Between 2006 and 2008, Seattle authorities filed 51 percent of all obstruction charges in the city against African Americans, even though African Americans make up only about 8 percent of Seattle's population.
Eristus Jordan became one of those statistics on February 14, 2011, when Seattle police arrested him for obstruction. Today, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that the Constitution protected his right to stand in the doorway of his home, curse at, and criticize how police were handling his sister.
Jordan was 17-years-old at the time of the incident. His mother called the police because his sister was highly intoxicated and breaking windows.
Three Seattle police officers arrived at their Beacon Hill home. The officers started by taking his sister outside, roughly a dozen feet away from the front door (pictured above).
Jordan came outside too. He testified later, "I felt like as a citizen in this United States I felt like that everybody should have the right to observe the scene... just to make sure that everybody is safe... I should be able to make sure that my sister is all right."
But Jordan grew concerned when, he said, he saw one of the officers reach for a nightstick. He began yelling profanely (the ruling doesn't spell out what he said). The officers yelled back at him to go back inside the house. According to the Supreme Court ruling, Jordan complied, but returned to the open doorway and continued yelling from there. The officers yelled at him multiple times to go back inside and close the door. He refused, "stating that he wanted to supervise the scene from the doorway" and make sure his sister wasn't harmed, according to the justices. An officer closed the door multiple times, but Jordan re-opened it each time. The officer warned him that he could be arrested for obstruction, then arrested him. He went to jail.
In its 14-page ruling, nine justices overturned Jordan's conviction, finding that everything Jordan did is protected by the First Amendment. "While E.J.J. 's words may have been disrespectful, discourteous, and annoying," the ruling states, "they are nonetheless constitutionally protected." The justices pointedly rejected an earlier Court of Appeals ruling upholding the conviction. Jordan did not physically interfere with the officers, therefore he did not obstruct.
"The job of a police officer is really hard," said Lila Silverstein, his lawyer. "That's why poeple are not allowed to physically interfere in their work, and that makes sense. But that's very different from being present and being able to criticize the police.
"Not only was he right," she added, "he was extremely courageous to insist on standing there and assert his rights and responsibilities in the face of three police officers."
The conviction sets a precedent so that people know they can safely observe and criticize police in Washington state, as long as they do not physically interfere or obstruct. In her brief to the court, Silverstein cited this 2013 article by The Stranger's Dominic Holden on his own run-in with police, in which officers threatened Dominic with harassment and arrest for watching as they detained a young black man in Seattle's International District. "Jordan's case exemplifies the problem that The Stranger was discussing," Silverstein told me. In a follow-up piece when King County Sheriff John Urquhart fired one of those cops—the Seattle police officer who was involved remains on the force—Dom wrote that he was concerned that police got away with these practices all this time, especially with people of color:
These complaints that I filed were not about me. Growing up in Seattle, I believe that certain cops regularly submit civilians (particularly racial minorities) to abusive treatment, much more abusive than what I faced trying to take photos of a couple of cops. Often, citizens who've been mistreated don't complain, and when they do, the record shows, bad cops are often wholly or partially exonerated, even when they're guilty. Now more than ever, with both police forces undergoing reform, citizens should complain if they encounter hostile, unconstitutional, or violent policing.
Let it be known: In Washington State, you have a right to stand in your own doorway and observe police officers, from a distance, without being arrested for obstruction.