intersection in the District.

You may be familiar with The Great Snowball Incident of 2009. The Post put the story on its front page, and it appeared on CNN, Fox and other major media outlets. This mostly friendly gathering at the corner of 14th and U streets NW began harmlessly enough. But things got ugly when the combatants pelted the personal vehicle of a D.C. police detective.

The officer got out of his car, displayed his firearm and started threatening arrests. Someone, not knowing the man was a police officer, called 911. The uniformed officers who responded recognized the detective and took his side in trying to control the crowd, which by then had started chanting: "You don't bring a gun to a snowball fight." Meanwhile, the snowballs kept flying.

Standing toward the back of the crowd, with the survival instincts of an armadillo, I decided the time had come to depart. But right at that moment, the detective apparently got hit by another snowball, and he decided I was the one who threw it (I wasn't). Videos of what followed are widely available on the Internet. That guy in the drab, olive coat and fuzzy wool cap being dragged through the crowd by the detective, shouting, "I didn't throw that snowball"? Yeah, that's me. At my finest.

The detective checked my driver's license, and someone in the crowd shouted that I should ask whether I was being detained. I turned and asked one of the uniformed officers. He asked whether the detective had my ID. I said yes. He said, "Then, yeah, I'd say you're being detained." A factual analysis. Fair enough. I was released a few minutes later without charge.

Blizzards like the one this past weekend have a way of upending society's normal arrangements: Work is canceled, the power goes out, we find ourselves helping others in ways we might never otherwise have. (Earlier at the fight, snowballers helped push a police car that had gotten stuck.) This blustery hiatus gives us a chance to reflect upon things we take for granted. As the one guy who wound up detained by the police during The Great Snowball Incident, I think the layers of its meaning are worth exploring.

In my day job, I analyze policies designed to strengthen environmental laws in developing countries. In this work, one quickly learns that the law is perfectly meaningless without someone to enforce it. A partner from the Dominican Republic once held up his country's environmental statute and declared, "This law is perfect; it is a beautiful law. But it does not protect the environment." Without resources for enforcement or a government to take a particular law seriously, the exercise of passing it is largely futile. In my crime-riddled neighborhood of Columbia Heights, the importance of law enforcement is viscerally felt.

I suspect that many of the snowballers were, like me, young, well educated and politically active. Demographics suggest that a strong majority of them support new laws on climate change and health care. It was no accident that the detective's vehicle, a gas-guzzling Hummer, was targeted for snowballing. But this same demographic is acculturated to hostility against police -- those who ultimately enforce the laws we fight to get passed. While there was no justification for the detective to display his firearm, the police handled the situation thereafter as well as they could have. Nonetheless, the tone of the crowd quickly shifted from anger at the gun-wielder to generalized anti-authority rhetoric. One woman yelled that the police had "ruined Christmas."

Sovereignty, it is said, is a monopoly on the lawful exercise of force. Perhaps such a belief lay behind the detective's decision to pull his gun in response to snowballs. A better definition, one that will carry us much further in the century ahead, is: the capacity and willingness to enforce the rule of law on all members of society. That means respecting the power of the police to break up a snowball fight at a busy intersection (and detain those, like myself, who they have reason to believe are subverting that authority). But it also means disciplinary consequences for those who abuse the sacred trust bestowed on them, as the detective clearly had, though I hope his career isn't upended for this overreaction.

The crowd's anger at the detective over this violation was palpable on Saturday. In his book "Here, the People Rule," Harvard law professor Richard Parker eloquently defends the "political energy" of "ordinary people": "Government must not only be responsible to ordinary people. . . . It, above all, must be responsive to them -- not just occasionally, but systemically." In this season of political battles on fundamental questions about the role of government in our nation, I pray we keep our energy directed toward the fulfillment of this ideal, one that is active government, not anti-government.

The writer is a lawyer who lives in Washington.

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