Friday, July 24, 2009

Gates matter requires some questions.

The right has been raising all sorts of flack over the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and a Cambridge police officer.

But their sense of outrage doesn't bear closer inspection. To begin with, they questioned President Obama (who acknowledged that Gates is a friend of his) defending Gates by saying that the Cambridge police acted 'stupidly.' But then they always preface this by saying that 'nobody knows what happened' before trying to claim that the officer was right.

Only if in fact 'nobody knows what happened,' why are they assuming that the police report is right? It's a fact that in America there are good cops (who I think are the majority of officers in fact) and bad cops. However police reports always paint the officer in the best light and the person who was arrested in the worst light. That may be accurate, and it may not. But to start off an argument with 'nobody knows what happens' and then go from there by one version of events is hypocritical.

Ignoring the obvious question of whether Gates would have been confronted in this way if he were white, one wonders what a police officer was doing inside the foyer of Gates' home once in fact Gates had produced proof that he owned the house. Certainly the President was correct that the police acted 'stupidly' just based on the fact that the officer stood there and argued with Gates for awhile before turning to leave.

He then says that Gates followed him outside and continued the argument. Gates denies this, but even if it were true it's reasonable to ask why not just leave the grounds. If an angry man standing on his porch is hurling insults at the police, then the easiest way to defuse that, given that no crime was committed in the first place would be for the police to just pile into their cars and drive away.

And here I'm being generous and (as I noted earlier) assuming that the police report version is correct and Gates is not.


Donna said...

I hope this incident leads to a broader discussion on police powers. Gates was arrested for "disorderly conduct", a charge which is supposed to mean that you are a danger to yourself or others, or are inciting a riot. Yet more often that not, it is really a charge of "arguing with the cop". While generally speaking it's a good idea to be polite to law enforcement personnel (of course, it's a good idea to be nice to everyone) there's no law or article in the Constitution or anything anywhere that says that the police are entitled to politeness. Yet that's essentially the state we are in. If you so much as look at an airport TSA agent crosseyed, you will probably be interrogated and body cavity searched. As a result, we trudge through the security turnstiles like so many compliant sheep being herded.

I believe Gates got hassled not necessarily because he's black (though it might have been part of it) but because he was impolite to an authority figure who has clearly internalized the belief that he is entitled to deference.

shrimplate said...

What Donna said.

sandyh said...

It's my understanding that the police officer asked the man to step out onto the porch.

Nonetheless, isn't your house your least according to conservatives? The man was defending his domain?

Nonetheless, whatever happened to a policeman just showing common courtesy to someone on his beat? Or a citizen showing the requested I.D. without getting all bent out of shape? Or the President not commenting on a legal matter without thinking first?

Me thinks all three men involved made a strategic mistake. They let their emotions and egos get in the way. I'd rather they all just act like adults now and admit there is enough blame to go around.

Too much testosterone at work.

Eli Blake said...


in America we have the right to call people names. If I don't have that right to call you an asshole then what rights do I have?

I realize that 'disorderly conduct' is a catch-all charge that covers everything from public nudity to playing your stereo too loud to maybe even playing footsie in the men's room at the Minneapolis airport, but I really think that the cop should have just gotten into his car and driven off.

Keep in mind too that Gates had just flown back from China (with all the attendant discomforts of modern air travel since airline deregulation in the 1980's killed the 'friendly skies') and then had the frustration after hours of sitting in one position of having to force open his door. Not that I'm defending his outburst to the police officer but I know I'd probably have a short fuse in a similar situation.