My personal thoughts on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates?  You probably think I’m about to say I agree with President Obama that the Cambridge police acted stupidly.  No, actually, I think they acted predictably.

Racism is a given in situations like this.  Whites know it; people of color know it . . . if anyone is saying race was not a factor here he or she is lying.  I’m concerned about something else.

Somehow it has become accepted in America that you never challenge, never argue with, never lip off to, never stand up to the police, no matter what they do.  Somehow it has become accepted in America that the cops are within their rights to taze you, beat you senseless with their batons, handcuff and arrest you, or even shoot you dead, if you do.

Authoritarians on the right have always held to this view.  Now, though, Americans of all political stripes are coming to accept the idea that the police can do whatever they want to the people they stop.

“He had it coming.”  “He should have kept his mouth shut.”  “He was being a smartass.”  That’s what you hear, and you hear it from almost everyone today.

The ever-sensible political blogger Digby has this to say:

. . . this situation actually has far broader implications about all citizens’ relationship to the police and the way we are expected to respond to authority, regardless of race. I’ve watched too many taser videos over the past few years featuring people of all races and both genders being put to the ground screaming in pain, not because they were dangerous or threatening and not because they were so out of control there was no other way to deal with them, but because they were arguing with police and the officer perceived a lack of respect for the badge.

I have discovered that my hackles automatically going up at such authoritarian behavior is not necessarily the common reaction among my fellow Americans, not even my fellow liberals. The arguments are usually something along the lines of “that guy was an idiot to argue with the cops, he should know better,” which is very similar to what many are saying about Gates. He has even been criticized for being a “bad role model,” thus putting young black kids at risk if they do the same things.

Now, on a practical, day to day level, it’s hard [not] to argue that being argumentative with a cop is a dangerous thing. They have guns. They can arrest you and can cost you your freedom if they want to do it badly enough. They can often get away with doing violence on you and suffer no consequences. You are taking a risk if you provoke someone with that kind of power, no doubt about it.

Indeed, it is very little different than exercising your right of free speech to tell a gang of armed thugs to go fuck themselves. It’s legal, but it’s not very smart. But that’s the problem isn’t it? We shouldn’t have to make the same calculations about how to behave with police as we would with armed criminals. The police are supposed to be the good guys who follow the rules and the law and don’t expect innocent citizens to bow to their brute power the same way that a street gang would do. The police are not supposed wield what is essentially brute force on the entire population.

Kowtowing to authority figures is not one of the American values I grew up with.

I’ll give Digby the last word:

Sure, we should treat the cops with respect and society shouldn’t encourage people to be reflexively hostile to police. They have a tough job, and we should all be properly respectful of people who are doing a dangerous and necessary job for the community. But when a citizen doesn’t behave well, if not illegally, as will happen in a free society, it is incumbent upon the police, the ones with the tasers and the handcuffs and the guns, to exercise discretion wisely and professionally. And when they don’t, we shouldn’t make excuses for them. It’s far more corrosive to society to allow authority figures to abuse their power than the other way around.

Henry Louis Gates may have acted like a jackass in his house that day. But Sergeant Crowley arresting him for being “tumultuous” was an abuse of his discretion, a fact which is backed up by the fact that the District Attorney used his discretion to decline to prosecute. Racially motivated or not he behaved “stupidly” and the president was right to say so.

Update (7/27/09): Eh, so much for the last word. Radley Balko of The Agitator has been writing about creeping authoritarianism and abuse of police power for years, and with regard to the arrest of Henry Lewis Gates, manages to cut right to the heart of the matter. You really should read what he has to say.

© 2009, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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