Friday, July 31, 2009

Once more on the Gates incident

The African-American actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith has a good piece on Before We All Have A Beer Huffington Post 07/30/09. Thursday's "beer summit" made the celebrity journalists happy. It gave them a theatrical event that they could obsess over and pretend to be dealing with profound issues. That's not to say there weren't profound issues involved. It's to say that pretending to deal with them is pretty much all our infotainment press, especially on TV, can fight the thought or energy to do.

Smith seems to have seen the incident in much the way I did, at least in so far as it wasn't the much-discussed "racial profiling" that stands out to me as the most significant issue. She writes, "But this teachable moment has been framed by the media as more than a moment about policing. It is supposedly about 'race.'" The aspect that seemed to me most significant was that from the incident report from Sgt. Crowley and one other officer on the scene, and from the fact that the City and Police Department within hours asked the district attorney to not pursue the charges, it was very clear that the officers believed that Henry Louis Gates, they was not concerned there was a burglar in the house, and that the City and the PD thought they didn't have a leg to stand on in justifying the arrest. It was a "contempt of cop" arrest. And, despite how common such arrests may be, contempt of cop in itself is not a crime.

Smith describes a somewhat similar experience of her own. She doesn't accuse the cops involve of racism. But she does explain in her article that black communities really do have a different experience with the police than most whites, for whom the most hostile encounter with the police typically comes from a speeding ticket. Her story:

I was living in Georgetown while doing some research for a project in Washington. I lived there off and on for five years. It was a stunning property - a town house with a large garden. My hosts were a Republican Congressman and warm liberal Democrat - his wife. Their hospitality was beyond beyond. One night on a weekend, when my hosts were out of town, I came back to the house and found that the front door was locked by bolt on the inside. I could not open the door. I looked up at the house and noticed lights on that were never on. I went through the garden door and into the basement of the house - terrified about what I might find - but nonetheless optimistic that as the lights were on the uppermost floor, that I could successfully call the police from the kitchen phone, the kitchen being as in those old houses, in the basement. I called 911. Immediately, in less than ten minutes I heard police arriving. I went out into the garden and opened the garden door to meet them and tell them what was going on. I found myself surrounded by about twelve police officers, men and women. In the fog of my fear, I saw what I thought were at least three races: white, Latino, and black. Perhaps there were more. Their guns were drawn. I was in a semi circle of guns pointing at me. What in my life and education would have prepared me for what to do? They began to shout in unison and at the top of their lungs "Get back! Get back! Get back!". I began to explain that I was the one who called. I assume that I look and sound like an educated person -at least I'm usually cast that way in movies and television shows. I was conservatively dressed - I had been interviewing political types that day. I tried to explain again - they charged closer and got louder. Suddenly my mind clicked to an interview I had done of a police officer, and trainer of officers in Oakland California. I saw him in my mind's eye and remembered his words about how - when police come into a home they accelerate from making noise - that is breaking down a door, charging in and yelling - to using force. I realized that my reasoning with them was not working because they were screaming 'GET BACK", and I was moving forward. I stepped back into the garden. When it was over, and I was terrified at what had happened I began to wonder what their story would have been if they'd shot me. Would they have shot to injure, or would they have shot to kill, in an effort to both protect property - and supposedly their lives. I was not armed. Where could this have gone - and mostly what would be their version of the story? I do not think this would have happened to a white woman in Georgetown.
She goes on to describe an instance of what can happen to whites who have a more serious run-in with the law than a speeding ticket.

Smith's description of her experience is yet another reason to be cautious about the advice Arkansas columnist Gene Lyons gave in his weekly column, Black men, white cops and media mind readers Salon 07/30/09. Gene's work is always distinguished from the hackery typically produced by our celebrity pundits, and this column is no exception. But I thought his take on the Gates incident was pretty weak. I was also surprised by this piece of advice: "Anyway, when the police come to your door, always step outside. It puts everybody more at ease."

Say what? Smith's account suggests otherwise. Cops comes to your door, thinking there could be a burglar inside - or for any other reason - and you immediately step forward out the door toward them? Whatever their reaction, in most cases putting "everybody more at ease" isn't likely to be one of them. I think ole Gene may have dealt with so many cops as a reporter that he's generalizing way too much from that experience. If you're buds with the local cops and one of your police pals comes to the door, it might be natural to step outside and say, "Hey, Jim, how are you? Here, let me show you my new lawnmower." Otherwise, respectful restraint would seem to be more appropriate.

The one thing I regret about the upshot of all this is that the "beer summit", especially as processed by our sad excuse for a national press, is that outside Rush Limbaugh's sphere of ideological dominance (i.e., basically the entire Republican Party), this may be reduced for many people to a question of the manners of the two men, or a tale of the working-class white policeman having a run-in with the arrogant black professor. But when a police officer is there on business and especially when he's arresting someone, he's not there in the capacity of a police benefits fundraiser or a model representative of the working class. He acting as an agent of the state and he's required to follow the law.

And the law does matter. It's not a crime to be an obnoxious twit or to bad-mouth a police officer on duty. I generally recommend avoiding the latter. And, as Gene Lyons says, "the average professor can be awfully hard to bring down off his high horse." But until sassing becomes an actual crime, it's not valid grounds for arresting someone. Cops have bad days. And, yes, there are bad cops. In Oakland, there was a case a few years ago of a group of cops known as the Night Riders or Rough Riders who were found to have planted evidence on drug suspects, along with other misconduct. One criminal trial related to the case ended in a jury deadlock, another in a mistrial, and prosecutors declined to seek another trial. But the City of Oakland agreed to pay $10.5M to settle a lawsuit over the actions of the four. And over 100 drug prosecutions were dropped because of the problems their actions caused for the value of the evidence.

Oakland cops have a tough job in some parts of town. Just this year, four Oakland officers were killed in the line of duty in an extended shootout that began with a "routine" traffic stop in which the driver turned out to be someone with an outstanding arrest warrant and started shooting. And they were rightfully honored in a ceremony attended by 20,000 people. But that doesn't mean anyone should ignore the fact that there are problem cops out there. That's why being sensible and watching out for your rights in dealing with the law just make good sense, whatever your politics and whatever your instinctive attitude toward police may be.


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