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Showing Cops the Middle Finger

| January 6, 2013



I never thought I’d be welcoming the new year with a middle finger, or what George W. Bush, in a rarely eloquent moment, called “the one-fingered victory salute.” But I am, and gladly so, at least in grateful recognition of John Swartz.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive Swartz is a Vietnam veteran who, on Memorial Day weekend a few years ago, was riding along with his girlfriend to visit relatives when he saw a cop parked with his speed radar, gunning cars. Swartz is the sort of guy who doesn’t like his hard-earned cops wasting their time on speed traps when they could be spending their time more constructively chasing criminals. As he drove by, Swartz flipped the cop his middle finger.

The cop immediately chased after Swartz. Other units were called in, overkill being the habit of small-town cops even in Upstate New York, where this took place, and he was arrested for disorderly conduct. After a few years the charge was dropped on speedy trial grounds, though no sensible state attorney would prosecute the sort of charge that itself deserves a squad of middle finger. But Swartz knows his rights. He fought for them with a trigger finger. He sued, charging that his civil rights were violated.

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A district court judge dismissed the suit, but last Thursday the influential Second Circuit Court of Appeals, former home of Learned Hand, Thurgood Marshall and Sonia Sotomayor, ruled that the suit can go forward. Another victory salute.

In a flip of digital surrealism, the arresting cop claims he set chase after Swartz because he interpreted the middle finger as a signal for help, and he, in his words, “wanted to assure the safety of the passengers.”

“Perhaps there is a police officer somewhere who would interpret an automobile passenger’s giving him the finger as a signal of distress,” Judge John Newman of the Second Circuit wrote for a three-judge panel. “But the nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult deprives such an interpretation of reasonableness.”

The cop, Richard Insogna, must have misinterpreted the meaning of safety later—after he told Swartz to “shut your mouth, your ass is in enough trouble”—when the cops’ far greater obscenity than a heavenward finger took place: arresting Swartz in front of his girlfriend and her son, with all the usual displays of police force putting an unthreatening citizen in his place.

Swartz will very likely prevail in court, especially on First Amendment grounds. His isn’t an isolated case. These arrests take place routinely, though too few get challenged.
As Ira Robbins, the American University law professor, argued in a wonderful history of the middle finger in 2008, “police officers should be trained to tolerate offensive speech and gestures,” unless they rise to the level of fighting words. Ten years ago a Texas court of appeals shot down a disorderly conduct charge against a motorist who’d flipped off another driver. Why should it be any different for an individual flipping off a cop?

The gesture has been around longer than Genesis. Diogenes flipped it to “the demagogues of Athens.” The Romans, in a preview of the imperial Bush, called it “the impudent finger.” It had its official American debut in 1886, when a Boston pitcher gave the finger to the New York Giants in a group picture (underscoring the long-standing vulgarity of Boston baseball). The gesture may be “repugnant, distasteful, and crass,” in the words of one judge. I personally find it to be all three. But so are many passages in the Bible that are routinely read in church. God’s command to Abraham to incinerate his only son, or one Psalm’s “blessing” on the dashing of babies against rocks, make the middle finger look like a cherubic prank in comparison.

It may well be true that, as a local sheriff’s deputy told me this week, for every cop who’d arrest a flipping Swartz, there are 300 who’d smile professionally and let gesture and gesturer pass. But that hasn’t diminished the richly documented cases of frivolous arrests over a cop’s ego. “Disorderly conduct” and “resisting arrest without violence” are the sort of subjective, arbitrary charges that get slapped around when a cop’s self-importance (as opposed to a law) is violated.

Cops are no more above the finger than they are above the law, though they often act it, as if somehow they should be beyond insult. It’s part of our dangerous trend toward not only worshipping anything and everything in uniform, but submitting to it in the misguided name of respect for authority. This, in a nation founded on the principle of defying authority in defense of individual rights. The American Revolution, after all, was one great star-spangled middle finger extending all the way across the Atlantic to England.

Any cop who thinks he’s King George deserves no less.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him on Twitter. This column is also syndicated through Florida Voices, and has appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat and the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

26 Responses for “Showing Cops the Middle Finger”

  1. rickg says:

    Yes!!! Long live the First Amendment. If only the First and Fourth were protected as much as the Second.

  2. JoJo says:

    Actually, there is a wonderful history going back to ancient Greece to date regarding the middle finger of which the police or feral youths are unaware of.

  3. NortonSmitty says:

    Good story, but I always heard it different. When the Normans got tired of the Anglo/Saxon raiding parties that crossed the channel to rape and pillage Normandy, they would retaliate by crossing it themselves. Anyone suspected of being a bowman, which was the weapon of choice at the time, they would cut off their middle finger so they could never draw a bow again.

    So eventually after they pretty much were forced to take over the country to stop them, the unconquerable defiant limey bastards would show them their middle finger to say to their occupiers “Hey, you didn’t get me asshole!” and this has stood as an act of defiance for over a thousand years.

    I have to wonder if they would have had Tasers and the right to shoot to kill our current law enforcement enjoys if we would be laughing about this today. Because if they would have shot the man in this story he wouldn’t be suing them. Or questioning their actions.

  4. rick stevens says:

    How can Pierre be so insightful and so funny at once? You crack me up, sir.

  5. reader says:

    Wow! This article is the most absurd thing I ve ever read! What kind of an example are you trying to set?
    In many countries in Europe you break the law when you insult a member or law enforcement.
    You re real tuff saying it s ok to flip a middle finger to a cop who is doing his job which along the line will save someone s life! What happens if the cocky motorcycle rider then gets distracted and hits someone?
    What is the point of flipping a middle finger to a cop? And what is the point of writing an article about it! Go waste your time doing something more useful! Or wait…what giant scene would you cause if a cop flipped a finger at you while driving by?
    Many are quick at bashing cops…go spend a shift with any one of them! Let s see how tuff you guys really are?

  6. Clint says:

    I personally use the THREE FINGER salute. It means..Peace but FU anyways !!!

  7. Linda says:

    While I totally agree with everything said, and no one deserves respect who doesn’t earn it, I am concerned about the fact that we live in a society with diminishing respect for everything and everyone. I fear that some will read this article and say “Here, here” to disrespecting police in general.
    To the contrary, the people in law enforcement in general deserve our respect overall, for the moment forgetting that there are always a#*!*#!*s amongst us everywhere – even in our own families. Without law enforcement, we would have anarchy. They are, after all, part of one of the three branches of our government.
    So I think it better to start off with respect, and make individual determinations later. I wish this article had focused a little more or had more of a tone about the individual cop/cops and the fact that we do have civil rights that the court honors. Maybe I’m being too sensitive this morning!

    • NortonSmitty says:

      “They are, after all, part of one of the three branches of our government”? Which branch is that? I can never remember, Meat, Vegetable or Dairy?

  8. Anonymous says:

    That’s quite an article Pierre. While I agree, the “middle finger” is in poor taste, I also know it is up to the professional to control their own emotions and behavior. Nevertheless, good for Swartz for fighting for his Rights. People in this town have been arrested, procecuted, convicted, forced to appeal to have a conviction overturned – for pissing off a wrong Law Enforcement Official – and not over the finger either, only from asking question. This article is definitely food for thought.

  9. Geezer says:

    “Impudent finger,” “heavenward finger”
    Isn’t the English language just grand?

    Another great article Pierre!

  10. Bruno says:

    Sooooo…If I get arrested for “flipping the bird” to a cop, will it be a “Felony Finger Flipping” charge. Everything these days are FELONIES. Felony Jaywalking, Felony littering , Felony nose picking, Felony Butt scratching, Felony my bumper crossed over the line in the intersection. Courts make 3 times more money off the poor citizen who gets “nazitized”

  11. Geezer says:

    It isn’t wise to flash half a peace sign to police personnel.
    If you don’t respect cops, then consider fear as a reason to smile at them.
    You may very well ruin your life. Don’t tease porcupines…..with guns.

    As a rule, never provoke people in general. There’s a lot of angry people amongst us.

    Display complete peace signs to all.

  12. whodat says:

    I have to laugh at some of the comments directed at the writer when it is the law of the land which decides free speech whether demonstrating by the KKK, Nazi Party, giving the middle finger, or burning the flag.

    This is what sets this great country apart which other countries envy. We have more freedoms in this country than any in the world. Flipping the bird is also a nice way of saying this argument is moot and get over it.

  13. mw says:

    Nice way of weaving your disdain of the bible into an informative news article. If you should feel the need to use that particular tactic again why not write an editorial?

  14. says:

    good reply reader, what would these people do if someone flipped the finger at their wife

  15. reader says:

    Yes, insulting a member of law enforcement should not be allowed. All they do and go through for us.
    They need to be much more respected and appreciated.

  16. haha says:

    Yes it may be uncalled for to flip off anyone. Yes there are a very few cops out there that do not like down on citizens majority of cops think they are better then everyone else just cause they are in uniform. They do not respect citizens as they should, most can careless if you make it home safe, if you need a ride, or whatever Very few help serve or protect. Police spend most of their time in gas stations chatting it up drinking all the free coffee they can while eating all the free pastries.

  17. BrunoTar says:

    Former President Jimmy Carter once said: “”My esteem in the country has gone up…it’s very nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”

  18. bear says:

    do this in another country see what happens fingers get cut off mabey hand or even death hes lucky it wasnt me he flpped off cuz i would be the one in jail for rippin it off so disrespectfull

  19. Diego Miller says:

    This is an example of what police psychiatrist’s call Wyatt Earp syndrome. Strapping on a gun and pinning on a badge can have this effect of certain individuals especially the small town Constables. Hello Bunnell.

  20. P. Skelt says:

    Enjoyed reading this excellent article. Thank you!

  21. Another REader says:

    To the Reader that thinks flipping off a cop is a crime: Do you have any understanding of the first amendment? If I had a dime for every time I saw law enforcement being rude to civilians and not in the name of safety, I would be wealthier than Oprah Winfrey. Get a clue.

  22. Raul Troche says:

    Sounds like the cop had a road rage issue

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