Friday, July 31, 2009

I came by for a beer

Updated I haven't posted anything here for over two weeks - yeah, I know, "obviously" - and some suspected I had abandoned the thing. Truth be told, for a time so did I. I didn't disappear from online, but it was limited to making a couple of comments at a few sites. One guy even teased that I was "slacking." Which I was.

I just found I couldn't get interested in what was going on in the world. I still can't, not really. I've given up fighting the darkness on my own but so far the artificial help isn't working out so well. Still, we'll see. I tend to be very empiric about such things.

But I'm back here trying in the face of a case of writer's block because of something related to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. As I expect unsurprisingly because it's usually the way with me, it has to do with one aspect that I thought was not getting enough attention.

In the midst of all the arguing, charging and counter-charging, claims and denials of racism, demands for apologies from everyone from the cop to Obama, there are certain points that are undisputed: Gates had to force his way into his house. The police got a call. One Sgt. James Crowley went to investigate. He confronted Gates. At some point Gates produced ID to show that he was in his own home. It was after that, that he was arrested. No one, to my knowledge, disputes any of that.

So here's the question that I don't think has gotten enough attention: Once Gates produced ID, why was Crowley still there? Faced with a visibly and understandably angry homeowner, why didn't he simply say "Okay, sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Gates" and leave? Whatever "confrontation" occurred at that point was at least as much Crowley's fault, in fact considerably more so because as the cop, he was supposed to be the professional, the one trained in self-control.

And that in turn raises the point I really wanted to consider: In a surprising number of comments on the matter, including from some unexpected places (such as a blog at the Mother Jones website), Gates was criticized as foolish or as blundering or making "a rookie mistake" by arguing with the cop. "Everybody knows you don't do that," we were told, it's "unwise," it "just gets you into trouble." Even former Judge Andrew Napolitano, acting as a legal analyst for Fox News, who agreed the arrest was improper (a judgment seconded by FindLaw columnist Vikram David Amar of the UC Davis School of Law), who even said that Gates has good grounds for civil action against the cop and the Cambridge police, ended up saying it is "crazy" to defy a cop.

Why? Dammit it all, why? Why is it such a "blunder?" Why is it "crazy?" I expect Gates did mouth off some; considering the circumstances, it would hardly be surprising. But mouthing off to a cop is not a crime. It should not result in a bogus arrest or any other kind, for that matter.

But no matter - of course it is true, it is "unwise" to argue with a cop. Everyday experience on the streets tells us so. So to refine my question, why should it be "crazy" to argue with a cop? Why are we supposed to just accept that? Why are we supposed to approach every encounter with police thinking that this person is prepared to abuse their authority, to violate the law and our rights, even to go off the deep end and turn violent? Why are we to conduct ourselves on the basis that we have to be always afraid of saying the wrong thing, of having the wrong "attitude," afraid of the consequences of challenging authority even when we are in the right? Why are we supposed to approach every encounter with police wondering if we're being passive enough, obedient enough, subservient enough?

And, yes, that is exactly what we are supposed to think. Because to do otherwise, to act otherwise, is "crazy" in the eyes of all to many people and in fact a crime in the eyes of police. Not a real crime, no, but a "I'll fix you" crime. A, if you will, cop-defined crime. Years ago, former DC Deputy Chief of Police Robert Klotz labeled the offense "contempt of cop," the "crime" of being insufficiently respectful and obedient. Being busted on some spectacularly subjective charge like disorderly conduct is the frequent result - and too often it goes beyond that.
Criminologists and civil rights lawyers see similarities in many police beating incidents. The triggering offenses are typically minor, but the officer often perceives a challenge to authority and acts to regain control.
It's not a matter of criminality, not even of "disturbing the peace." It's a matter of "disrespect," of "a challenge to authority." Put another way and more simply, it is a threat neither to public order nor the cop's safety, but to their sense of power, their sense of control. Put even more simply, it's a threat to their ego. And we are simply supposed to accept that, indeed to embrace it, to when faced with a cop instantly transform ourselves from independent adults who have done no wrong (or at worst have committed some minor wrong like a traffic violation) into serfs on the feudal estate, shuffling our feet and casting our eyes downward in the presence of the lord of the manor.

And again, the truth is that if we fail to do so, if we fail to tug our forelocks, the risk, the danger, is real enough. More and more police are more and more ready to inflict extreme and debilitating pain at the smallest provocation, the first sign of resistance or defiance, and yes I am talking about tasers. Those handy little devices, pitched as a "safe" alternative to lethal force, have become what I predicted from the beginning they would become: alternatives not to lethal violence, but to any (other) violence, to any physical effort, alternatives even to persuasion and patience. Weapons of domination, of control, of the exertion of power - and of convenience.

Indeed, some police forces now specifically allow the use of tasers on "uncooperative" victims - not, note carefully, violent or threatening victims, but "uncooperative" ones.

(One so-called "expert" in the UK even advocates using tasers "earlier rather than waiting to the very last minute." Instead of it being a last-resort-before-guns, it would be a first resort, to be used any time someone appears "agitated." One can only wonder what he would have had Sgt. Crowley do to Gates.)

So yes, the risk is real, and while that risk is multiplied if you are black - because racists certainly continue to populate police forces around the country - the parameters of that risk are not strictly bound by race. I don't know if Crowley is a racist, although I do know the issue of race can't be filtered out. (And I do dismiss as evidence on his behalf the course in tolerance he taught; another thing we know from real-world experience is the ability of some to speak the words without actually embracing the concepts - as evidenced, it would appear, by Crowley's inability to apply that supposed understanding to the situation at hand. I'm also going to leave aside the fact of his patently false arrest report, one which Time's Lawrence O'Donnell calls "a written confession of the crime of false arrest.")

But even if we were somehow to filter out race from this incident, it would not change the basic underlying fact of, as a reader at TalkingPointsMemo had it,
the power the police have to arrest someone whether or not a crime took place. ... I had so many cases [as a Public Defender] in which someone cursed at an officer or made a gesture to an officer and ended up spending the night in jail. ... There simply is no reason to arrest someone for hurting your feelings or making an ugly gesture at you.
That is, even filtering out race would not change the basic underlying fact of cops who think they are beyond challenge, beyond criticism, beyond being questioned - who, ultimately, think their ego is more important than the law, if indeed they do not think their ego defines the law. In cases such as Gates', the charges are quickly dropped because there is no case and the cops don't really want to pursue it. They just want to punish you for being insufficiently obsequious and they figure a night in jail is enough for that. (If it went beyond that and you were beaten, you can be guaranteed you would be charged with "resisting arrest" and "assaulting an officer.") They have proved their power over you and that was the point all along. It's not about safety or order - it's about, again, ego.

And if we are "wise," we are supposed to accept this as a fact of life. That the police need make no allowances for us - but we must make allowances for them. We must submit to and obey authority without objection even when we are right and they are wrong - or pay the price.

The question all this raises for me is: Just what kind of society do we want to live in?

Two Footnotes, This is the First: The email by Boston Police Officer Justin Barrett that referred to Gates as acting like "a banana-eating jungle monkey" - and used the term "jungle monkey" three other times - was originally sent to Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham, who had written in support of Gates. She noted in a subsequent column that in the same email he also said suspects don't have any rights. (The full text of the email can be found here.)

Two Footnotes, This is the Second: You surely heard about catching flak for remotely deleting from customers' Kindles copies of 1984 which, it developed, had been sold by some outfit that didn't have distribution rights.
Whether or not people are bothered by these possibilities may in part be a function of their age, as a new generation grows up with an implicit understanding of the rules around these networked devices and learns to live with them.

“I’d like to live in a perfect world where I own this content and can do whatever I want with it,” said Justin Gawronski, a high school student whose copy of “1984” was erased by Amazon, but who recently declined when a lawyer asked him to join a class-action lawsuit over the incident. Mr. Gawronski said, “This is probably going to happen again and we just have to learn to live with it.”
And the passive submission to authority, the passive acceptance of loss of control, loss of privacy, expands beyond government to business. Justin sounds like he'll fit right in, in a future that I see coming and do not regret I will not live to see in full bloom.

One other thing: The cartoon at the top is from the excellent August J. Pollak.

Updated to add the link to the text of Barrett's email.

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