I have avoided commenting on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. until some time passed and the details of the case became clearer. Also, I have avoided listening to the public discussion of the case because I tend to find such discussion about "racially-charged firestorms" to be a bit... well, the diplomatic word for it would be 'unhelpful'.
I'm perhaps a bit more sympathetic to Gates than other people would be. Claire and I went through a fairly similar incident about five years ago. My grandmother had passed away and we were suddenly found ourselves needing to get to Virginia in a hurry. We booked a flight out of an American airport, in order to save money, and therefore had to cross the border. Crossing the border, in my experience, goes smoothly about 90% of the time.
This time, Claire was sick as a dog, having caught one of those sudden illnesses that seems to arrive at inopportune times like these. She was violently ill, could barely speak, was running a fever- generally feeling terrible. Anyway, the border guard was... not to put too fine a point on it, a macho dick. Whatever she said in response to his questions he read as "giving him attitude". The things she was saying were perfectly normal, but spoken in a raspy croaking voice that offended him for some reason. She would say things like, "We're married", in response to, "What is your relationship?" and he would bark, "Why are you giving me attitude, Ma'am?!" And then, when she would say, "I'm not giving you attitude. I'm sick", this was taken as arguing. You couldn't win with the guy.
And so, we were held for two or three hours and put through a series of irritating and obnoxious questions in a border office filled with everyone who looked vaguely "Muslim" that had tried to cross, as well as an idiotic white couple who tried to cross with cocaine in their back seat. We missed the flight and had to book another, and in general, it was a total pain in the ass. The reason, of course, was what lawyers call "contempt of cop".
And I look pretty square. Amongst my friends in the DC punk rock scene, getting run in by cops was distressingly commonplace. My friend Chip actually had the singular misfortune of getting beat up by a drunk yuppie with a tire iron who mistakenly thought he had yelled an insult (a passing driver had), only to be "rescued" by an officer who took his turn beating up Chip before arresting him for assault! These stories all end the same way: the cop drops the charges and everyone's happy... sort of. Nearly every one of my friends back home has a story like this. Also, incidentally, every black person I've ever met has a story like this. This is something to keep in mind here.
Now, in my experience, it's only about 1 in 10 police officers who are macho dicks. And one would imagine about the same percentage of people in any position of power and authority to abuse that power and authority. This doesn't make the institution inherently corrupt- failure to correct the people who abuse their power and authority is what corrupts.
That said, I think it is a mistake to jump to the accusation of 'racial profiling' in the Gates case: the charge would seem to be aimed at the woman who called the police, and I'm not sure it makes sense to suggest that a white man trying to jimmy open the door of a house would, or should, go unoticed. Calling the police seems justified and the officer questioning Gates at length seems justified. At the point in which Gates produced identification, the cop should have left. Even if Gates was "rude" and "disruptive". You're allowed to be an ass in your own home.
The President shouldn't have said the police officer acted 'stupidly', given that he's the Commander in Chief. But, since he's already said this, he might as well state the obvious: arresting an elderly man in his own home because you think he was being a jerk to you is a clear-cut abuse of power suited to a banana republic and not to a country with constitutional protections. It's not 'disturbing the peace' to be rude in your own home; it's not 'obstruction of justice' if you've already produced documents showing that you live in the residence and aren't breaking in; it's just 'contempt of cop'. The colloquial term for it is bullshit.
Now, I understand that Skip Gates wasn't exactly wise in mouthing off to a cop. I understand that he downright reeks of Ivy League privilege here, and that he lost his cool at the worst possible time. And, again, I think it's a mistake to call the cop a racist. But I simply bristle at the argument that a certain segment of the populace makes every time we hear about a cop abusing their power: "Well, you'd better do what the guy with the gun and the badge says! And if you're too stupid to do that, you get what you deserve!" Not to put too fine a point on it, but I find that argument to be grotesquely authoritarian.
Lastly, I find it somewhat distressing that it seems to be accepted as a matter of course than a citizen cannot criticize, or perhaps sharply criticize an agent of the state, within their own home, and not be arrested for doing so. (It's also, incidentally, weird to me that every place I go in the US, I see about ten times as many police officers as I do anywhere in Canada. I suspect they're a bit over-employed in the states.) And, of course, I realize that the cop is only human and subject to making mistakes. But, given that he did make a mistake, he should man up and apologize. And the people who defend the right of the authorities to play etiquette police and lock up anyone who "has a problem with the way we do things around here" should find themselves an actual banana republic and move there.