Black and blue

objectionI’ve made some various comments elsewhere about the arrest of Dr. Gates, a Harvard professor and nationally-recognized expert in race relations in the U.S.  Everybody has their own opinions on this matter, a lot of it depending on who you believe.  (Fox Noise, as an example, has made their bias pretty clear – as per fucking usual.)

Most are saying that both parties overreacted, which seems safe enough to say.  The thing that I’m not hearing from anyone is that of course, parties to such emotionally loaded situations do overreact – they’re just human beings, after all, and they have human feelings.  It’s natural for a police officer investigating a possible burglary to be on edge; it’s natural for a homeowner to feel anger and fear when challenged as a suspect in his own home.  And because these situations do happen, and because it’s not reasonable to expect people in those situations to deal with it as if they were emotionless aliens from the planet Vulcan, we have rules and laws to govern such interactions.

Let’s assume for the moment that the officer was correct when he said that Dr. Gates was unreasonable, unwilling to listen, and creating a disturbance of some variety when he mouthed off.  On that basis, the officer charged Dr. Gates with disorderly conduct; that is the law that was applied in this case.

A quick perusal of the definition of disorderly conduct shows that the law is pretty much a catch-all, designed to allow a police officer to put an end to a disturbance of the peace by making an arrest.  It’s ill-defined, but considered a part of the police officer’s arsenal of options that’s beyond reproach; it’s practically never challenged on a per se basis.  It is, however, limited in all cases, and one of the more common limits is that practically every single written application of the law contains the phrases “in public” or “upon the property of another”.  In other words, it can’t be used on you in your own home (unless you are creating enough of a disturbance that it’s affecting the public, which has never been alleged in this case, to my knowledge).

Now let’s keep something in mind.  Dr. Gates had already produced identification proving that this was his house.  At that point, there’s no burglary.  (Officer Crowley, I believe his name is, at one point in an interview claimed that he had no reason to believe that others may not have been in the house at the time committing a burglary, but somehow he forgot about “the burglars” after arresting Dr. Gates, so it’s not likely this was a serious concern on his part.)  The officer has no reason to stay.  And yet, something happened in between the time that the identity was established and the arrest was made that, in the opinion of Officer Crowley, caused a law to be broken – a law that was pretty much written not to be applied in that situation.

For some reason, that question has not been put to the officer, nor has his description of events covered it.  It wasn’t assault, because Dr. Gates wasn’t charged with that.  The officer hasn’t said he felt threatened.  Dr. Gates recounted specific things that he said, including asking for the officer’s name and badge number, and asking if he was being interrogated because he was a “black man in America”.  No one has disputed either of these things, and a quick perusal of the books doesn’t reveal those specific statements as crimes.  The main problem seems to be that Dr. Gates was yelling at Officer Crowley – and Officer Crowley just didn’t like it very much.  The arrest was made on that basis.

Was it because Dr. Gates is a “black man in America”, and Officer Crowley is white?  Did that have something to do with it?  It’s not at all clear.  It can’t be proven or disproven at this point.

There are a few personal observations which I can bring into it, however.

I’ve heard at least two people claim that Dr. Gates was in the wrong.  One of them, a white man, began by describing the black Harvard professor as “uppity”.  People like that should be called on their bullshit before any serious debate is attempted.  A second, a black man, explained it away simply as this: if you yell at a cop, he’s going to arrest you – period.  That’s a valid point.  Unfortunately, the point may be that we are already living in a police state – a state where disagreement with a police officer, regardless of any other details involved, may be punished as a crime.

I have been in situations where police willfully disregarded laws to get people off the street – namely, anti-war marches.  The strategy is known: corral known figures in the movement early on, before the march starts; charge them with anything that’s remotely close.  If you can’t stretch the law that far, use moles and provocateurs.  When they insist on showing up to march anyway, arrest everyone in a radius for “disturbing the peace” or “resisting arrest” or “disorderly”.  The charges won’t stick, but they aren’t meant to – they’re just meant to detain you and keep you from doing what you came for.  The City Council will call the Police Chief to the floor in about three weeks and tell him how naughty he is for doing that, and he goes back to his office, and he does it again the next time.  It’s a known and accepted practice in practically every city police department around the globe.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that’s what happened here: Officer Crowley just reached into the books, plunked his finger down, and figured Dr. Gates was guilty of that just to get him to shut up.  That’s illegal, by the way, just as much as it is when they do it to peaceful protesters…but of course, if your basis for what’s illegal is defined as “disagreeing with me”, then there’s little you don’t feel empowered to do.

Dr. Gates does have one other point: in the past, and to this day in some areas, tactics such as these were employed disproportionately against blacks, particularly black men, to reinforce their “place” in white-led society.  It was, and is, profiling.  Yes, I’m aware that everyone profiles, and I’m aware that much of modern law enforcement relies on it.  There is a right way to do it and a wrong way.  The way it has been done against black men in the past is the wrong way, and if it was done here, that is also wrong.

I will say I used to have a great deal of respect for the police, and still do – for certain examples of the breed.  For the most part, I don’t usually trust them; I don’t think they necessarily have the interests of all the public in mind as an organization.  As a member of the public, I’ve seen too many examples to the contrary, up to and including those who are simply criminals with badges so they can’t be (easily) arrested.

I’m aware they have a difficult job and are underpaid – frankly, I think one way to change things would be to increase the pay of police officers across the board.  Make the job attract the best and brightest, who’ll have a better idea how to handle the public.  (I’ve seen first-hand examples of those who’ve joined that are far below this standard; many failed in other jobs before joining.)

Whatever the deal, we need to be clear that the standard being applied in this case – directly, by the officer and by other officers around the country – cannot stand.  Law officers must carry out the law – not a code of vendetta underscored by a thin blue line.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for this writeup. Curious about your reaction to the 2nd down of the ‘possibly related posts’, “a teachable moment.” Brings class into the conversation, though it lost me around the time when it tried to slam the neighbor lady for false reporting.

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