Georgia is the place to be if you're a law-abiding, SUV-driving, ex-fraternity boy from Podunk U. Especially Atlanta, which is so much more sophisticated than down in Claxton where they make fruit-cakes and out on the peanut farms where you can even learn to be one of the only honest presidents in recent history. It is Georgia; redolent of fresh pecans, Lester Maddox with his axe-handle and Savannah, where it will always be Midnight in The Garden Of Good and Evil.
Now Atlanta has become the place where they beat up Oxford dons for – gasp! – jaywalking.
The news has been slowly filtering out since Sunday's episode where Atlanta showed its other face to an Oxford (not Oxford, Mississippi) history professor who had been visiting Tufts U. The professor, identified by U.K.'s the Independent as "…the slight, bespectacled British historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. . . (who is) professor of global environmental history at Queen Mary, University of London, and a member of Oxford University's modern history faculty," was wrestled to the ground by five Atlanta cops where he was pinned to the road under the boot of one.
The offense was understandably serious, at least in terms of our foreign relations with the last of our allies. He had been caught jaywalking from the Marriott (site of an academic history convention) by an off-duty Atlanta cop. Off-duty. Let us not forget that little fact.
Twenty-eight year old Officer Kevin Leonpacker had been, it turns out, hired not to guard the Hilton Hotel but to control and protect hotel guests by reminding them to use crosswalks and obey signals. He was there representing the Hilton Hotel.
He saw our Oxford don, undoubtedly looking the wrong way for traffic driving on the wrong side of the street and being academically distracted by some thought of historical trends. Our intrepid Atlanta cop blew his whistle and ordered the distinguished professor not to cross.
The cop was ignored, perhaps like history students who are obviously too dumb to finish the course. Here he is, in America, and he did not instantly obey an authority who was dressed in . . . what exactly?
The cops say he was in regulation uniform, instantly recognizable. Prof. Fenandez-Armesto, who is 56, said "… All I was aware of was a rather intrusive young man shouting at me; telling me that I shouldn't have crossed the road there," in an entertaining interview which has been posted on YouTube. "I thanked him for his advice and went on." Bravo for the stoic English. They stood up to the Nazis, and even their dapper dons deny US cops their über-authority. He also testified that the cop was dressed in a bomber jacket which, since he was not working for the City of Atlanta, seems quite possible.
The minion of the law asked to see his identification papers (don't I remember some American myth about this being the country where identity papers were not necessary?) and the Professor somehow replied.
Whatever this hardened Limey jaywalker did that fateful Sunday afternoon in front of the Hilton and the Marriott, he may not have expected (Englishman that he is, history don, academic and sometimes considered a far higher authority than a kid-cop in the South) to be entertained by "…this young man (who) kicked my legs from under me, wrenched me round in what I think is a sort of a judo move, pinned me to the ground, wrenched my arms behind my back, handcuffed me."
"Naturally I was bridling. I had five burly policemen pinioning me to the ground, pressing my neck with really very severe pain. I'm a mass of contusions and grazes. I still find it incredible that an ageing, mild-mannered professor of impeccable antecedent, should be the subject of such abominable treatment."
The story took some time to gain momentum. However, it was well-reported by the George Mason University "History News Network," who are interested in the modern history or historians.
The Independent from the UK also told it nicely: "it wasn't just any old historian, either, Leonpacher, that you threw in the slammer. That was Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the distinguished Anglo-Spanish professor whose legendary learning and heroic output is matched only by a courtesy and delicacy of manner besides which even the finest Southern gentleman would seem a touch crass."
They even claim him, the professor, a heroic martyred figure of academia to the Bubba-cops of the South, as one of their own, a contributor.
The Atlanta Constitution later reported on the attack. Though intending to appear totally neutral, it gives much credence to the story of the police officer's story of how he, a veteran of 5 years on the Atlanta police, "… initiated verbal contact with Fernandez-Armesto before he stepped into the street, directing him to the nearby crosswalk, but said the professor ignored him."
Fernandez-Armesto said he didn't know Leonpacher was a police officer. "When I questioned who he was, he said something to the effect of 'when I give you an order, you obey it,' " Fernandez-Armesto said. "I asked him what his authority was because I didn't see a badge. But he was extremely upset I had questioned his bona fides."
That foreigner didn't accept the authority of a young street tough who ordered him to stop crossing the street and demanded his papers, Gestapo-style. Man after my own heart, he ignored a lower-class authoritarian accosting him. He doesn't deny - no one does - that the professor did jaywalk. In what was my very own country, his sort of behaviour would have once gotten an African-American throttled in Atlanta. Now authorities know better than attack the under-class. Not when there are jaywalking professors threatening the peace of our nation.
Don't forget that Officer Kevin was working for the Hilton. It's quite a hotel-chain that pays people to beat up its more distinguished guests. Perhaps the Marriott and the Hilton will now hire private guards to protect the guests from the police. We must find out if there are a lot of cities in America besides Atlanta trying to compete with Tijuana in that regard.