Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident

Since Obama in his press conference Thursday addressed the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on disorderly conduct charges, I understand that the FOXists and the OxyContin crowd have been thrown into spasms of rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth. Figuratively speaking, though it wouldn't much surprise me to hear of literal versions.

Since it's been prominent in the news, I won't summarize the arrest itself here. The incident Reports from the arrest are available online. Some basic news reports on the case include Harvard Scholar: 'I Would Like An Apology' WBZ38 07/21/09; Harvard Scholar Won’t Be Charged by Katie Zezima and Abby Goodnough 07/21/09.

What doesn't make sense to me in the officers' accounts is that they were called there on a possible burglary. But from Sgt. James Crowley's own arrest report, it seems apparent that he was satisfied that it really was Gates' house and that there was no burglary in progress. And the only peace that was being disturbed was basically in Gates own yard, the people disturbed being those who had gathered there to see what was going on. Apparently, he and the other officer on the scene saw no need to search the house.


I had two cops show up at my front door one day unexpectedly. My house alarm had briefly gone off earlier because I hadn't properly deactivated it, which happens maybe twice a year. The alarm company had telephoned, I explained what had happened and gave them the proper information. When you do that, normally they don't ask the cops to come. So when they showed up maybe a couple of hours later, I actually wondered what they were there for. They explained what they were there for, I told them what had happened, and they were satisfied. As I recall, they didn't ask me for any ID. They also didn't ask me to step outside, as in the Gates case. If they had, I would have asked them why and probably objected. Now, this isn't a comparable case. I knew the alarm had gone off earlier and they were basically coming by as a routine check, I assumed. They weren't responding to a call of a burglary in process.

The City of Cambridge and the Police Department requested that the District Attorney drop the case right away, calling the "incident" (not specifically the arrest) "regrettable and unfortunate". The DA agreed. The City and the Police Dept. also said, "All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances." The fact that they did this tells me they thought the cops were on thin ice in this situation. If this had been a black teenager from a "rough" neighborhood or a white working-class guy who showed signs of having recently had a couple of beers, I'll bet the charges wouldn't have been dropped so quickly, if at all. But the fact that they did ask the DA to drop the charges immediately indicates to me that they knew they didn't have a leg to stand on.

Digby has made it one of her blog causes to highlight the all-too-frequent abuse of tasers by American police, which has become a real nationwide problem. It's very clear in a number of the cases she has highlighted, many cops look at tasers as delivering a harmless little electrical jolt, even though it's typically supposed to be used only as an alternative to deadly force. In practice, it's often used to "teach someone a lesson" because the cop is irritated that the target is being disrespectful. Sometimes it's used as punishment even after the victim is safely handcuffed and under arrest. Tasers deliver a 50K-volt shock which can and does kill people. If someone is shot with a taser while standing up, they're going to fall down and often injure themselves when they do so. I broke a leg several years ago in an ordinary fall (not involving a taser), so I'm very aware that falling from a standing position can do real damage. I also understand that someone with asthma who is also taking certain kinds of antidepressents is likely to die pretty much right away after being tasered.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there was an incident on one of the BART commuter railway lines earlier this year in which there was a fight one night on one of the trains. The BART police pulled several people off the train to arrest them. One guy, who may or may not have been involved, was down on the ground and one cop was trying to cuff his hands behind him. Video taken by another BART passenger does not show any obvious sign of resistance. But the cop suddenly pulled out his pistol and shot the young African-American man and father of one in the back, killing him. His defense, not implausible as a fact but hopefully not sufficient to get him off from responsibility for a complete needless killing, was that he thought he was reaching for his taser. The connection I'm making to the Gates incident is that some cops just have a chip on their shoulder and are willing to punish people who they think are "disrespecting" them. So it's entirely plausible to me that something like that could have happened in the Gates case.

I'm not African-American but since I frequently use BART, that incident made a big impression on me. And it changed the previously positive impression I had of the BART police as being responsible and helpful. I don't mean intellectually, most of them are still presumably responsible and helpful. But now when I see a BART cop I'm immediately feel suspicion and the awareness comes to mind that this might be someone who would shoot me in the back without a second thought. Yes, it's technically irrational. But that BART cop shot that guy lying on the ground in the back and killed him. It's not irrational to recognize that you should think twice about involving the BART police in something if you don't have to. I saw a young guy one day using a skateboard next to the tracks who almost fell off onto the tracks, which at best would have really hurt. But now I actually do think in an instance like this, if I were to report something like that to the BART police in the station, how would I feel if they wound up shooting the guy in the back?

I'm not saying that it's clear that this happened in the Gates case. But the overall circumstances and the immediately dropped charges make it seem plausible and even likely to me.

The ACLU's Guidelines for Dealing With Cops

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides Know Your Rights When Encountering Law Enforcement booklet online.

I have a hardcopy 2007 version that is a bit more clear on what they recommend if the police show up at your house:

1. If the police knock and ask to enter your home, you don't have to admit them unless they have a warranbt signed by a judge.

2. However, in some emergency situation (like when a person is screaming for help inside, or when the police are chasing someone) officers are allowed to enter and search your hom without a warrant.

3. If you are arrested, the police can search you and the area close by. If you are in a building, "close by" usually means just the room you are in.
Here are several links to articles on the Gates "incident".

Skip Gates and the Post-Racial Project by Melissa Harris-Lacewell The Nation Online 07/21/2009

From the Boston Globe:

Andrew Ryan, Cambridge sergeant declines to criticize Obama 07/23/090

City of Cambridge and Cambridge Police DepartmentJoint Statement on Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates 07/21/09

Statement from Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons 07/21/09

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