The Brass Tack

Let's get down to it.

GatesGate Too Late

Posted by srconstantin on August 5, 2009

I’m behind the news cycle — way behind. Partly because I like to give my thoughts time to simmer, and partly because I’m an amateur and I blog on my own schedule.

I’m a learner, not a ranter, when it comes to race, so I’ll leave racial thoughts about Henry Louis Gates’ recent arrest to people who are better at making them. Instead, I have two points that aren’t race-related.

First, whether or not it was a racial-profiling issue, it was certainly a police power issue. This is why, long after the fact and after mulling it over, I still disagree with Dan Strauss, who sympathizes with the “black response” that Gates was being an idiot by arguing with the police officer. My mom told me to be careful around policemen too (though perhaps not with the same force that a black mom would). But I’m not Gates’ mom, or his best friend, to give him personal advice. The role of a blogger or journalist is to comment on the political significance of what happened. And the political significance is that Gates was arrested on a charge meant to prevent people from inciting riots, which he evidently was not; that policemen are legally obligated to give their badge numbers upon request in his state; that verbally protesting arrest or alleging racial profiling is Constitutionally protected speech; that he was arrested though he did not commit a crime, as many, many Americans regularly are. Radley Balko is entirely right.

Perhaps on an individual level, this is sound advice. As a general rule, you ought not provoke someone carrying a gun, whether your criticism is justified or not. As a broader sentiment, however, it shows a dangerous level of deference to the government agents in whom we entrust a massive amount of power. And it comes awfully close to writing a blank check for police misconduct.

And he puts the dangers of police misconduct in context:

A week before the Gates incident, the NAACP launched a new website where users can upload video, photos, and text accounts of police misconduct from their cell phones. Just days before Gates was arrested, Philadelphia newspapers reported on a local cop who was captured by a convenience store’s security video brutally assaulting a woman who had been in a car accident with his son. He then arrested her and charged her with assaulting him. The officer then demanded the store clerk turn over surveillance video of his attack. The clerk says other officers made subsequent demands to turn over or destroy the video. To his credit, the clerk refused. The video vindicated the woman. The officer has since been suspended.

A major function of an active citizenry is to be aware of this sort of thing. “Don’t mess with cops” is a survival skill, but I hope that in the long run we can do better than just survival in a bad situation.

My second point is that I find it odd that it’s taken so much for granted that when a scandal like this arises, the President of the United States not only comments on it, but sits down with the participants themselves to resolve their dispute. It’s spooky, when you think about it — the president is so inextricably linked with “his” country that if anything is newsworthy, we want to know his opinion, and what he’s going to do about it. No. We are not the Borg, and Barack Obama is not a tan, manly version of Alice Krige.

Happy Birthday, Mister Pwesident.


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