Well-known black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was returning home from a trip when he and his driver found that the front door to Gate’s home was jammed. The professor went into his home through the back door and and helped the driver push the front door open. Meanwhile, a neighbor, suspecting a burglary, called the police. Of course, you might wonder why the neighbor didn’t spend a bit more time figuring out that the homeowner was simply opening his own door. But that’s not the real story.
The real story is that when the Cambridge, Massachusetts police showed up, professor Gates didn’t like the way the officer treated him and he did not cooperate fully with the officer. Remember that in United States we are under no legal obligation whatsoever to cooperate with a police officer who is asking questions. We don’t have to say anything. Professor Gates decided that since he was inside his own home the cop had no business asking him to prove that he was in fact in his own home. This is a perfectly justifiable attitude to have inside one’s own home. A police officer must be extremely cautious in dealing with a situation like this, especially when it becomes quite clear to anyone of average intelligence that it really is the homeowner the officer is dealing with. So professor Gates decided to give the officer a good piece of his mind. He apparently refused to show ID then changed his mind and did. He apparently told the officer that he was being racially profiled and that he was suffering under the treatment given to blacks by law enforcement. He may have insulted the officer and yelled at him. He may have insulted the officer’s mother.
The officer says that there are radio call recordings that will prove professor Gates was yelling in the background. So, this Cambridge police officer arrested professor Gates for ‘disorderly conduct’ – in his own home. Disorderly conduct for being angry at a police officer in his own home. Disorderly conduct is a very vague statute in most states, used primarily to give officers the ability to round people up for simply being uncooperative. Basically, if a cop doesn’t like you, he or she can arrest you for ‘disorderly conduct.’
I post about this episode at length because it goes straight to the heart of free speech in this country. Law enforcement versus free speech is the subject. We are living during a time when law enforcement seems to think it can record the phone calls of American citizens without a search warrant, physically assault journalists during the Democratic and Republican conventions, and harass photographers in public places while attempting to confiscate their equipment. Police in Minneapolis, Minnesota staged an armed assault on a young peaceful protest group just prior to the Republican Presidential Convention in 2008. They burst into their house with weapons drawn and made these young people lie on the floor while illegally searching the house because they wanted to prevent the group from protesting near the convention. Much of this was caught on video and witnessed by onlookers. Many police officers around the nation seem to have very little understanding of what constitutes protected free speech and what constitutes a real threat. Some officers actually do understand the difference but choose to ignore the law.
If professor Gates insulted the officer in his home, it’s protected free speech. If he insulted the officer’s mother, it’s protected free speech. I he called the officer a racist, it’s protected free speech. None of it matters in the slightest. The correct response from a police officer in such a situation is to shrug it off and say, ‘Have a nice day.’ To arrest someone for behaving the way professor Gates did is outrageous and stupid. Just like president Obama says: the Cambridge police acted stupidly.
Now the Cambridge police department is furious that Obama has insulted them and they demand an apology. Obama owes them no such apology. He called them stupid and they most certainly are. All you need to know about this arrest is that prosecutors refused to press charges and all charges were dropped. That means it was a bad arrest. That means the police behaved stupidly and made an arrest that was not supported by law. They arrested someone for breaking no law. I cannot think of a better word for it than ‘stupid.’
To arrest a prominent black scholar for expressing his outrage inside his own home to police officers is stupid and might possibly be an act of racism. The police are now parading a black officer around who was at the scene of the stupidity and says he supports the arrest because ‘Mr. Gates was acting strange.’ Acting strange. Obviously, being a black Cambridge cop has not prevented this guy from being stupid. We are not supposed to be arresting people in the United States for ‘acting strange.’ If there’s a cop on a force who thinks that acting strange qualifies for an arrest, he or she should be let go pronto.
So we join president Obama in calling the Cambridge police who arrested professor Gates stupid. They also seem to be poorly trained, insensitive, unaware of legal protections for free speech, and perhaps somewhat racially biased. The race part really isn’t the important part because we don’t know if anyone on the scene really is racist. But we do know beyond any doubt whatsoever that the police on the scene arrested someone for exercising his right to free speech.
Officer Friendly sure isn’t working up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.