Our society is based on the idea that we do not use violence or force to settle disputes and that our response to a problem or a dispute should be proportionate. The idea of proportionality is linked to the idea that we believe that the response should match the problem. We would not expect someone to use a bucket to stop a flood nor would we expect someone to use sandbags to respond to a leaky faucet. In practical terms, disputes between people, especially in a school setting, are resolved by a reasoned discussion or debate with each side presenting evidence to support their claims. In other words, if we disagree about something we discuss it and if the issue is a potential crime, that is a breach of the law and not simply a disagreement about rules or conduct that is less than a breach of the law, then we turn to the police or the courts for redress. We do not take matters into our own hands, except in matters of self-defence which is one of the few cases in which force is justified under Arizona law.1 If we take matters into our own hands,2 we become the judge, jury, and execution at the same time. In effect, we do not provide due process, that is treat the other party fairly and equitably, and we assume that we are right without considering the claims and evidence of the other side, nor do we consider whether we are wrong or whether we can persuade the average person in the street of the righteousness of our position. In other words, before we act we need to consider would our claims hold up in front the public or more specifically before a jury or a judge. At a minimum, it should give us pause before we act especially when we are usurping the legal forms of law enforcement that exist within society.
According to the Daily Beast and other news reports, three men ( Rishi Rambaran, the father, Kelly Walker, and Frank Tainatongo) entered, and then refused to leave, an elementary school principal’s office with one man carrying plastic handcuffs. They went to the school to confront the principal because Mr Rambaran believed she had violated the law as his child and six other children were required to wear a mask and quarantine after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 which would mean that Mr Rambaran’s child would not be able to go on the school trip the next day.3 In social media postings before they arrived, one of the men Mr Walker, who does not have any children in the school as he home schools them, had indicated they were going to place her under citizen’s arrest. What is not clear, though, is what they expected would happen after they made the citizen’s arrest? From the reporting, it appears the men were intent on using the threat of the citizen’s arrest, or at least their physical presence as an implicit threat of violence, to get the principal to reinstate the child on the school trip. Walker went so far as to claim that the school administrators, by enforcing the rules, are engaging in “coercion and bullying…and breaking the law….” which would require a citizen’s arrest as the appropriate response.4 In effect, the men thought that if they confronted the principal, then she, the school, and the public health authority would change their rules. The men thought that might would make right and that force, not reason, was the correct response to what they perceived was at a minimum something they disagreed with or at a maximum illegal. One thing to note is that the father could not do this on his own. He had to enlist the help of his friends to talk to the principal.
In this case, the three men convinced each other that their course of action was correct, that the principal was acting illegally, and best course of action was a citizen’s arrest because they had violated the parent’s rights.[“A local coffee shop owner posted a message on social media saying that the school was breaking the law and violating the parents’ rights by not letting their child attend the field trip.” ^https://www.kgun9.com/news/education/sahuarita-principal-calls-police-to-remove-unruly-group] One problem is that citizen’s arrest only applies to specific crimes and whatever the principal is alleged to have done is not one of those crimes. 5 Thus, the central claim that the citizen’s arrest was the appropriate response is clearly wrong. It was not the appropriate response. Instead, it appears the father and his friends were threatening a citizen’s arrest as a way to justify the threat of violence as well as to justify why they had confronted the principal. Despite their claim that father’s rights were being violated, they have yet to specify what rights were being violated when the school enforced the public health regulations to require the children to isolate. From the men’s confused claims it appears the alleged crime was either that the principal was acting arbitrarily or discriminating against the parent’s child (and by extension the other children) or that the mask and the requirement to isolate was illegal or that the parents had a right to insist they could force the school to reinstate the child. None of those acts or alleged crimes are crimes and certainly not crimes that could or would warrant a citizen’s arrest. Instead, they reveal that the father disagreed with what the school was doing and wanted it changed. When the school follows the law, it is not a crime. So far no other parents have said that they agreed with the men that their rights were violated.
When we consider what the men thought they were going to achieve, secondary issues emerge. First, how were they going to achieve it, and second, what they thought the consequences would be.
First, it is important to note that the father was able to convince his friends that this was a good idea or that they should help him. At no point do they appear to have tried to talk him out of his plan nor do any of them appear to have suggested that they call the police instead of attempting the citizen’s arrest. These are adult men and at least two of them are responsible for children, yet none of them stopped for a moment to think that what they were doing was disproportionate, unreasonable, or simply wrong. Instead, the friends appeared to reinforce what the father wanted to do and one of them filmed the event and posted the video online. (It has since been deleted.) That is, one of the men thought it was a good idea to vidow their illegal trespass. These are men who appear to have responsibilities and hold down jobs, own a business, and have employment where they are in charge of people or resources, yet do not appear to have any common sense nor do they appear to have considered the consequences. 6 In this moment, they appeared to have reasoned or agreed that this was a good plan. What is not clear, though, is what they expected to happen? From the statements, or what has been reported, it appears they thought that this would either force the principal to change her mind, or the policy to be changed, or the health regulations to change or all three. At a minimum it appears they thought the child would be able to attend the school trip.
If parents could threaten a citizen’s arrest to get their way, then it would undermine how the principal works, the school works, and the health regulations work. The principal, the school, and the public health agency work to rules and follow the laws that govern what they do so that they are consistent and effective since that is what the public expects and has given them a democratic mandate to do. At a minimum having rules that are regularly enforced, means the public, as well as students and parents, know what to expect and what to do as well as to know if something is not being done correctly. If the rules are not followed or are applied arbitrarily, then further problems can emerge which need to be corrected. However, identifying arbitrary policies or acts as well as fixing them do not require physical confrontations nor do they require threats of violence or the threat of a citizen’s arrest since neither arbitrary policies nor poorly enforced school policies are criminal acts. Instead, our society is based on the principle or the idea that we can resolve our differences or disagreements peacefully with recourse to reasoned arguments where we present evidence to support our claims and counter the claims of others as well as rebut the evidence they have supplied. In this case, the father, and by extension his friends, disagreed with the principal, the school, and the local health authority but instead of presenting reasons or providing evidence that the decision was arbitrary or illegal, they thought that the physical threat or threat of violence through a citizen’s arrest, would be sufficient to overturn one or all the claims regarding masks and isolation. Let’s assume that was true. What would happen next?
If the father could do this to get his way, then what would that say for any other parent that disagreed with the principal, the school, or local or state government? Moreover, what would it say about disagreements with other public authorities or private individuals. Would similar disagreements require a citizen’s arrest. For example, would he arrest the bank manager if they refused to give him a loan or required him to wear a mask to make a loan application? If the local McDonald’s mixed up his order, or required him to wear a mask in the store, would that warrant an attempt at a citizen’s arrest of the manager or the worker? Although one of the men asserted that a citizen’s arrest was warranted because rights were being violated, he never explained which rights or why citizen’s arrest, which only applies for specific crimes, had to be invoked. If the father could do this does that mean other parents are similarly entitled to do it? The unasked question is what about the other side of the issue, that is what about the parents who want their children protected from Covid-19? “Would parents who wanted the rules to be applied so their children could be safe, be able to do the same? Would they be entitled to arrest the father and his friends?” Or could they threaten the principal to ensure the rules were upheld? Finally, if the citizen’s arrest is only a precursor to calling the police, that is all a citizen’s arrest achieves in that it keeps a person from fleeing a crime scene, why not skip the citizen’s arrest and just call the police?
Let’s consider these in turn.
- If this parent was able to succeed, then that would mean any time a parent thought they or their child’s rights were being violated, they could rely on confrontation and a citizen’s arrest or the threat of a citizen’s arrest. If we followed this logic, then we would soon have conflicting claims in that those who want a rule upheld would be in conflict with those who opposed it. Yet, our society and our political system is based on the idea that we have mechanisms for resolving these types of questions. We do not have to rely on force or the threat of force. Instead, we rely on reason and persuading others of our cause so that we can help change the minds of others or elect candidates or hire people who support our views. Even if we do not go to the extent of electing a different school board, schools and other institutions have dispute resolution or appeal mechanisms for situations where parents disagree with the school. None of the men used that appeal process.
- The father and his friends claimed the principal acted illegally, but that was his opinion. None of the men has yet to provide either evidence of illegal activity or the rights that were being violated. All they have provided is that they disagreed with the principal, the school, and the public health authority. If we take their claim seriously, that is the principal committed a crime, then the next step is to call the police. They are trained and legally responsible for dealing with breaches of the law. There was no urgency that required him to attempt to take the law into his own hands. At the same time, why did his friends not ask that question? Why did they not recommend calling the police? More to the point, if his opinion about the law is all that matters, does that mean that others can approach the school or the three men with their version of what is legal or illegal and apply to the men or the school? Clearly, the answer is no because we have a process and an institution for making laws as well as another one for enforcing it and a third for judging whether the law is sound.
- The next issue is whether the parent, and his friends, act this way with other public sector institutions, where there rights might be violated or they disagree with the decision by the public sector organisation, or if they act this way with private institutions or private individuals. Was the issue about a public sector institution or was it about an illegal act no matter where it occurs. We have to wonder if the parent, and his friends, threaten a citizen’s arrest if they disagree with the wastewater reclamation or parking? Would they approach a parking ticket dispute, that is they thought the parking enforcement officer was acting illegally, in the same way? Is it only the institution, the school, or is it the issue of what they perceive as criminal action? If their bank refused them a loan would they act in this way? If not, why not?
One immediate answer might be that the father acted to protect his child or at least ensure he attended the school trip. On the surface, this might make sense if the child was in immediate harm or if the parent is concerned with his child's safety since he might be concerned his child was in danger. Yet, the only danger to the child was that the child had been potentially exposed to Covid-19 and would miss a field trip. Does a missed field trip warrant a response that includes the threat of a citizen's arrest as well as requiring two other adult males to support the father? No, it does not. Yet, if that claim is made, it raises the subsequent question, would the parent do this in other issues involving his child? For example, would he do this if his child was denied a place on a sports team because he had been in contact with someone with Covid-19? Would he threaten the coach with a citizen's arrest? If the child could not go to the public library, would that require the threat of a citizen's arrest against the librarian or the library administrator? This seems unlikely but it remains a possibility as the father has shown that he would act this way. However, it is clear that the threat of citizen's arrest is disproportionate to the issue and is not applicable to the situation.
- If the father and his friends are willing to act this way in public or with public institutions, would they act this way in their private lives? If they have a dispute with their neighbour or think their neighbour is acting illegally, such as burning rubbish, would they threaten them with citizen’s arrest? It remains unclear whether they would or not. We would need to find out if they have attempted a citizen’s arrest at any other time. However, given that they do not appear to understand that citizen’s arrest only applies to certain crimes, the alleged act by the principal is not one of them, it suggests that they have never applied it nor do they understand what it means. The men are ignorant and seem to think they know what they are doing which is a dangerous combination that seems quite common these days in America.
- A further concern is that no one thought to dissuade the father and his friends from what they were doing. They did not stop to think whether they should do this or whether this was a good idea. In other words, no one pointed out that if what they believed was true, then they should have called the police. The citizen’s arrest is only a prelude to the police making an official arrest if the law appeared to have been broken. It appears none of the men, nor any of their family or friends, pointed out that if they believed a crime was committed that they should call the police nor did they point out that the citizen’s arrest is only for holding someone until the police arrive. Even when asked to leave, none of the men thought they should wait until the police arrived. If the men had believed in the rightness of their cause they should have stayed until the police arrived so they could explain the situation and ask the police to arrest the principal.
When we understand that our acts have consequences and what we do can be used by others, then the Golden Rule rule; “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” becomes a sensible approach to life and one that allows us to live civilized lives free from the threat of violence. In other words, it encourages us to understand reciprocity since how we treat others is how they will treat us, which leads us to an important counter argument against using force or the threat of a citizen’s arrest when we disagree with someone.
If the men thought they were empowered to act as they did, then the question becomes whether the principal, who was upholding the rules and enforcing the law, would have been reasonable in resisting their demands with force. If she had pulled a firearm in response to their refusal to leave her office, she reciprocates and escalates because she disagrees with them, would the men have agreed with her approach? Would they have agreed with her point of view because she had shown greater force and thus a greater threat? How the men behaved would seem to suggest that they would have to accept that response since they worked from the premise that force was acceptable to get their way in which case if the teacher used greater force, then she must be right. The question was not whether the principal, the school, and the public health authority were acting within reason and in accordance with agreed rules and procedures, but whether they had sufficient force to get their way.
What appears to have happened is that none of the men considered the consequences of their actions. They appear to have assumed or acted on the belief that they were right and there would be no consequences. In other words, they thought they could act with impunity. This belief that they would not face consequences appears to have been part of what had encouraged them to act. If they thought through the potential consequences of their actions or at least called the police, they might have made a different decision.
What appears to have happened, but is not clear from the reporting, is that the men encouraged each other to act. They convinced each other that the plan was a good idea and to act accordingly. How the men acted is not surprising within the social media cultural context which shows videos of people who act with apparent impunity when they shout at public school officials or at public meetings, or confront public officials. In these videos we rarely see anyone face a response to the claims they have raised nor do we see them experience consequences for what they have done. To some extent that is the benefit of free speech in that people can speak their mind even if they appear to have lost their mind. The danger, though, is that it gives the impression that such behaviour, when it moves beyond free speech to intimidation and threats, can be done without impunity and may even have broad support. After all, you do not have the audience jeering them or anyone approaching them after the meeting asking them to explain why they believe the School Board are lizard people. In other words, they rarely have to justify themselves. Even though the people might, and often do, face consequences after the event that was captured on video, most people never see or hear of those consequences. As a result, the audience can develop the mistaken belief or can be encouraged to believe that they can act similarly because there will be no consequences. Yet, our moral life is one in which our choices have consequences. In some cases, such as this, they are immediate and in others it can take longer for the consequences to arrive. However, one could suggest that the folks who disrupt public meetings, act inappropriately, and disgracefully are already living with the consequences of their behaviour.
What we see is that the people who act inappropriately at public meetings have lives that appear chaotic as they cannot restrain themselves in public as would be expected of an adult. We do not expect adults to act as these men have. The father could not talk to the principal on his own but needed two other men to support him, with one of them brandishing zipties. In this case, the decisions will have legal consequences as the men have been charged with criminal trespass. The indirect consequences is that these men have shown their inability to think clearly or behave appropriately to an issue. In other words, they have shown an ability to control their emotions as we would expect from a functioning adult. They have shown their ignorance of a citizen’s arrest, which the court should consider as an aggravating factor since it brings the law into disrepute. The men behaved in a way that showed a clear disregard for the law by claiming the law had been broken. They also showed a disregard for law enforcement because they sought to take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism is a criminal behaviour. They have demonstrated they cannot act moderately or proportionately when faced with something they think is illegal as they did not call the police. In the end, the event shows the men as childish, ignorant, unreasonable, immature, and unable to manage their emotional response to events. They acted like unruly children when they needed to act like adults. Now they face adult consequences.
- Arizona law allows for the use of force in three cases, these include self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property. ↩︎
- According to the Daily Beast, Kelly Walker wrote on his Facebook account that, “When this kind of coercion and bullying is perpetrated by school administrators, breaking the law, a citizen’s arrest is an option worth looking into,” This suggests that he has determined the crime, determined the penalty, and will enforce the law as he understands it. He and his friends have become, judge, jury, and executioner in that moment. https://www.thedailybeast.com/arizona-dad-rishi-rambaran-arrested-after-angry-trio-threatens-to-zip-tie-principal-over-covid-rules ↩︎
- https://www.thedailybeast.com/arizona-dad-rishi-rambaran-arrested-after-angry-trio-threatens-to-zip-tie-principal-over-covid-rules ↩︎
- https://www.thedailybeast.com/men-charged-for-ambushing-mesquite-elementary-school-principal-with-zip-ties-over-covid-rules ↩︎
- https://www.thephoenixcriminalattorney.com/blog/2020/may/making-a-citizen-s-arrest-in-arizona-can-you-get/ As the article explains, if you make a citizen’s arrest, you have to prove to a jury it was reasonable or you will face potential criminal charges. “In order to properly and legally assert the defense that you were effectuating a citizen’s arrest, you will need to prove to a jury not only that you (yourself) violated the law to prevent one of these crimes, but that you were reasonable in doing so.” ↩︎
- “Walker, a local marketing strategist and copywriter, co-owns a coffee shop in Tucson” ↩︎