FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Living in a Police State

The point about the arrest Monday by a Cambridge Police sergeant of Harvard Distinguished Professor Henry “Skip” Gates is not that the police initially thought the celebrated  public intellectual, PBS host and MacArthur Award winner might have been a crook who had broken into Gates’ rented home.  Anyone capable of seeing a 58-year-old man with a cane accompanied by a man in a tux as a potential burglar might make the same mistake, given that a neighbor had allegedly called 911 to report seeing two black men she thought were breaking into the house.

But after Prof. Gates had shown the cops his faculty ID and his drivers’ license, and had thus verified his identity, and after he had explained that he had just returned home on a flight from China and had been getting help from his limo driver in opening a stuck door, the cops should have been extremely polite and apologetic for having suspected him and for having insisted on checking him out.

After all, a man’s home is supposed to be his castle. When you violate that sanctity, you should, as a police officer, appreciate that the owner might be upset.

But where it really goes wrong is what happened next.

Prof. Gates, who was understandably outraged at the whole situation, properly told the sergeant that he wanted his name and his badge number, because he intended to file a complaint. Whether or not the officer had done anything wrong by that point is not the issue. It was Gates’ right as a citizen to file a complaint.  The officer’s alleged refusal to provide his name and badge number was  improper and, if Gates’ claim is correct, was a violation of the rules that are in force in every police department in the country.

But whatever the real story is regarding the showing of identification information by Gates and the officer, police misconduct in this incident went further.  Gates reportedly got understandably angry and frustrated at the officer for refusing to provide him with this identifying information and/or for refusing to accept his own identification documents, and at that point the officer abused his power by arresting Gates and charging him with disorderly conduct.

There’s nothing unusual about this, sadly. It is common practice for police in America to abuse their authority and to arrest people on a charge of “disorderly conduct” when those people simply exercise their free speech rights and object strenuously to how they are being treated by an officer.  Try it out sometime. If you are given a ticket for going five miles an hour over the posted speed limit, tell the traffic officer he or she is a stupid moron, and see if you are left alone.  My bet is that you will find yourself either ticketed on another more serious charge, or even arrested for “disorderly conduct.”  If you happen to be black or some other race than white, I’ll even put money on that bet. (If you’re stupid enough to go out and test this hypothesis, please don’t expect me to post your bail!)

There is no suggestion by police that Gates physically threatened the arresting officer. His “crime” at the time was simply speaking out.

What is unusual is not that the officer arrested Gates for exercising his rights. That kind of thing happens all the time. What’s unusual is that this time the police levied their false charge against a man who is among the best known academics in the country, who knows his rights, and who has access to the best legal talent in the nation to make his case (his colleagues at the Harvard Law School).

Very little of the mainstream reporting I’ve seen on this event makes the crucial point that it is not illegal to tell a police officer that he is a jerk, or that he has done something wrong, or that you are going to file charges against him.  And yet too many commentators, journalists and ordinary people seem to accept that if a citizen “mouths off” to a cop, or criticizes a cop, or threatens legal action against a cop, it’s okay for that cop to cuff the person and charge him with “disorderly conduct.”  Worse yet, if a cop makes such a bogus arrest, and the person gets upset, he’s liable to get an added charge of “resisting arrest” or worse.

We have, as a nation, sunk to the level of a police state, when we grant our police the unfettered power to arrest honest, law-abiding citizens for simply stating their minds. And it’s no consolation that someone like Gates can count on having such charges tossed out. It’s the arrest, the cuffing, and the humiliating ride in the back of a cop squad car to be booked and held until bailed out that is the outrage.

I’m sure police take a lot of verbal abuse on the job, but given their inherent power—armed and with a license to arrest, to handcuff, and even to shoot and kill—they must be told by their superiors that they have no right to arrest people for simply expressing their views, even about those officers.

Insulting an officer of the law is not a crime. Telling an officer he or she is breaking the law is not a crime. Demanding that an officer identify him or herself is not a crime. And saying you are going to file a complaint against the officer is not a crime.

As someone who,  although white, spent his youth in the 1960s and early 1970s with long hair and a scraggly beard–both red flags to police back in the day–and who had his share of run-ins with police for that reason alone, I can understand to some extent what African-Americans, and especially African-American men, go through in dealing with white police officers. I used to be “profiled” as a druggie/lefty/hippy and was stopped regularly for no reason when I lived in Los Angeles and drove an 20-year-old pick-up truck. I’d be pushed up against the vehicle, frisked, shouted at, talked to threateningly. I’d have my vehicle searched (without a warrant). And if I objected, I’d be threatened with arrest, though I had done nothing.  Under those circumstances, you quickly learn to be very deferential around police.

Prof. Gates was simply experiencing the frustration that young black men feel routinely, and that I used to feel back when I had hair and chose to grow it long—the feeling of being at the mercy of lawless, power-tripping cops.

In a free country, we should not allow the police, who after all are supposed to be public servants, not centurions,  to behave in this manner. When we do, we do not have a free society. We have a police state.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com

 

 

More articles by:

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail