Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Whatever Happened to the Investigation of His Arrest for Jaywalking by the Atlanta police?

Historians in the News

Back in January, after the arrest of historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto for jaywalking at the annual convention of the American Historical Association, the Atlanta mayor's offfice indicated that a full investigation would be undertaken to find out what happened.

HNN on several occasions has called the mayor's office in Atlanta to follow-up. Each time we were instruicted to leave a voice mail for the press office. Each time we got no response. We asked Arnita Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association, if the AHA had heard anything from the mayor's office in response to the organization's letter of concern. She indicated the AHA had received no response as well.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto has told HNN he has been notified by email that the city investigated the arrest and exonerated the police. But officials never got his side of the story, he says. He is therefore hiring a law firm"to demand that a properly constituted inquiry into the public interest aspects of the case" be undertaken.

He sent us this email:

After members of the Atlanta police force assaulted me for jaywalking and imprisoned me at the AHA Conference in January, I got thousands of messages - including some from citizens of Atlanta, who had also suffered at the hands of the police, without the attention or consolation I got. So I drew up a list of about forty questions of public interest raised by my experience - ranging from police training to the siting of road-crossings - and waited patiently for the inquiry the mayor was reported as having ordered. Six months went by without anyone contacting me for testimony. On 4th June, the mayor's office added insult to injury by sending me a letter claiming that I had made an allegation of misconduct against the police (which I had not done, preferring to defer to the mayor's promised inquiry) and claiming to have investigated it and exonerated the force! This was obviously false: you can't conduct an investigation into an allegation that has not been made. Any honest investigation would have taken evidence from me and other witnesses with relevant testimony. The police took evidence neither from me nor from any of the conference-goers whom I know to have useful insights.

I have therefore now engaged a law firm to demand that a properly constituted inquiry into the public interest aspects of the case is held. I explicitly do not want anything for myself, and am not seeking damages or compensation; and I have no grudge against the young policeman who initiated the assault on me. I want only to ensure - after what I have been through - that Atlanta gets the policing and urban planning it deserves, and that the voices of people who claim to have been inhumanely treated by the police be heard.

I hope any readers of HNN who were at Atlanta, and experienced the zeal of the police, or who felt the inconvenience of the siting of the crossings, or who witnessed the attack on me, or have any relevant information or comments will help, by letting me know by e-mail to FELIPE.FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO@tufts.edu, and telling me, if they'd be so kind, whether they would be willing for their views to go before the inquiry. (Attendance in person won't be required: testimony can take the form of an affadavit, or a personal statement, or a press report.)

A news story in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution indicates a police internal investigation cleared the police of wrong-doing:

An internal investigation by the Atlanta Police Department into an infamous jaywalking incident has exonerated the officer accused of roughing up a professor.

But the bickering about what really happened that day continues.

The 101-page report concluded that Officer Kevin Leonpacher acted appropriately when he arrested distinguished historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto while the professor was jaywalking in downtown Atlanta six months ago.

"[Fernandez-Armesto] wasn't arrested for jaywalking," said Atlanta Police Public Information Manager Judy Pal."He was arrested for disobeying a lawful order from a police officer."

The 57-year-old professor called the investigation"profoundly incompetent.""My goodwill is not inexhaustible," Fernandez-Armesto said in a telephone interview from his home in London."I'm not going to let this go."

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More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 7/12/2007

Philadelphia was a bit more successful in incorporating its suburbs than Atlanta was, so the municipal statistics aren't quite comparable. Northeast Philadelphia, sometimes called the "Great White East," extends into outer suburbia. Approximate figures would be 300-400 murders a year in Philadelphia (exclusive of Camden, NJ) for a metropolitan population of six millions [one and a half million incorporated], as against Atlanta with about 150 murders a year, for a metropolitan population of four millions, and an incorporated population of about half a million. The difference is too close to call.




Vernon Clayson - 7/12/2007

Mr. Todd, I imagine you intended a reasoned argument. Multiply your problems in Philadelphia by 10 or so and you will be in Atlanta territory. That historian says he "won't let this go", all I can say is he shot by naive and into the realm of stupidity with that comment. Atlanta has forgotten him already, the reports of his conduct and complaint are buried under a blizzard of serious matters.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/12/2007

Well, I lived in Philadelphia for four years myself, a bit over ten years ago, and a few times I had to chase undesirables out of the apartment building stairwell, and a gang tried to rob me on the street one time. There was a case in the neighborhood I lived in, rather like this business in Atlanta. A street repair crew was working away with a jackhammer at about three in the morning, and this woman, the local realtor, went out and complained, and got into an escalating verbal argument. The end of it was that she spent the night in jail, along with a bunch of streetwalkers. I happened to meet her later, and she seemed like a nice enough sort, small, soft-spoken, and rather pretty. You never quite know why people do these kinds of things.

Of course, this realtor was sufficiently optimistic about Philadelphia that she was making a long-term commitment to the city. Now, me, I was just there as a means to an end, and half the time I was there, I was negotiating the means of going elsewhere, so I didn't have any illusions. I think it's the people with ideals who are likely to get into confrontations.

Atlanta spends a good deal of money advertising tourism, and given the scale of the publicity this business has gotten, the rights and wrongs are not really relevant anymore. Front-page coverage in the London papers... that kind of advertising is not precisely cheap. No one is required to visit Atlanta, after all, or to spend money in Atlanta. There are all kinds of places people can go. The kind of people who really have no means of leaving Atlanta are not likely to be those in a position to pay much in the way of taxes. People from out of town are not likely to think that they have an obligation to come and support Atlanta.

I think there's a tendency for business activities in cities to become smaller and more focused, with greater use of electronic communications and all. If you're running, say, a bank, you want to put routine functions like back-office operations and small-loan auditing out in small towns in Alabama or North Carolina, for all the obvious reasons. Much the same thing probably applies for conventions. That means that big cities are going to be in a state of chronic competition against each other for the remaining business. They are not dealing from a position of strength.



Vernon Clayson - 7/11/2007

Catch 22?? Hardly. Check out the crime statistics for Atlanta and environs. All these large cities have staggering crime rates, there is an emergency but society and life somehow continues around the crime. What else can they do, surrender to the thugs? This historian whining about his treatment as a jaywalker is not even a blip on their radar.

Rob Willis - 7/11/2007

What in the world are talking about? There is no link of intent, situation, or logic to your point. You are a smart fellow, but this eludes me. What are you saying?

Andrew D. Todd - 7/11/2007

Vernon Clayson and Rob Willis are in a "Catch-22" bind. What they are saying is in effect that Atlanta is in a state of emergency, and that various police behavior is justified. But if Atlanta is really in a state of emergency, it follows that it would be foolish to schedule conventions there. So Clayson and Willis are really saying that all the hotels in Atlanta should go out of business, that all the office buildings, department stores, etc. should close, that the colleges and universities should move somewhere else, etc, etc, etc. But then there would be no one left to pay the salary of the police.

Same business with Kathryn Johnson. Who wants to live in the kind of neighborhood where there are enough crack dealers that the police would be likely to make an honest mistake?


Robo-cop-ism is an economic dead end.

Vernon Clayson - 7/10/2007

Does the distinguished historian realize the police have far more serious investigations than checking out someone whining about a jaywalking offense. Chances are likely they investigated 6 or 8 homicides the same day to say nothing of robberies, assaults and the like. He should get over it, no one is going to make a cold case of it.

Vernon Clayson - 7/10/2007

Sure, Ms. Kazmire, get "mouthy", ask "what the hell they were doing", that will work. They would have realized their temerity and been properly humbled. As if! They live in the real world, they hear "mouthy" remarks and "what the hell are you doing" many times a shift and your woulda-coulda-shoulda exclamations wouldna impressed them. Maybe you woulda-coulda-shoulda used the old "I'll have your job" or "What's your badge number?"
Your comment shows an unrealistic view of real life, the police have a serious purpose. The next time you have a problem with crime or a criminal call an historian.

Rob Willis - 7/10/2007

The first rule I learned outside of "home concerns" was: Never talk back to a policeman engaged in executing his sworn duty.

Amazing how many people don't get the simple things.

Vernon Clayson - 7/9/2007

The historian should get over his snit. The police do not live in a world of genteel manners and do not debate nor easily suffer stuffy self-important individuals. The best way to avoid the attention of the police is to obey the law. The "distinguished historian" wastes valuable time for everyone, trying to be a martyr will gain him nothing, he will look the fool.

Lisa Kazmier - 7/9/2007

The thing that always got me is that, being tired from my travel, I crossed the street in the same exact way as Professor Fernandez-Armesto right in front of the police and no one said "boo" to me about it. Good thing I suppose, because I would have been mouthy about it if they had.

I have oft regretted not walking right up to the police in the midst of their arrest and asking what the hell they were doing, but as my mother reminds me, I probably would have been arrested right then for hindering this great police activity.