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 email@example.com