Built on Facts

On Gates

Far be it from a ScienceBlog to bloviate insufferably about current events, but I suppose I should weigh in on the whole Henry Louis Gates thing. I suppose this because I’ve had a very similar thing once happen to me. First Gates’ story, then mine.

The accounts of Gates and the arresting officer vary on several points, and each paints the other in a very poor light. From the points of agreement we can reconstruct a minimal but probably accurate recounting of the events. Gates and his driver arrived at Gates’ home. They could not easily get the door open either as a result of malfunction or misplaced keys. They forced the door open, Gates went into his home, and the driver left. A neighbor had observed this and reported a possible break-in to the police. The police arrived and demanded identification, Gates immediately accused the police of racism but did identify himself, increasingly heated words were exchanged, Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.

My story is thematically similar, except that I was committing a crime at the time. I was a high school senior, so this would have been 2002 or 2003. There is a high school tradition throughout much of the US whose name varies by region, but we called it White Wednesday. It’s the Wednesday before some dance (I don’t remember which), and it involves buying a lot of toilet paper, waiting till after dark, and then throwing it into the trees in the yards of teachers and friends. From the law’s perspective it’s trespassing and vandalism, but despite the annoying cleanup it’s generally considered something of an honor to be “rolled’. I’ve never heard of anyone being arrested over it, but if caught you’ll certainly have to clean it up and you might be ticketed.

Two friends and I went rolling and successfully got about three or four houses throughout the town. We were almost out of paper, so we decided to use our last few rolls on my own house. It was there that the the police caught us. We were polite and identified ourselves via driver’s license, verified that it was in fact my own house (well, my parents’ house), and listened respectfully to the officer’s lecture on Being Responsible and Not Going Down The Wrong Path and all that sort of thing, and that was that.

I expect if I had immediately accused the cop of some -ism and demanded his name and got into a heated argument I might have ended up in jail too.

Which doesn’t make it right. Rudeness is not a crime. If you’re rude to me and I handcuff you at gunpoint and lock you up for a few hours with the understanding that it will be a lot longer if you resist at all, I’ve certainly done a monstrous thing. The bare fact that we as a society have given the police our imprimatur to keep the peace using arrest and imprisonment does not mean that method may be used outside the law – and this was outside the law. Disorderly conduct statutes do not include being obnoxious in your own home. As a few people have correctly noted, it’s about power – race had nothing to do with it.

Verdict on Gates: Guilty of being a jackass, though a harmless and lawful jackass.
Verdict on police: Guilty of serious abuse of power.

This is not an indictment of police in general, most of whom spend most of their time doing difficult and dangerous work with the detritus of humanity. Most of this work they do quite professionally, and I’m glad they do. I’m the last person in the world to buy into the loathsome and adolescent “f*** the pigs” mentality. Nevertheless, because we give the police such power we have to have an extremely low tolerance for abuse of this power. As a society we already let much more serious police problems pass without comment. That it’s this idiotic incident that gets national attention and questions at presidential press conferences is unfortunate, and that most people are seeing it through the almost entirely irrelevant prism of race is even more so. But whatever can lead to improvement in our law enforcement system is good, and I’ll take what I can get.


  1. #1 Globle Warren Terrism
    July 24, 2009

    The police and the press and our pols have convinced the sheeple that police work is dangerous. If police work were anywhere near as dangerous as the police pretend, then every PD would be out of business because they could not afford operating insurance.

    Cops do wrong because they can and there’s nobody to stop them. Internal Affairs exists not to police the police but to conceal their criminality from the insurance companies and to quash as many potential lawsuits as they can.

    Actual dangerous jobs? Cab drivers lead the the pack as far as being murdered on the job. Agricultural workers, loggers, and deep sea fishermen lead in being killed on the job. When did you last hear a press release grieving a lettuce picker as a ‘fallen hero’?

  2. #2 Kevin Sooley
    July 24, 2009

    People say race has nothing to do with it, but how often does this happen to a white guy?

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    July 24, 2009

    @Kevin: Yes, it happens to quite a few white people, though it does fall disproportionately on darker skinned people. (I know one person who claims that he is frequently pulled over for “driving while black”–there is usually some underlying cause, but something like driving 31 in a 30 MPH zone which most people around here who aren’t otherwise attracting attention to themselves are generally allowed to get away with.) Racism is a confounding factor. But Matt is entirely correct that the primary issue is the abuse of police power. In this country we have given the cops a lot of power, and not surprisingly, this power is frequently abused.

  4. #4 _Arthur
    July 24, 2009

    The policeman could merely have left elderly Gate shaking his fist on his lawn, and that would have been the end of it. Policemen gets called names every day, and shrug it off.

    He chose to arrest Gates on unsustainable charges of disorderly conduct instead.

    President Obama and his ministers (and us, at a much lesser degree) should be careful with their words when commenting on a lawsuit or an ongoing investigation. “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest ?”

    I remember W and Rumsfeld making statements/accusations against one US citizen, that never translated into charges afterwards.

  5. #5 anon
    July 24, 2009

    The problem seems to be that saying anything to a police officer other than “Yes sir,” “No sir,” “Bending over as requested sir,” somehow constitutes disorderly conduct, giving any cop an excuse to arrest and jail anyone he doesn’t like for any reason at all. This is not how a civilized nation works.

  6. #6 Mark
    July 24, 2009

    I believe that the “broken windows” strategy of crime prevention should be turned on the police themselves. Just as strictly enforcing petty crimes has a tendency to reduce the more serious crimes, petty offenses by officers of the law should be strictly dealt with to help reduce or prevent the more egregious acts of abuse. And by strict I mean consistent and foreseeable; the punishment must be proportional to the abuse.

    If the department has dropped all charges against Mr. (Dr.?) Gates, that is a certain sign that the arrest was in error. To let this go without further action against the officer only encourages him and others to test the limits just a bit more… next time.

  7. #7 Russell
    July 24, 2009

    From the start, this who incident has been about making mountains out of molehills. Gates likely over-reacted to a police officer checking out a possible burglary. The officer likely over-reacted to a rude citizen. Obama over-reacted, quite uncharacteristically, in his comments. The media and blogosphere are over-reacting to all of it.

    It must be summertime.

  8. #8 Zifnab
    July 24, 2009

    Obama said the officer acted “stupidly”. I whole-heartedly agree. He gave the issue barely a minute in an hour long lecture on health care, and the only reason anyone is talking about it right now stems from the fact that the media must – at all costs – keep the public from thinking anything nice about public health care. This is a giant snow job.

    As for the issue itself – it’s a line-dance of special privilege. The cop abused his authority, but will escape anything even resembling reprimand. For his troubles, he got to have a face-to-face with the President, he’s been interviewed on national TV, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks away from this whole thing with a book or an endorsement deal.

    Gates spends a few hours cooling his heels in prison before he is released on a bond he can easily afford. Then he gets his days in the spotlight doing the talk-show circuits. And then he gets some face time with the President. And maybe a book deal or an endorsement.

    Everyone gets a lawyer. Everyone gets a voice in the media. An endless discussion of what is “fair” and “right” and “politically correct” ensues. Nowhere else in America would this be handled as civily. Another cop would have performed his abuse of power in near obscurity. Another black guy might have been tased or beaten or thrown in jail without the money to post bond or hire a lawyer. Any other pair of people might not make the gossip section of the local news. These guys get to be little movie stars.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    July 24, 2009

    Police work IS dangerous. The father of one of my former students was shot dead while he was responding to a crime in progress. (Always keep that in mind. Watching “Cops” and seeing the cop going for his gun as the young people in a car loitering outside a convenience store are uncooperative in direct proportion to their interest in committing an armed robbery will make you aware of the seriousness that can result from a cop’s view of a world with legal and illegal concealed weapons.) Yet that does not change my view of the Gates affair, which is similar to yours.

    I agree it is about power. I disagree that race did not play a role. Even if the guy has done lots of training on the matter of racial profiling, the woman witness (who, police reports suggest, never told the cop that the second man was a Limo driver who had left the scene) had already done the racial profiling for him. And did the fact that he was embarrassed by an older black man calling him a racist in front of his fellow officers have any racial overtones to it? I have little doubt it did, just as I have little doubt that the woman did not know anything at all about the resident of that house except that he was a Professor at Harvard – which could very likely mean “not black” to her.

    One thing to keep in mind. Neither of us appears to be black, so neither of us has ever been pulled over by 8 cop cars for driving 5 mph over (Stephen A Smith) or arrested for things like what you were doing. And if you don’t know very many black people, be assured your experience with the police is different than theirs. Remember, this was a college-educated policeman with years of experience in CAMBRIDGE, the home of HARVARD. Imagine what it is like elsewhere!

    For example, a black man was arrested in a middle-class neighborhood of my town for jogging near his house, but not near enough to his house to suit the taste of his white-flight neighbors a few blocks away.

  10. #10 Kevin Sooley
    July 24, 2009

    @Eric Lund

    I agree absolutely.

  11. #11 John
    July 24, 2009

    Dr. Gates obviously looks at the world through the eyes of a racist and someone who believes that he has special privileges. He also exhibited his prejudice against police officers and his disrespect toward authority. I’m sure that if Dr. Gates would have just been civil toward Officer Crowley, the police investigation would have been completed in a matter of minutes. Dr. Gates chose to be uncooperative during the investigation of a possible burglary in progress and because of his actions he ended up being arrested for Disorderly Conduct. Just because the charges have been dropped, that doesn’t mean that Officer Crowley didn’t have probable cause to make the arrest. And by the way, did you know that 16 years ago Officer Crowley gave mouth to mouth resuscitation to Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis (who happened to be black). That doesn’t sound like the actions of a “racist police officer” to me. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually lived in a civil society.

  12. #12 natural cynic
    July 25, 2009

    And by the way, did you know that 16 years ago Officer Crowley gave mouth to mouth resuscitation to Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis (who happened to be black). That doesn’t sound like the actions of a “racist police officer” to me. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually lived in a civil society.

    Just imagine that Officer Crowley did not do his job as a first responder and failed to give rescue breathing. Could officer Crowley have thought of the consequences of failing to act? He certainly would know the shit he would be in if he allowed a Celtic to die.
    And sometimes a civil society is missing. What do we do then? Allow figures of authority to do what they will? A civil society works bi-directionally. Crowley almost inevitably knew that a disorderly conduct charge in these circumstances would not stick

  13. #13 Uncle Al
    July 25, 2009

    Jackbooted State compassion at work: HR 1913, PROMIS, HR 645

    Go Forth, Agents of Goldstein
    (Yellow Rose of Texas)

    My mother spied upon the State,
    My father did so too.
    The were just like the Rosenbergs
    Though they appeared true blue.
    My sister spies upon the State,
    And husband and their kids,
    We’ve got to get those camps in gear
    And fill them with our Yids.

    My neighbors spy upon the State,
    My grocer does it too.
    Kids in school and teachers spy,
    And priests to name a few.
    Drivers on the freeways spy,
    And drivers on the streets,
    And those who wait for buses,
    And those who walk on cleats.

    Republicans spy on the State,
    The Democrats do too.
    Socialists and fascists spy,
    The Greens know what to do.
    Congress spies upon the State,
    The courts and cops with hate.
    We must kill them all tomorrow
    Lest we quickly lose our State.

  14. #14 Matt Springer
    July 25, 2009

    There were at least three officers at the scene. Crowley was white, another was black (you can see him in the circulating arrest photo), another Hispanic. Given that and Crowley’s background, imputing racism as a cause here is unsupportable unless it’s Gates’ own determination to play the race card so fast it looked like sleight of hand.

    I wasn’t there so I can’t be sure, but it sounds like in some cosmic sense he “deserved” to cool his heels in the tank for a few hours. But the police are there to enforce the law as public servants, not to act as agents of karma or of their own sense of respect. Gates shouldn’t have been arrested.

  15. #15 CCPhysicist
    July 26, 2009

    @11: “Dr. Gates obviously looks at the world through the eyes of a racist and someone who believes that he has special privileges.”

    Well, he does have special privileges, the same ones you have. And there isn’t a single place in the Bill of Rights where it says an Agent of the State is due any particular Respect on your private property without a warrant.

    To me, the most entertaining thing about this case has been to watch allegedly Conservative commentators opine on this matchup between a Citizen and The State. The same folks who think you should be heavily armed in your own house to protect yourself from possible excesses on the part of The State seem all to happy to let the officer exploit a vague law to protect his fragile ego. (The reasons I say this are on my blog, along with questions about whether the witness gave the officer a full account of the presumed departure of the Limo driver.)

    And do not forget that Gates just might be looking at the world through the eyes of a person who has been harassed by Agents of the State on account of his race. Why did you write “racist” rather than “past victim of racial attacks”, John@11? The latter seems far more likely.

    Further, in this case, it matters little to Prof Gates whether the racist conclusion was reached by the person who called the police or the officer himself. The result is the same. Similarly, it matters little whether black and hispanic officers have developed, based on experience, certain opinions about the odds that a person of a certain race will be a criminal IF those opinions influence how they treat innocent people of that race.

  16. #16 Matt Springer
    July 27, 2009

    The conservative commentariat has been all over the various sides of this one, including plenty of ones taking even more civil libertarian positions than me. I really shouldn’t exclude myself here either, since though this isn’t a political blog I’m pretty darn reactionary. For that matter I’m one of those “heavily armed in your own house” people too.*

    I’ll probably end up doing a follow-up post after all the hubbub dies down and more details have come out. (There are some audio recordings that have not been released. It is likely instructive that neither Gates nor Crowley has pressed for their release.) In particular I’d like to further explore when disorderly conduct arrests are justified – they often are. Not in this case in my opinion, but neither are they invalid in general.

    *It’s been too long since I’ve instigated a gun discussion in the comments. I’ll have to fix that one of these days…

  17. #17 amy
    July 27, 2009

    I’m so glad to see so many here taking up for Gates and recognizing the abuse of police power to arrest people in public. Police arrest peaceful abortion protesters using these tactics all the time, and it’s good to know so many object to it.

  18. #18 Jim C
    July 27, 2009

    For the person who says police work is not dangerous, please visit your police department, sheriff’s office, and state police barracks. Most have a memorial to officers who have been killed on duty. The most recent in our area was a officer who was shot and killed by an ex con in a stolen car he pulled over on a traffic stop. A week later the orphan son of the dead officer was born.

    As for disorderly conduct of Gates, his is behavior the accepted norm for dealing with police? If yes then why would anyone expect relations between the black community and police or even the black community and mainstream America to improve.

    If people are so upset about racial stereotypes, I suggest they quit acting them out.

  19. #19 Anónimo
    July 31, 2009

    have you seen this yet?

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