Yesterday, Monday, 22nd August 2011, Arie Smith-Voorkamp, the aspie accused of ‘looting’ two light bulbs six months ago after the Christchurch earthquake, finally had all charges dropped against himself and his partner Michael Davis. Amidst the general celebrations of his supporters, many thoughts came to my mind. I have organized them into three parts, and this is the first.
The media focus was on Arie’s “suffering” from Aspergers, with its “compulsions” which, it was implied, bordered on mental illness or even intellectual disability, and that he should be let off all charges because of this – “poor chap, he can’t help it”, sort of thing. Most aspies greeted this with a resigned roll of the eyes – or irritation that was suppressed in the interest of getting the case widely known.
The attitude of the aspie community, however, has always been -
(a) that the facts of the case didn’t warrant the serious criminal charges that were laid (and to give them their due, the media did push this line too),
(b) that the ‘hard-line’ attitude of the Police was the result, we had reason to believe, of an attitude within the Police that autistic people are “nuisances”, and that consequently they wanted to “make an example” out of Arie.
Think on it. To be guilty of ‘burglary’ implies pretty much all of the following –
(i) going on to private property (house, shop, factory, etc)
(ii) with criminal intent
(iii) to take something valuable
(iv) for pecuniary advantage.
Only the first applies in this case – and given that the property had lain abandoned and empty for some time even before the two earthquakes, Arie can be forgiven for assuming that it was no different to taking stuff from a tip, a rubbish skip (dumpster, for any Americans), or a demolition site. Even Michael, in following him in to the building, was concerned for Arie’s safety, not any possible illegality. I’m sure it wasn’t till the police suddenly swooped in, that this possibility occurred to either of them.
So if the ‘crime’ was so minor, why then did the police continue to take a hard and uncompromising line? Why, even after the real story was known, and even after the owners indicated they didn’t want to press charges, did the police continue to pursue such a trivial case, that normally wouldn’t even have seen charges laid? If it was ‘looters’ they were wanting to ‘make an example of’, why did they not choose someone like those who stole generators being used by emergency services? When have their faces, their names, been paraded in front of the media? The initial ‘over-excitement’ (with the exception of the assaults, etc) can be forgiven in the circumstances (residents of Christchurch describe the city during this period as “like a war zone”). But the unyielding insistence of the police on some very serious charges, for a very minor offense, has to raise equally serious questions about the police attitude towards Arie in particular, and autistic people in general.