Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Etiquette Police

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.

12 comments:

Brian Dunbar said...

And I look pretty square. Amongst my friends in the DC punk rock scene, getting run in by cops was distressingly commonplace.

Looking like you belong helps keep the tension down. I understand the desire to 'be punk' but you gotta accept that run ins with authority are going to be tense if you don't look right to the Man.

My wife had some friends that wanted to 'live Pagan' in a small town and wondered why they got harassed and we didn't. They just would not accept that we got by because we looked like Baptists and blended in and they looked like refugees from Pagan World.

This might suck and it sure isn't right. But people are people.


Now, in my experience, it's only about 1 in 10 police officers who are macho dicks.

Once in a while the corporal or sergeant would screw up and assign me to a post with a modest amount of authority: one of the guard posts at the barracks entrance or the main gate at the Navy Yard. It was my job to control access in and out of the place, there.

Looking back I was probably a complete dick some of the time: in my memory it was after I'd felt ill-used by the powers that be or when I was surly about something. One time this really nice-looking girl (about the age I was then) - a civilian employee - wanted to use my gate as a shortcut to her job. She was running late and she'd make it there in time if she could only ..

This was against the rules but it would cause no harm. Indeed I could have been suave and wrangled her name and phone number out of the deal. Romance could have blossomed!

But, no. I stuck by my guns, was a macho dick and made her go the long way 'round. She was late to her job, no doubt, and who knows what happened as a result of that.

But I am not really that way - it's just that I was a grumpy shit that day and had a small bit of authority handed to me.


the charge would seem to be aimed at the woman who called the police,

I found it odd that the two were neighbors - yet she seems not to have known who he was, let alone that he was out of town and coming home that day.


It's not 'disturbing the peace' to be rude in your own home;

I believe that Gates followed the cop out of the house and commenced or continued the verbal abuse.

The colloquial term for it is bullshit.

But yes, it is.


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.

I sometimes make the first part of that argument - "You better do what the guy with the gun and badge says" - and omit the rest as foolish krep. Keep your temper and later write the barracks commander or the chief of police a letter with names and details.

Because, really, on a lonesome country road at night he's got a gun, a badge and friends who will lie him up and you don't.


(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

I have noticed that 'back East' there are a lot of guys in uniforms. Less so in the Midwest and much less so where I live now.

Rufus said...

I understand the desire to 'be punk' but you gotta accept that run ins with authority are going to be tense if you don't look right to the Man.

Well, right, and they did accept it. Generally what would happen was somebody I know would get run in, held for an hour, and released. In the end, they'd figure no harm, no foul since they weren't charged. I think the vast majority of 'contempt of cop' charges are probably forgotten about.

My point is just that people who look Baptist sometimes forget that there are segments of the population who are accustomed to getting hassled by cops. I'm no expert on being black and male, but I seem to remember someone once saying that they don't always have pleasant encounters with the police. It seems- to me- like Gates overreacted, but I suspect that there are groups in society for whom his reaction doesn't seem so hard to understand.

But I am not really that way - it's just that I was a grumpy shit that day and had a small bit of authority handed to me.

It's the same with being an 'instructor'- I have to remind myself that, to the students, I'm not equal- I'm the guy who decides their grade, determines if they keep their scholarship, or can play sports, stay in college, etc. It's hard sometimes to remember that you have the power and therefore the responsibility not to abuse it. I can think of once, when I snapped at some students, that I did overstep my bounds. I did apologize the next class. But I definitely felt like a heel.

But I've seen a few professors who regularly talk to their students like they're stupid. And, in some cases, they are stupid. But you don't teach someone by making them feel dumb. I think watching one professor in my department in particular, I've gotten better at recognizing how important it is not to be a dick when you're in an authority position. Of course, if you're human, it's also very hard.

I found it odd that the two were neighbors - yet she seems not to have known who he was, let alone that he was out of town and coming home that day.

My understanding, and I could be wrong, is that she was working in the neighborhood that day, but doesn't live there.

I believe that Gates followed the cop out of the house and commenced or continued the verbal abuse.

Reading the police report, it seems like the cop asked Gates to step outside, which sounds to me like he was setting up a 'disturbing the peace' charge. Gates definitely should have stayed inside and simmered down though.

I sometimes make the first part of that argument - "You better do what the guy with the gun and badge says" - and omit the rest as foolish krep.

And that's what it is. I definitely understand that hotheaded cops will pop up from time to time, and that common sense dictates keeping your trap shut in such cases. But the second part is the bulldada- because part of living in a democracy is that you don't have to accept that the agents of the state- who work for you- can do whatever they please.

I have noticed that 'back East' there are a lot of guys in uniforms. Less so in the Midwest and much less so where I live now.

This is pretty much what Canada is like- you can drive across the country and see one cop car. In general, I find the Eastern United States, where I grew up, to be much more tightly wound.

Holly said...

Maybe this is a simplistic view (almost certainly!) but it kind of seems like almost everyone here needs a sharp slap across the face and someone demanding to know what the hell they were thinking.

If the cop was, in fact, trying to *set up* a charge, any charge, including public disturbance, he needs to be retrained. It sounds good to say the officer should have left as soon as he knew it was Gates' house, but if there was already shouting at that point, he *couldn't* leave. (see next paragraph...)

As soon as Gates was shouting at the cop, he'd lost that round. If there is one thing that law enforcement does NOT tolerate, it's being shouted at. The most reasonable cop in the world doesn't put up with that. The unreasonable ones... well. I think we know.

President of the US saying "this is my friend, and the officer who arrested him acted stupidly"? Fail. The first part disqualifies any sense of objectivity, and the 2nd part alienates any law enforcement folks who were on the fence about the new president.

Anonymous said...

I think that pretty much covers it. Basically a dick-swinging contest that went south.

The Pagan Temple said...

I think Gates attitude got the ball rolling. Personally, if I had to bust into my own house, and somebody called the cops, I would understand immediately why this happened and would thank the cop, and show my ID. After all, how the hell could he be expected to know who I am?

Obama turned this into a national dialogue about race, and I think it is purposely being used as a distraction. I think the whole incident smells.

Rufus said...

Gates did show the cop his ID. He definitely should have shut up. And the cop should have left. And, in the end, Obama should have shut up too. So, again, it's a dick swinging contest. The idea that Obama said something stupid, that most people would think was stupid to say, and which no doubt hurt him in the eyes of the public, as part of some shrewd master plan is pretty unlikely. I'd imagine the 'national dialogue on race' is being fueled by the cable news networks who can't be expected to explain health care reform to their elderly viewers.

Holly said...

They can't explain health care reform, but they can have a dialog about racism/lack of in America?

That funny sound you just heard was my eyebrow going up into my hairline.

Rufus said...

The thing about cable news is that it's about at the intellectual level of pro-wrestling, and is put together in the same way. You get two "sides" to "debate" an issue, and then the home audience gets to identify with one of them and yell at the other. It's exciting. Not informative at all, but so what?

With health care reform, they're still in the stage of hammering out bills and it's hard to make congressional number-crunching emotional and simplistic enough to excite people emotionally. With racism, it's a lot easier.

And I actually tested this theory out- I just went in and turned on CNN: I swear to God, they had Al Sharpton and Ann Coulter on debating 'Racism in America'.

The Pagan Temple said...

Rufus, I wouldn't bet money one way or another as to how real all this was, but it's not much of an argument to say Obama wouldn't have said what he said if he intended if he was intentionally behind this, because obviously he never thought there was anything wrong with what he said to begin with. In his mind, he probably assumed the vast majority of the country echoed those sentiments and would be in solid agreement with them or he wouldn't have said them, regardless of his level of involvement. Which again, I won't say whether I believe he was or wasn't, but it sure smells fishy on the part of the professor.

I mean, really, forget about the cop for a moment, look at what Gates said when he was approached by the cop.

"Why, because I'm a black man in America?"

Come on now, really, who the hell talks like that in real life?

rufus said...

Okay, granted, Obama probably thought he was saying something smarter than he did. Holly's fail comment is about right.

As for who says things like that? Academics say things like that. Seriously. Half the people I work with would say something like that if they were arrested. The other half would say something even more absurdly portentious and stilted.

And, fine, maybe the President and Professor Gates, in order to distract the public from something, set up this scenario whereby Gates would get himself arrested because they figured that a black man yelling at a police officer and a President calling a working class cop stupid would play really well with the American public, and they were shocked to find that it did not. Or, maybe an old man who'd just flown from China to the US acted like an angry, kinda pompous academic; a cop acted like a cop; and the President said something stupid. Stranger things have happened. And, honestly, even if I knew what was true here, I can't see how knowing would add much to my understanding of the world in any way.

The Pagan Temple said...

Yeah, I see what you mean. It just seems to me it was more like something somebody would say in an article, a speech, or a press release. I do definitely agree with you on the media's role in hyping this out of all proportion.

rufus said...

Yeah, the media is pretty much geared towards sensationalism 24/7. The problem I have is that both the parties play into it, with stunts like "beer summits" or talking about "re-branding" themselves. It's like nobody is able to take anything seriously. Well, or willing to take anything seriously. It's like the court of Louis XIV. Of course, we all know how things were going by Louis XVI. Hopefully, no "image consultants" will end up getting guilotined!

Well, it's been interesting talking about this stuff. But, alas, we're off to indulge in that Canadian bourgeois tradition of heading to cottage country.

See y'all later!