More Thoughts On Gates-Gate

August 1, 2009

My original post on the Skip Gates arrest incident came before the media circus, and I’ve been wary of posting on it again because there are far more important things going on in the world, but I want to clarify a few things (and correct some, too).

First, after hearing what Lucia Whalen, the original 911 caller, had to say, I have to apologize for saying there was anything racist about her report. It seems she was reluctant to call the police and was prompted to do so by an “elderly woman” from the neighborhood. She said to the 911 dispatcher that it was possible the people entering the house lived there. And she said nothing about the men being black. In fact, she said nothing about their races at all, and when prompted by the dispatcher said she thought one may be Hispanic and that she did not see the other. To be honest, I feel bad for the woman and can only imagine the invective thrown at her. She’s probably been called a racist 10,000 times at this point, basically for nothing. I can completely imagine myself in her exact same situation (although I’d be less likely to call the police, for a variety of reasons, none of which make me a better person).

Second, I’m tired of the term “racial profiling” being thrown around with respect to this incident. Racial profiling doesn’t mean any and all sorts of racial bias by police. It means disproportionately stopping or searching members of certain groups because of assumptions about that group rather than anything specific to the case itself. If cops pull over black people on the highway with greater frequency than other groups, that’s profiling. This case would be profiling if the cop has witnessed the entry and suspected a break-in based partly on race. But that’s not what happened.

Third, the most enraging things about the incident to me are (a) the arrest for “disorderly conduct” and (b) the public reaction. Nothing has changed my outrage over a man being arrested IN HIS OWN HOME for, essentially, being rude to a cop, insinuating he’s a racist, and questioning the legitimacy of his actions. I wasn’t there and don’t know what Gates said (although I strongly doubt he said “I’ll see your mama outside” – I think I’d bet everything I own that he didn’t). However, I don’t think that there is anything you could say, in your own kitchen, to a police officer that would justify arrest. Do I think it’s wise to talk trash to a cop? No – I wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t because I know all too well what the likely reaction would be. Do I think it’s ethically or morally justified to mouth off to cops? Sometimes, but there are many times it’s not. It may be unwise, rude, obnoxious, inappropriate, whatever. But these are all distinct from ILLEGAL. In free societies, people get arrested for crimes, not for pissing off police officers. If Gates were interfering with the police’s duties, or obstructing them in some way, or inciting riot or violence, or putting someone in danger, that of course would be different. But Gates was simply mouthing off to a cop in his house. You could argue that makes him a big asshole (I’d disagree, but that’s at least a legitimate argument), but it doesn’t make him a criminal. The power of arrest is not a trivial one. The police are not given this power, or the power to use deadly force, on a whim. They are given this power to enforce the law and protect the citizenry. They were given this power by the citizenry for that specific purpose, and are trusted to use that power in a legal and legitimate fashion. Make no mistake – I understand that being a police officer is a tough job. A very tough job. But many people with tough, serious, dangerous, or potentially deadly jobs do not have the power to arrest or use deadly force against others. The police do not have that power to retaliate against someone who pisses them off, annoys them, or hurts their feelings. The laws do not exist for that purpose. Yet, the police have relied on laws against things like disorderly conduct to do just that. Don’t believe me? Try it out. The next time a cop comes into your house, for whatever reason, tell him you’re a communist who thinks that all cops are fat pieces of shit. I assure you of two things: (1) the First Amendment affirms your right to do this, and (2) the cop’s concern for your First Amendment rights will amount to two things: jack and shit. The First Amendment is there to protect the annoying, in-your-face speech we don’t like. It’s not there to protect nice speech at the tea party. Nobody’s worried about the authorities denying that speech. It’s there to protect the war protesters, the skinheads, the NAMBLA people, the conspiracy theorists, and the assholes.

Of course, the above somehow makes me a left-wing radical in this country. Watching the public reaction to the Gates incident has led me to believe that many, many people in this country are all in favor of handing tremendous – authoritarian, really – power to the police. Police have a tough job and put their lives on the line, and we shouldn’t mouth off to them. They need to be concerned about watching their backs, not your tree-hugging right to be an asshole and talk trash. This attitude fits better with an occupying army than a police force. The police are empowered as they are to protect our rights. That’s their very purpose. The idea that we need to abandon some of those rights to suit the police stands the whole principle of our republic on its head. The Boston cop who referred to Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey” said it best when he claimed that “suspects” have no rights. The conception of law enforcement in this country has been one of a legally authorized gang of thugs fighting a war against an opposing gang of criminals. We send police into neighborhoods to subdue these criminals. Everybody else had better get out of the way. The goal is now to stop the bad people – the criminals, the terrorists, the threats to America and our “freedom” and “way of life.” The rights that we are abandoning to do this? Last I checked, those WERE our freedoms and our way of life. Otherwise what, exactly, is the point?

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