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.