We’re not proud of this, and it is really with some shame that I admit it, but we have had more than our share of run-ins with police around the world. To wit, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Bahrain, Madagascar, Korea, . . . , and most recently China. Given this wealth of experience, I thought that it would be fun to do a post relating our experience, with perhaps stories of one or two of the most interesting incidents.
We usually bring in the police because we have a dispute with some local person. Sometimes we feel that we’ve been overcharged and seek to explain to an official why we are withholding payment, or we otherwise feel that we’ve been wronged and the police are called in to intermediate. Since we only let it escalate to that level when we are clearly in the right, the resolution is usually in our favor, but at any rate it can be helpful to have official mediation. (Contrary to what you may suspect, local police generally do not immediately take the side of the local and assume that the foreigners are in the wrong.)
My favorite story, the one I most often tell, takes place in the foreigner ghetto of Itaewon in Seoul. Derek and I were out late one night near some gay bars in Itaewon, and were walking down a small street in order to catch a cab back home, when I suddenly heard, in English, “Check that one in the black t-shirt.” Now, I was wearing a black shirt at the time, but I did not think that anyone could be referring to me. A few steps later, I was stopped by a group of four U.S. MPs and two Korean police. The MPs asked me for my identification. Now, it was around midnight, and I knew that at the time (a sort of peak in anti-American/anti-military sentiment in Korea due to a recent accident involving the deaths of two young Korean girls) the U.S. armed forces in Korea were subject to an 11 p.m. curfew, and so I figured that the solders thought that I might be a U.S. soldier violating my curfew. After a slight pause I decided that I would on absolutely no account show them any identification. There were so many things wrong with the situation. First, and foremost, why were the U.S. MPs patrolling the streets of Seoul, asking anyone for their identification? Second, why would they pick me, an Asian person, to check? Shouldn’t they at least focus on people who look typically American rather than someone who is just as or more likely to be Korean? Third, why were they set up right next to the gay bars? I thought to myself, even if these MPs were in the U.S., there is no way that I would do their bidding, why the hell should I be doing it here? If I, a lawyer, do not stand up for my rights, who will?
I told the MPs that I was in fact a U.S. citizen but that I was not a soldier and that they had no business asking me for identification. They suggested that they had the authority to check me because I am a U.S. citizen–I told them that that was nonsense. The Korean police officers who were patrolling with them asked me to cooperate. I explained politely but firmly that I understood exactly why the MPs were doing what they were doing, but that I found their methods objectionable and misguided. The dispute went on and a crowd started to gather. For the most part, people were cheering us on–bystanders (mostly gay westerners) taunted the MPs with their own IDs. Eventually, they gave up and the MPs stormed off with the Korean police in tow.
Satisfied, we started walking back toward the main road when a young Korean man who identified himself as the owner of one of the bars stopped us to congratulate us on our victory. He himself (despite his clearly non-native English) had been ID’d the week before, and was relieved that somebody had finally said “no”. He said that we must come back to his bar for a drink on the house. Not wanting to be unappreciative, we went back and were enjoying a glass of wine when the Korean police came back.
The police explained that the U.S. MPs were making a big deal of this situation and simply would not let the matter drop–they demanded my identification. I assured the Korean police that I was not U.S. military, and appealed to their sense of justice and national pride that foreign armed forces were ordering them around. They remained firm, and I said that I would just go home, as originally planned–they could either arrest me or let me leave. I started walking away, but the police followed, eventually to a street with prostitution. A working woman stationed obviously outside her place of business was curious at our late night dispute and got involved, asking what the matter was. “If you’re not a soldier, just show them your identification,” she said. Derek pointed out that there was an outright violation of law in front of the officers (prostitution), but that instead they were wasting their time with me. The police at one point suggested that I get in their car, to which Derek protested by saying that he would then be stranded and lost and in danger (though really what kind of danger would an English-speaking foreigner be in “lost” in Seoul), persuading them not to take me.
Finally, the police argued that they had a right to check my papers for my immigration status, given that I had acknowledged that I was not a Korean citizen. I was annoyed by this, given that U.S. citizens do not even require a visa to visit Korea, but could not dispute the legitimacy of the request. Even in the U.S., I thought, this request would likely be within the law. I said that I would allow them a glance at my passport picture and entry stamp, just to verify that I was in the country legally. I made them promise not record my name in order to pass it along to the MPs. I showed them my passport–I had to sort of yank it back in order for them not to retain it–and they were satisfied, although not looking forward to returning to the MPs empty-handed. From our taxi on our way back home we saw the MPs leaving the Korean police station, where they had apparently been waiting for me.
This was perhaps the police incident that took the largest amount of time to resolve, but there was at least no chance of physical or legal danger. That prize would go to Ethiopia, generally a very safe country, where the police offered to extricate us from a somewhat angry mob by essentially arresting us. Thankfully, we were able to avoid both the mob and the police with the assistance of an armed and sympathetic guide.