Obama's response on Gates also derailed discussion of health care. We have a press corps that will say: "Honest question: Is there a point when the president knows too much about an issue?" Most of them hate policy, and they will frame things from a conservative or at least establishmentarian perspective. Given their shallowness, it's dangerous to give them any opening to veer off substance (The Daily Show captures this very well).
You can read the police report on Gates here, and Gates' lawyer, Charles Ogletree, has given his account:
The basic narrative is fairly clear, but there are some discrepancies. Crooked Timber had a police captain offer his perspective on the incident and the broader principles, but his timeline appears to be off on a crucial point or two. Lowry Heussler provides a careful analysis of the police report and concludes "Sgt. Crowley's report almost certainly contains intentional falsehoods, but even accepting his account at face value, the report tells us all we need to conclude that Crowley was in the wrong here, and by a large factor." If the charges were dropped, how can the police department insist that it was right to arrest Gates in the first place? I can fully believe it's standard operating procedure for a cop to arrest someone who annoys him, but that doesn't make it legal or right. The police were doing their job responding, and asking Gates for ID, but after his identity was established and it was clear he was in his own house, everything should have ended. Whether Gates got heated or not, it seems pretty clear that Crowley took things personally and abused his power. It's not that Gates was a danger – except to Crowley's pride.
Roy Edroso covers conservative reaction in "Why Libertarianism is Basically a White Thing," and I'd be surprised if his wingnut roundup tomorrow doesn't cover more of this. I shouldn't be surprised by conservative inconsistency/ hypocrisy/ authoritarianism on the incident, but I'm still disappointed. In the comment thread, Aimai, who lives in the area, makes some good observations about class dynamics of the region, although she still thinks race and civil liberties are key.
Bob Somerby covers class issues in the coverage, and Phantom Negro and Pam Spaulding cover class in relation to Gates' reaction. While these three pieces offer some good observations, I do think they miss the bigger picture. While race and gender are important issues (although often discussed obtusely by the mainstream media), class and power are frequently more important, but not as often discussed in America. I'm glad to see any pieces discussing class. But in this case, Gates may have belonged to a higher "class," but Crowley had the power. And apparently he abused it.
There are good cops (even here in Los Angeles), and it can be a dangerous job. But you have to be pretty cloistered to believe that cops never abuse their power. Sure, the wisest course of action for Gates was to be as polite as possible. However, none of that changes that Crowley abused his position. And it doesn't change that, given a worse cop in the same situation, Gates being polite in the same situation wouldn't have made a difference. As it is, apparently Crowley didn't follow the law. More importantly, the stakes aren't remotely equivalent. The cop in this situation, after Gates' identity and residency are established, risks a bruised ego. With a really bad cop, Gates could have wound up tasered, beaten or dead.
I remain troubled by acceptance of authoritarianism in some reactions to the Gates incident. I'm glad some others see it the same way. Matt Yglesias put it well:
Meanwhile, note that racial motivations or there absence have really nothing to do with the nature of Officer Crowley’s misconduct. What happened basically is that Crowley accused Gates, whether for good reason or not, of breaking into his own home. Gates, pissed off, offended Crowley. At which point Crowley, even though he was now perfectly aware that Gates was not guilty of anything, decided to exact revenge by manipulating the situation to create a trumped-up disorderly conduct charge. That’s not professional policing, and it’s not a good use of the City of Cambridge’s law enforcement resources. That’s why the charges were dropped, and that’s why it’s fair to say that Crowley was acting stupidly racial issues aside.*
Meanwhile, we see here yet another instance of one of my favorite themes on this blog. The conservative movement, which never ever ever dedicates any time or energy to the problem of racial discrimination suffered by non-whites, thinks it’s very important to draw attention to the social crisis of white people burdened by accusations of racism.
* To consider a race-free instance, I was actually treated extremely rudely by an MPDC officer yesterday. I, wisely, just decided to not worry about it and move on. But suppose I’d decided to respond to him being rude by overreacting and blowing up at him. And then he decided to respond to me being rude by finding some pretext on which to arrest me. Neither the fact that the cop’s not a racist nor the fact that I had overreacted would make retaliating with a trumped-up charge the right way for the cop to respond.
The cop baited the guy into leaving the house so he could arrest him for making a cop feel bad.
I appreciate the work of law enforcement. But regardless of race, too many cops have the belief that if they get insulted, they have the right to turn that into an arresting offense. That's not the law whatsoever, nor should it be. It creates a chilling effect among the public not to call out bad behavior in law enforcement or raise your voice in any way. I know we're all supposed to believe that cops are saintly, but I live in LA. Police misconduct happens all the time, and we should be vigilant when it does.
Instead, the media takes the soccer ball and chases it into the corner, without any semblance of factual records or perspective. It becomes an emotional argument instead of a factual record of misconduct. We pay cops with tax money. We should not risk arrest when arguing with them.
A Talking Points Memo reader who's a lawyer writes:
We all know (maybe not Prof. Gates) not to anger a police officer. I had so many cases in which someone cursed at an officer or made a gesture to an officer and ended up spending the night in jail. Prof. Gates spent four hours in jail. Even though his charge was dropped, I'm sure that time in jail for a law-abiding citizen was utterly horrendous. There simply is no reason to arrest someone for hurting your feelings or making an ugly gesture at you. It is not against the law in most contexts. In addition, I can assure you that most people who walk into a court room in a case in which it is the officer's word against him or her (a law-abiding citizen) is at a superior disadvantage. An overwhelming majority of judges simply will not believe the law-abiding citizen over the police officer. So, along with the rightful adoration we reserve for our police officers, our society needs to acknowledge that their power is awesome and must be wielded in a cautious and prudent manner. Not only can a police officer throw you in jail or hold a judge's trust on the witness stand, he or she can use deadly force. It is an awesome power that is almost unparalleled in our society. It is important that this kind of power have a check and balance. This discussion is important. As for Obama digging in on his statement, he worded it better the second time. Cooler heads should've prevailed indeed.
Josh Marshall comments:
Race can't be separated from what happened in Cambridge. But even taking race out of the equation, there are cops out there, and I fear sometimes that it's crept into the culture of policing in some jurisdictions, who think that a citizen treating them in a disrespectful way amounts to a crime.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, after Obama's follow-up:
It's worth watching Obama's statement. I really can't begrudge him--his priority is health-care. Me, on the other hand, I'm pretty exhausted. What follows is the raw. Not much logic. Just some thoughts on how it feels...
The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can't explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me...
When we think about the cops, it's scary, on one level, to conclude that a cop can basically arrest you on a whim. It's scarier still to think that this is what Americans want, that this country is as we've made it. And then finally it's even scarier to understand that no president can change that. It's not why he's there. He is there to pass health-reform--not make us post-racist, or post-police power, or post-whatever. Only the people can do that. And they don't seem particularly inclined. Here is what the election of Barack Obama says about race--white people, in general, are willing to hire a black guy for the ultimate job. That's a big step. But it isn't any more than what it says.
...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 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.
And yet, that's what we are told we are supposed to accept. Not only can they arrest us merely for being argumentative as they did with Gates, they are now allowed to shoot us full of electricity to make us comply with their demands to submit...
It is very rude of citizens to do that, to be sure. But it is not a crime. The idea that people should not get angry, should not pull rank, should be rude to others is an issue for sociologists and Miss Manners, not the cops. Humans often behave badly, but that doesn't make it illegal. For people with such tremendous power as police officers to be coddled into thinking that these are behaviors that allow them to arrest people (or worse) seems to be to far more dangerous than allowing a foolish person or two to set a bad example in the public square...
At this point we are seeing a tipping in the other direction. Police are emboldened when they repeatedly get away with using bullying, abusive tactics against average citizens who have not been convicted of any crimes...
And I would suggest that it is just that attitude that led to people in this country recently endorsing unilateral illegal invasions, torture of prisoners and the rest. You remember the line --- "the constitution isn't a suicide pact." To which many of us replied with the old Benjamin Franklin quote: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
The principles here are the same. 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.
As usual, read the whole thing, especially for Digby's examples.
Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald connects these attitudes with the Cheney gang's efforts to deploy military personnel domestically, in clear violation of the law. I'll try to get to those stories sometime later this week, but I agree it's on a continuum, and if you've read Angler or were paying attention during the Bush administration, it won't be a surprise. One can argue about the best term for these people - authoritarians, monarchists, para-fascists or something else - but they have been, and remain, extremely dangerous.
Gates and Crowley may both be decent people who had bad days and made bad calls. I hope that's the case, and that their meeting will be helpful. However, I'm still troubled by widespread acceptance of authoritarianism. There have to be checks on those forces. In addition to the law itself as a warning, we need enforcement of it: systems of oversight and accountability, investigations where warranted, and prosecutions where necessary. However, the most important check may remain societal attitudes toward the abuse of power – and I think there's room for plenty of more soul-searching and reflection there.
Update 7/28/09: I have a followup post, of sorts.