Lotsa chatter today about the arrest of 58 year old Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for, er, “breaking in” to his own home in an upscale Cambridge neighborhood.  Even more chatter, especially on the right, about President Obama calling the arrest “stupid” during last night’s presser.

(If you’re not familiar, the facts are roughly these: an officer responded to a call that a house was being broken into; the house was Gates’s, and the supposed house-breaker was Gates; Gates provided documentation of who he was and that this was his address; the officer persisted; Gates got angry, asked for the officer’s badge number, and eventually gave him a thorough chewing out; the officer arrested Gates for disorderly conduct (aka, “contempt of cop”).)

This is the sort of thing that chaps me all over.  And by “this” I mean both the arrest and the breathless “defense” of the police by conservatives.

Citizens run this country.  Not the police.  Not the military.  Not the CIA.  Not the president.  Citizens.  All those other folks work for us.  Get paid by us.  And doggone well better respect us.

Arresting us in our own home because you don’t like the way we talk to you doesn’t cut it.  We don’t owe you deference.  You owe us deference.  We generally try to give you deference; not because we owe it to you as our superiors, but because we choose to do so in recognition of the work you do as public servants — which is to say, our servants.

When you royally screw up the work we pay you to do as public servants — like, say, by harrassing us for breaking into our own homes — you deserve to be read the riot act and we are well within our rights to do so, personally and right on the spot.

We’ve long had this respect relationship upside-down in American culture.

We think we’re supposed to respect the police, when it’s the police who are supposed to respect us.  But we’ve had that so thoroughly upside-down for so long that our police officers now have the mindset that citizens owe them something; that they are public superiors rather than public servants; and even that if we don’t give them what they feel they’re owed, we’ve committed a crime — a crime — and they are entitled to clap us in irons and throw us in jail, as they did Mr. Gates.

Officers, we understand you have a hard job.  We understand most of the citizens you come in contact with every day, day after day, accord you no respect, at best.  We’re aware of that, we understand it, and we take it into account.  It’s why the rest of us show you deference.

But you’ve got to fight this mindset that we owe you that deference.  And you’ve really got to fight this mindset that anytime we do something you happen not to like, you can use the power we gave you against us.

You don’t have a badge and a gun to make your day go smoother or to avoid the consequences of your actions; you have a badge and a gun to prevent crime.  When no crime has been committed, as in this case, you have no authority to do anything, and therefore any action you take is beyond your legal authority, an offense to the dignity of the citizens you serve, and well deserving of an ass-chewing from the citizen(s) in question.

You should accept responsibility and apologize.  If you can’t do that, you can walk away.  But arresting us is not one of your options.


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8 Responses to “Gatesgate”

  1. GKB Says:

    I was just talking about this with a friend of mine earlier today. This called to mind a line from the documentary “F@#&.” I believe that it how it is spelled on the DVD cover, but I’m sure you can decipher it’s meaning.

    Anyhow, the line went something like, “When you can’t say ‘F—,’ you can’t say ‘F— the Government!”

    I think if a cop is in your house, or on your property, after proving it is yours and there is no crime going on, you have every damn right to yell at the guy and demand his badge and information. And he can’t do a thing about it if he doesn’t like your tone. You’re right- government should be afraid of its citizens, not the other way around!

  2. urbino Says:

    I’m not much for fear, either way. But the people we’ve entrusted with the use of our most extreme forms of coercion — physical violence and forced confinement — can never forget what their role is: servant.

    Sounds like an interesting dvd.

  3. jazzbumpa Says:

    Bravo, Urbino!

    Part of the story, if I have it right, is that the arresting officer lured, enticed or asked Gates to leave the house, so he could arrest him. Which he did, on the porch.

    If this is correct, it adds a level of chicanery that only makes it worse.

  4. urbino Says:

    I hadn’t heard that. I did hear the cop saying Gates pursued him out of the office house.

    This is going to be one of those classic he-said/he-said situations, in terms of the details of exactly what happened. But I really don’t care exactly what the details were. Unless Gates took a whack at the cop with his cane or something, which nobody is even coming close to alleging, the cop had absolutely no excuse to arrest him, and should apologize.

  5. jazzbumpa Says:

    At the risk of seeming trivial, I compare this to a ref calling a technical foul in an NBA game. On rare occasions its justified. The great majority of he time, it’s a sign that the official screwed up, and damn you for letting him know about it.

    You’re right. They details make absolutely no difference.

  6. jazzbumpa Says:

    I think I got the enticed out of the house idea at Crooked Timber. Links includes an excerpt from the police report.

  7. urbino Says:

    Thanks for the link.

  8. jazzbumpa Says:

    And, after slogging through 176 comments, I can now state that it seems to be common knowledge that such chicanery is SOP for the cops.

    So – no, they don’t work for us at all; and arresting us is an option available at their arbitrary discretion.

    Y’all behave, now.

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