25 July 2009

Defending the Indefensible

Well-known literary critic Henry Gates, Jr., was arrested 16 July 2009 after a passer-by mistakenly thought he was breaking into his own home. According to the police report:

On Thursday July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. ([censored]), of [censored] Ware Street, Cambridge, MA) was placed under arrest at [censored] Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on the behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.

Now at this point I imagine you're asking, so what was the crime, exactly, that he was arrested for? Well, that was it—"caus[ing] citizens passing by this location [his house] to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed."

Now arguments have erupted over exactly what was said when and to whom in this whole business, and (essentially) who was the bigger asshole, Gates or the officer who arrested him, but none of this matters. Ed Brayton puts it well:
Look, this whole issue is quite simple. Is it possible that Prof. Gates was being a jerk during the arrest? That he presumed racism and had a chip on his shoulder when the police got there and berated them for badgering him? Sure it is. I wasn't there and neither were you so we have to admit this is a possibility. But here's the thing: It doesn't matter.

Exactly. This isn't a playground dispute between two kids or a barroom fight. One of these guys was a supposedly trained professional, out to do a specific job. The other guy was an ordinary citizen at his own home. Different standards apply. If the ordinary citizen was not breaking the law—and no evidence is presented that he was—then the trained professional had no business arresting him. Period. No matter what the damage to his ego may have been.

The only reason I am writing about this at all is that there are a lot of clowns out there trying to defend the officer in this case. As far as I know this fellow may be a nice guy—but the arrest report itself shows that in this case he acted unprofessionally. That his feelings were hurt, that he was being berated and yelled at (and I have no idea whether he was or not) is no excuse whatsoever for arresting somebody. That's an abuse of power, pure and simple.

Police powers are not granted to individuals so that they can gratify their egos, or take private revenge for fancied slights. And that this officer's defenders seem to expect people to take their excuses seriously leaves me flabbergasted. Do we live in a police state? Is this what we have come down to?

A commenter called Brent put the case in a nutshell here:

Setting aside all of the other meta-discussions on race and class that surround this issue, the thing about all of this that creeps me out the most is that so many people are willing to defend this officer who, assuming the most charitable possible interpretation, arrested a guy because he didn't like his attitude. That is what Barnicle is defending. That is what the execrable Mika Brzenski is defending. That is what I have read numerous commenters on a multitude of sites from the entire political spectrum defend.

They are, as far as I am concerned, defending the indefensible and it is what Carlos and, surprisingly reasonably, Ford was trying to get through in that clip. They were saying that if you cannot agree that arresting Gates was just plain wrong then there is no possibility of moving the argument forward. There is no good faith argument to be had without starting from the point that officers do not get to arrest a guy because he says unkind things to him.

I have decided that I no longer have anything to say to people who can, with a straight face, defend this nonsense. Forget about race. Forget about class. Forget whether or not Gates or Officer Crowley are nice guys who treat their mothers well. The bottom line here is that an officer used the authority of law to restrict the liberty of a man who was expressing displeasure with him. If you think that is right, then you fundamentally disagree with the basic principle of a free society.

That is not hyperbole. If you are willing to grant any individual with a gun and a badge the authority to arrest people because they don't like them, then you and I share no common principle on liberty and the right of people to be free from oppression. None.

Damn, I wish I'd said that.

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