YOU HOPE this doesn't happen, but it just might.
Someone -- probably someone in his teens or 20s -- is standing on a corner wearing one of those T-shirts that have hit Baltimore's streets in the past week or so. You know, the ones that say "[Expletive] the police" or have the logo of the Baltimore Police Department as the bull's-eye of what is clearly a target. The implied message is that the person wearing the shirt would either approve of somebody gunning down a cop or would gleefully do so himself.
Say a Baltimore police officer approaches the corner to clear it of loiterers. The cop sees the T-shirt and, of course, has to assume the worse. Suppose the wearer of the T-shirt at that instant decides to grab his cell phone. Seeing a metallic object, the officer thinks it might be a gun. Considering the T-shirt, that would be a perfectly valid conclusion.
So the cop whips out his own gun and fires, killing the wearer of the T-shirt. Do you think for a second folks will blame the person wearing the shirt -- or, more appropriately, the idiots who had the bad taste and abominable judgment to make it -- for what happened?
Of course not. That august body of American citizenry who, using 20/20 hindsight, figure they know when cops should use deadly force -- even better than the officers who are trained to make those split-second life-or-death decisions -- will deliver another of their stern and irritatingly didactic lectures about police brutality and excessive use of force.
That scenario -- the civilian being killed and what would surely be the ensuing dispute -- is something that Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police, would like to avoid.
"I don't want either side to get hurt," Roussey said this week. "I'm looking at it both ways, as an officer safety issue and as a public safety issue. [But] I'm pretty upset about those shirts."
I think Roussey might be understating his feelings more than just a bit. This is not free speech. The T-shirt is, quite simply, a threat.
"It borders on assault, the way it's presented," Roussey said of the T-shirt that has the police patch covered with red cross hairs and a target. The other shirt reads "R.I.P. Rocky" and uses a vulgar verb to tell off the police.
"Rocky" was Earl T. Tillman. He was only 19 when police say he made the regrettable decision to point a gun at some officers who tried to arrest him for the armed robbery of a hair salon. Perhaps predictably, some see the cops as the villains -- not the accused armed robber with a criminal record that includes convictions for assault and destruction of property.
So we have lamentations about Rocky's death from some folks in the neighborhood where he was shot. We hear some have made a makeshift memorial to him at the corner of Edmondson and Loudon avenues. We read that Rocky's sister confirms that he was a drug dealer, all the while insisting that police didn't have to shoot him. (She's clearly in the ranks of that august body of citizenry referred to above.)
And finally, of course, we have the T-shirts. The "R.I.P. Rocky" shirt with its obscene reference to the police might pass First Amendment muster. After all, the expression "[Expletive] the Police" was first coined by the rap group NWA years ago.
The one with the cross hairs is another matter. You have to figure the "fighting words" or "clear and present danger" exceptions to the First Amendment right of free speech would kick in here. There are other T-shirts around that are every bit as offensive as the cops-as-targets T-shirt. But the T-shirts condoning violence aren't even in the same church, much less different pews in the same church, as the ones that are merely offensive.
There are, of course, the notorious "Stop Snitching" T-shirts with matching caps for those who want to be really fashionable and stupid. I've heard there are also T-shirts that read "Death Before Dishonor" on the front with the words "I'll Take Three Hots and a Cot Before I Snitch to the Cops" on the back.
Those shirts show that there are some in society who not only have completely embraced the criminal lifestyle, but are trying to take it mainstream. While objectionable, they probably will pass the free-speech test.
But implying, however subtly, that cops should be shot isn't free speech. It's an implied threat. And threats aren't protected free speech.
They're criminal acts.
But my guess is that there are some -- call them absolutists on the civil liberties issue -- who will see even the cops-as-targets shirt as an example of valid, protected, free speech. To them I would offer some advice.
If someone ever breaks into your house, don't call the police to protect you.
Call some of Rocky's buddies.