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From lecture theatre to court room; reflections on the U.S.

Not mine, though; those of Prof. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, as published in The Independent. I have been writing about the U.S. rather a lot in the past week, but I was reminded of this thoughtful and insightful article by my reflections on the American South of the other day.

"No one truly knows a nation," said Nelson Mandela, "until one has been inside its gaols." Last week, after living in the USA for more than a year without understanding the country, I acquired - briefly - a gaolbird's authority. I can now share insights you can only get from being assaulted by the police and locked up for hours in the company of some of the most deprived and depraved dregs of the American underclass.

For someone like me - a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor of scholarly proclivities, blameless habits, and frail physique - it was shocking, traumatising and deeply educational. It all started on my first morning in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was attending the annual conference of the American Historical Association. Unwittingly, I crossed a street at what I later learnt was an unauthorised crossing. I had seen plenty of pedestrians precede me. There was no traffic in sight and no danger to me or anyone else.

Apparently, however, as I was later told, "jaywalking" is a criminal offence in the State of Georgia. But I had no idea I had done anything wrong.

A young man in a bomber jacket accosted me, claiming to be a policeman, but with no visible evidence of his status. We got locked in mutual misunderstanding, demanding each other's ID. I mistook the normal attitude of an Atlanta cop for arrogance, aggression and menace. He, I suppose, mistook the normal demeanour of an ageing and old-fashioned European intellectual for prevarication or provocation.

His behaviour baffled me even before he lost patience with me, kicked my legs from under me, knocked my glasses from my nose, wrestled me to the ground, and with the help of four or five other burly policemen who suddenly appeared on the scene, ripped my coat, scattered my books in the gutter, handcuffed me, and pinioned me painfully to the concrete...

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