Historian ‘pinned to ground by US police and beaten for jaywalking’
by Laura Clout
A distinguished British historian claims he was knocked to the ground by an
American policeman before being arrested and spending eight hours in jail –
because he crossed the road in the wrong place.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto said he had been the victim of “terrible, terrible
violence” after he inadvertently committed the offence of “jaywalking” in
Atlanta, Georgia, last week and failed to realise the man telling him to
stop was an officer.
The slight, bespectacled professor claimed that five burly officers pinned
him to the ground after Kevin Leonpacher kicked his legs from under him as
he hesitated to show his ID.
He was left “traumatised and disorientated” and with a gashed forehead as he
was taken to the local jail and charged with pedestrian failure to obey a
police officer and physical obstruction of police.
The academic, professor of global environmental history at Queen Mary
College, University of London, and a member of Oxford University’s modern
history faculty, said he had been subjected to “very humiliating procedures”
and even had his box of peppermints confiscated.
The 56-year-old appeared in court the next day, “tortured” by the fear of
getting a criminal record that would wreck his chances of getting a green
card allowing him to work in America. But prosecutors dropped the charges.
Atlanta’s police chief ordered an inquiry after the mayor raised the
Prof Fernandez-Armesto, who is also a member of the history department at
Tufts University, Massachusetts, was in Atlanta for the convention of the
American Historical Association. He said he was crossing the road and became
aware of a “rather intrusive young man shouting at me telling me that I
shouldn’t have crossed the road there”.
Because he was wearing a “rather louche” bomber jacket that covered his
uniform, the professor did not realise he was a policeman.
“I thanked him for his advice and went on,” said the professor. When Officer
Leonpacher tried to stop him and demanded to see identification, the
professor asked to see his, which he “didn’t take kindly to”. “He said ‘I am
going to arrest you’,” Prof Fernandez-Armesto said. “In the culture I come
from this wouldn’t mean that the conversation was over.
“Nor would it mean that you were about to be subjected to terrible, terrible
violence. This young man 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 and handcuffed me.
“Naturally I was bridling at this moment and he called his colleagues to his
assistance. 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 was traumatised, disorientated, my conference programme was in the gutter
and I was begging them to give it back to me and to give me my spectacles
back,” he said. “I still find it incredible that an ageing, mild-mannered
professor of impeccable antecedent, should be the subject of such abominable
The professor, who has written books on the Americas and global exploration,
was handcuffed to another suspected criminal in a “filthy, foetid paddy
wagon” to be transported to jail and had his fingerprints and mugshot taken.
With his bail set at £720 but with no way to get the cash, Prof
Fernandez-Armesto remained incarcerated, until he eventually got out with
the help of a professional bail agent.
In court the following day he explained to the judge and charges were
Officer Leonpacher denied that he overreacted, saying the historian
repeatedly refused to co-operate. The 28-year-old told the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution: “I used an excessive amount of discretion.”
Atlanta’s mayor, Shirley Franklin, said: “We want everyone who visits
Atlanta to find Atlanta to be friendly and helpful.”
The professor said he had no plans to sue, adding: “It was actually a
fantastic experience going into that detention centre and spending time with
those miserable wretches of the earth. I feel I’ve learnt more than I would
have in important sessions of the Historical Association.”
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