Friday, July 24, 2009

More on the Gates controversy

Bob Somerby harshes on the treatment of the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. incident by our Big Pundits, including some liberal ones, in his Daily Howler posts of 07/23/09 and 07/24/09. As usual, he is great at focusing attention on the weakness of mainstream reporting today. I've previosly given my take on the facts of the incident, which I'll briefly summarize here.

From the police incident reports, a couple of things are clear to me. The cops believed Gates' story that he was the resident of the house. And that they didn't think there were any burglars in the house.

Combined with the fact that the Cambridge City and Police Dept. almost immediately asked the D.A. not to pursue the charges, it's obvious that they didn't think they had a leg to stand on with the arrest. Yes, that's an assumption on my part, but I think it's a sound one. And, therefore, it looks to me like a classic "contempt of cop" arrest.

It's also clear that the black professor was disrespectful, aka "uppity", to the white cop. Not something I would recommend in dealing with a policeman standing at your door thinking you might be a burglar. But contempt of cop isn't a crime.

Why was the professor being disrespectful? Maybe because he's a racist, as the OxyContin crowd seem to think all black people are anyway. Maybe Gates is just a jerk. Or maybe he believed the cops were there to confiscate all his weapons and violate his sacred Second Amendment rights. After all, FOX News, OxyContin radio, and gun dealers have for months been pushing the idea that Obama was plotting to do just that.

I'm not objecting to Somerby's critiques of way our sad set of pundits have dealt with the incident. But I do think it's important to take full account of the implications of the officials' own statements in the incident reports and in asking the D.A. immediately to drop pursuit of the charges. They don't show or imply that the arresting officer's conduct was racist or racially motivated. But they do show that the arrest was a highly questionable judgment call on the officer's part, at the very best.

An African-American co-worker suggested yesterday that it would be interesting and constructive if Gates and the arresting officer could have a frank on-camera conversation about the incident, in which each could describe the feelings and impressions they had during the incident that led them to the verbal escalation that ended with Gates' arrest. Legal concerns will probably prevent that from happening any time soon, unfortunately.

I also think Somerby's observations about the class elements involved in this confrontation are important. They are echoed in the anonymous Skip Gates, please sit down article in Salon 07/24/09. And politically, I don't doubt that they add to the attractiveness of this incident as a story for the Rush Limbaugh crowd to demagogue. Be that as it may, when Sgt. Crowley or any other police officer is acting in their official capacity, whatever their personal class background or level of social sophistication, they are acting as the agent of the state, not as a representative of the Workers Goodwill League. And the law actually does matter. For all I know, Prof. Gates may be the worst sort of arrogant twit. But neither for working-class people nor for wealthy snobs is "contempt of cop" a crime.

Salon also has the following articles today on the latest developments: Obama should have stayed out of Gates case by Joan Walsh; Obama speaks out on Gates controversy by Alex Koppelman.

Just to be clear. I'm actually glad Obama took the opportunity to highlight the issue of racial profiling. Respecting the police is important. So is respecting one's own rights and the rights of other citizens in dealing with the police. The two are not incomptable. And it's not a healthy thing for democracy and the rule of law the kind of excessive reverence our culture sometimes gives to authority figures like police and the military. The torture policy is a prime example of why.


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