Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hulabaloo: Lumping Racial Issues and Grievances Together

Responding to a post I read over at Hulabaloo, who I usually find spot on with things, I can't help but be disappointed in how his original post and the resulting comments take the smallest grain of what happened in Cambridge with the Henry Gates arrest and then apply it to a whole host of racial and police grievances. We have to look specifically at what happened here to see if the police either abused their authority or elements of racism entered the proceedings. The biggest solution to racism is stepping away from assumptions, stereotypes and subjective anecdotes. The post and comments seem to reply heavily on these for support.

From what's been reported the police followed proper procedure to respond to a reported break in at a private residence. Gates front door was stuck and he and his driver were literally forcing his front door open when police arrived. I think it's reasonable for a passerby to see that as needing a police response.

Secondly, I think it's reasonable for the police when they arrived to ask Gates to identify himself, explain why he was forcing the door open and prove he owned the property and had legal right to be there. They don't and can't know any more than what they witness. Forcing his way in could have been for any number of reasons and the police have no idea who he is, why he's there or his intent. They need to know for their own assurance exactly what the circumstances are so that they can leave the scene secure both for the safety of those involved and potential allegations of negligence after the fact. At this point it seems that Gates was already becoming agitated in having to actually explain himself and his actions to the police.

But it wasn't until the police were leaving when things truly got out of hand. The police were wrapping up, leaving the property and Gates was even further agitated and belligerent toward the officer screaming things about how he wouldn't be treated that way if he weren't a black man. More on that later. But the police perceived it as an aggressive and threatening move and so they cuffed him and charge him with disorderly conduct. Again this seems like appropriate procedure.

Gates is absolutely right he wouldn't be treated like that if he weren't black. I think if he were white he would have had less racial chip on his shoulder, he would have quickly complied with some humility for the perception of what was happening and the police would have been on their way. I think it would have been very different if the responding officer were black as well. Gates would have no racial bargaining chip to not comply with their requests. I've seen no evidence that if the tables were turned, if Gates were white, the police would (or should) have acted differently. It was Gates' reaction and seriously subordinate behavior that led to his arrest. When the call came in the police were obligated to respond. Gates in turn should have felt as obligated to quickly and clearly resolve the matter.

The Gates matter is not a racial issue. It's an issue of privilege. I think the true nature of Gates' behavior stems from thinking himself above the law, a nationally prominent ivy-league professor, wealthy, living in a posh neighborhood - someone who knows the President of the United States personally. His behavior stems from the mindset of "how dare he" about a more common person questioning his actions. It's how anyone in a position of power, who thinks them better than someone else based on status, wealth, class or actually race might act. It was only convenient that Gates was black and the officer white that Gates had the opportunity to blame the situation on racism.

There are obviously times when police and other authority figures abuse their power. There are obvious and regular examples of mistreatment by police because of racial elements. This however, does not seem to be the case and it frustrates and sickens me as more and more people pose him as some hero crusading against white authority. I truly respect Gates, having watched his PBS television show, but this is an ugly example of using perceived bias to one's own advantage.


Ian S said...

First off, Digby is a woman - I also originally assumed she was male and it took some time reading her blog before I realized my mistake. Second, I actually agree with her broader point which relates to how cowed we citizens are becoming when dealing with authority and how the representatives of authority are taking advantage of that change.

Digby has over the past year been on a tear against the indiscriminate use of tasering not simply to subdue but to summarily punish citizens for the "crime" of being mouthy. The whole thing is shocking - pun intended - not so much for it being done but how the citizenry are actually putting up with it and accepting it.

A cowed populace subservient to authority to the extent that guys like Gates had it coming even in his own house merely for being mouthy and obnoxious*: that's the real takeaway from this episode.

Bushco can be so proud of their efforts at transforming a proud freedom-loving populace into a cowed fearful horde.

*A factor I haven't seen dealt with is why Gates might have been so prickly to begin with. I don't know about you but after a long multi-timezone trip (Gates was returning from China), my frame of mind is usually not that good and I'm generally on edge. Combine that with the extremem frystration of not being able to get into your home at the end of it and I can understand how someone like Gates might have gone off like he did.

Countervail said...

Thanks for the correct re gender. Will make a note. But I still think if you want to use the Gates incident to highlight a larger point you need to be specific about that incident and other incidents.

I don't think with Gates it's a case of retaliation for being mouthy or not being cowed enough in the face of authority. True it's a supposition that the officer wasn't deliberately trying to get Gates in a disorderly conduct trap for being an asshole. But it's as much a supposition that it was since Gates could have let Officer Crowley go without further interaction. I know I'd be inclined to walk away like Crowley if I was being berated for racism because I responded to a potential burglary. Without an unbiased account it will be hard to come to accurate conclusion. Gates can as easily be accused of distorting the occurrence as much as the officers on the scene.

But the fact that several officers report hearing Gates yelling at Officer Crowley inside the house about being targeted as a black man and then stalking after him out to the porch doesn't help Gates' account that he was just trying to get Crowley's badge number and name. He was obviously in a very agitated state and if as you say Gates was already on edge from his trip it's not unreasonable for the police there to charge him with disorderly conduct.

It's not subservience to comply rationally and calmly with the police especially after they've been called to the scene of a potential crime. As I said before, the police can only know what they know. And while it should have become quickly apparent Gates wasn't a burglar, it was much less clear why he and another man were forcing open his front door. They know nothing about the domestic circumstances of Professor Gates and had reasonable right to need clarification.

The witness on the scene could only know what she knew as well. Is it unreasonable to think something wrong is going on when you see someone trying to break down the front door of a private residence?

I'm on a tear on another site about the irresponsible promotion of guns being the "difference between life and death." We've seen a number of truly random violent events that have left several police officers killed or wounded with more right-wing kooks this year so I don't blame for the heightened sense of danger police might feel from someone losing their temper. Police work is a stressful job. You're dealing with bad people capable of bad things often in states of heightened emotion.

You never help interactions with police by being pissed off about needing to explain potentially illegal activity. Most of the people that shared their stories on Hulabaloo had interactions with police that were not situations where you might be taken to jail. What changed the nature of their interaction was their own pissy attitude toward the officer.

The police had every right to enter Gates' home and question him from the emergency call. They had every right to confirm who he was and what he was doing since they didn't know him from Adam. Gates could get upset if he wanted to but he just as easily could have put the whole thing to bed by answering a few questions calmly, let the police make a few calls and let them be on their way. If he wanted respect, he needed to give it.

Ian S said...

I guess our main point of disagreement is whether a lack of respect for a police officer is grounds for being arrested, handcuffed and booked into jail. I don't think it is. That's especially true if said police officer refused to comply with a legitimate request for his badge number.