Christine Schuyler’s soapy protest against a Hummer earned her six hours in jail.
Where can you park the biggest, toughest sport utility vehicle that this big, tough country ever produced? The answer, according to one Georgetown resident, is anywhere you damn well please.
And, here in fin de siecle America, there’s pretty much nothing anyone else can do about it. We know oversized SUV engines more than subtly encourage global warming. But we wouldn’t trade the sense of power radiated by their all-leather interiors for any cubic footage of our absent friend, the ozone layer. We know their poor gas mileage and deceptively large interiors are no improvement over the martyred station wagon. But we revel in our ability to peer into the laps of the lowly sedan drivers who crowd us on the highway. As SUVs flip us to macho deaths in sharp turns, we take comfort in the fact that, though we die, we die big.
The true symbol of America’s reluctant affair with its own superiority, the SUV runs our roads ragged in unflagging pursuit of its own schizophrenic destiny.
Christine Schuyler, a 20-year resident of Georgetown, is apparently unaware of the SUV’s special place in human affairs. On Oct. 26 at around 6:30 p.m., she says, she found a Hummer parked on the historic cobblestone sidewalk outside her home beside the C&O canal. The Hummer, of course, is no ordinary SUV. The converted military vehicle compares with your standard Ford Explorer the way a Harrier Jump Jet compares with a Boeing 767.
Here were the last crises of the 20th century in microcosm: machine against man, future vs. history, upper class battling upper middle class. Schuyler reacted as any upstanding citizen would at such an affront. She armed herself with a bar of soap, wrote, “Jerk” on the windshield, and went about her business. Her message was clear: The little people aren’t going to take it anymore.
Schuyler got her first inkling that her message might not have carried the day only later, as she trudged back to her house after running some errands. “While I was walking down the street to return home,” she wrote in a brief after she was arrested, “I noticed a large crowd and a police car in front of my house. The crowd was yelling, ‘There she is!’”
The public was not disappointed: Picked out by the driver of the Hummer—then known to her only as a well-dressed African-American woman who frequents a gym on the block—Schuyler was unceremoniously cuffed and shipped up to the 2nd District cooler. The Metropolitan Police Department’s reward for her gesture was six hours of fingerprinting, fidgeting, and some decidedly subpar institutional food. When she was released after half a night in a cell, Schuyler knew that the little people had lost again.
A freelance editor, Schuyler didn’t set out to attack a symbol of the bloated ’90s. She just opposes drivers who bigfoot the sidewalk, that’s all. “I’m a normal, nice person,” she says. “I did not expect to get caught up in all this.”
“All this,” specifically, is a pending criminal charge of defacing property, punishable by a fine of not less than $250 and not more than $5,000 and/or a maximum one-year prison term.
Though Georgetown’s not exactly ground zero of SUV-bashing, at least some locals have taken Schuyler’s side. Advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) member Elliot Moulton, a neighbor for two decades who helped Schuyler secure an attorney, echoed her concern that her “offense” has been blown out of proportion. “Just a couple of days before this happened, someone was shot on M Street. This is soap on a windshield!”
Lt. Pat Burke, the 2nd District’s liaison to Georgetown’s ANC, sympathized with Schuyler’s frustration. But Burke insists that her brand of vigilante justice isn’t welcome on his beat. “There was nothing out of the ordinary about the time she was kept in custody,” said Burke. “She should have let [the police] handle the situation. She just learned the hard way.”
What exactly the situation was, however, is subject to a monster-truck battle of she-said, she-said. Not surprisingly, the owner of the gargantuan vehicle has a different take on Schuyler’s freelance soaping. “This is my truck,” says the so-called victim, who would identify herself only as “the woman with the Hummer” when I caught up with her on the streets of Georgetown. (“Hummer,” she was quick to point out, is the correct name of her civilian vehicle; the oft-misused term “Humvee” is reserved for the military version of her $100,000 automobile. As “the wife of a retired general” who thought Schuyler’s graffiti was an anti-military gesture, she should know.)
“I bought it,” she says. “I paid for it. Just as I would not mistreat someone else’s property, I would not expect someone else to mistreat my property.”
Ms. Hummer says that a fellow member of her gym told her during her weekly workout that a woman was defacing her car. She called the police. When District officers fingered Schuyler as the Hummer’s assailant, they asked if the owner wanted to press charges. Ms. Hummer was quick to prosecute to the fabled fullest extent of the law.
“If I, as a black person, had done this to a white person’s vehicle, I would get in trouble,” says Ms. Hummer. “Punishment is what the law allows.”
Burke also remains adamant that the car was parked legally. “If the car was on the sidewalk, the arresting officer surely would have issued a ticket.” The Hummer, however, was issued no ticket.
So far, though, D.C.’s convoluted court system seems to be getting in the way of Ms. Hummer’s search for justice. The case against Schuyler is moving more like an early-model K Car than a badass modern sport-ute. When she reported for her Nov. 26 hearing date at Superior Court, the courthouse was closed on account of turkey. She hasn’t heard yet whether the U.S. Attorney will bother rescheduling the hearing. CP