The cops work for you, or they’re supposed to
We’re moving into the phase of the coverage of the Henry Louis Gates incident where people reprimand themselves for caring so much, but I’d like to point out that the reason the incident has captured the public attention is that it touches on so many extremely important issues of daily life in the United States that don’t get sufficient coverage, precisely because few things get the immediacy of news coverage like this arrest of Gates has. With that in mind, I’d like to point everyone to this long, but involving post from Digby on one of the must frustrating aspects of the discussion about the incident—the way a lot of people reflexively jump to “Gates was stupid to talk back”, instead of talking about the much more important issue, which is that the cop was not just stupid but malevolent in not dropping the case the second that he realized that Gates was in his own home, no matter what kind of hot-headed things Gates may have said Now, let’s be clear about this: I think the likely truth is that the cop wildly exaggerated and even made up some parts of the incident when he wrote the report, knowing that he’d just tossed a Harvard professor in jail for not doing anything illegal. When I read bloggers reflexively assume that the police report is reliable in any way, I just get more upset because it’s just more evidence that a whole lot of people out there are more naive about power and authority than you’d think. Is it really possible that so many of my fellow Americans have never been on the receiving end of unfair treatment from a bunch of asshole cops? Same story with the people who chastise Obama for calling the cop’s move “stupid”. Can you hear yourselves saying that? Since when is it a given in America that we’re so slobberingly worshipful of police authority that it’s forbidden to call obviously stupid cops stupid? Obama didn’t even say the cop was stupid. He said the actions were stupid, which strikes me as an objective assertion of truth on par with saying that the sky is blue.
But by and large, I’ve seen more concern out there with whether or not Gates was stupid for not staring at his shoes and apologizing for breathing the second a cop started speaking to him. Since I’ve been blogging for a long time, on and off, about the politics of rape, I know this behavior when I see it—it’s victim-blaming. And it’s a particularly stubborn problem, because the people who do it really often do mean well when they say things like, “Well, she shouldn’t have been out drinking,” or “She shouldn’t have worn that skirt” after someone was raped. They sincerely think they’re saying something that might help other women not get raped, and oblivious to the fact that they’re insulting women’s intelligence, pouring salt into wounds, and worst of all, reinforcing the notion that stopping gendered violence is strictly the responsibility of the women who are its targets. Again, I realize they don’t see it this way. They imagine they’re just being realistic, not realizing that they’re reinforcing the notion that rape is simply a force of nature and not something that individual men choose to do, and that the main people responsible for the choice to rape are the ones who make it. (With some responsibility going towards other people who let it happen without holding rapists accountable.)
Victim blamers are often also telling a story about how they personally will never be raped, or in this case, arrested unfairly for doing something totally legal. To blame Gates for being stupid is to say, “I would never get arrested for breaking into my house, because I have the sort of self-preservation instincts that this man is clearly missing.” People enjoy the illusion of having more mastery of the world than they do, because it makes them feel safe, but it also contributes to an atmosphere where victim-blaming can flourish, particularly in situations that are loaded with racial or gender politics.
In case it’s hard to see why it’s problematic to focus on Gates’ choices—which again, I strongly suspect were exaggerated and even lied about by the cop—Digby has a really great retort.
Now, on a practical, day to day level, it’s hard to argue that being argumentative with a cop is a dangerous thing. They have guns. They can arrest you and can cost you your freedom if they want to do it badly enough. They can often get away with doing violence on you and suffer no consequences. You are taking a risk if you provoke someone with that kind of power, no doubt about it.
Indeed, it is very little different than exercising your right of free speech to tell a gang of armed thugs to go fuck themselves. It’s legal, but it’s not very smart. But that’s the problem isn’t it? We shouldn’t have to make the same calculations about how to behave with police as we would with armed criminals.
Emphasis mine. Reading both accounts, I get the distinct impression that things started to spiral out of control when the cop in question was asked for his badge number and supervisor by Gates. At this point, the cop decided to lure Gates outside to create an excuse to arrest him. Asking for a badge and a name is your right as a citizen, but it’s also a reminder to the cops that they work for you, and I have zero doubt that this can infuriate a whole lot of cops. It’s a reminder that the gun only makes you a servant, not an actual authority, and that the citizens who hired you are the authority, at least in theory. But as Digby says, when you engage in the “mouthing off to the cops is stupid” discourse, you’re basically putting the cops in the same category as a group of thugs. When you run into a group of armed thugs, yeah, they’re the authority because they didn’t take an oath to serve and protect. Cops did, and in theory, they’re not authorities, but merely enforcers of the law, and when there’s not a law being broken, then they really are 100% out of line hiding behind the authority of the badge and the gun.
Digby links the growing acceptance of out-of-control police brutality, particularly the widespread use of Tasers (which Pam has done a lot of blogging about here), with the acceptance of other incursions on our liberal democracy, like the spying on U.S. citizens and flouting of the basic human rights laws of people that have been picked up as “enemy combatants”.* She also engages arguments from a cop who blogged at Crooked Timber about why cops should have the right to use violence and force to keep people from being mouthy, neatly tearing the arguments apart while being cognizant of the fact that it isn’t easy to be a cop.
It’s interesting to me that Americans have a long history of using unchecked police authority as a shorthand for totalitarianism that makes us feel superior to other countries. If you’re writing a book or a screenplay that takes place in a country whose unjust dictatorial government is up for criticism—which is a worthy goal, don’t get me wrong—then it’s mandatory that you have scenes where your freedom-loving heroes come across some police forces that are drunk on power, who decide to fuck with you just because they can. They could be the S.S. or the Stasi or the KGB or the Iranian police running around accusing women of walking with too much of a swing to their step. If it’s someone else’s culture, we have no problem seeing the problems with making people adopt a submissive, humiliated pose merely because they’re speaking to the police, or that cops are given loosely defined laws and plenty of discretion, so they can just go on power trips and abuse people who they perceive as deserving of their oppression. When it’s someone else’s country, the excessive use of violence, leering behavior towards women, and abusing racial or ethnic minorities seems so obviously wrong. I doubt many people who are calling Gates “stupid” did anything but cheer, for instance, when reading the section of “Persepolis” where Marjane puts herself in danger by telling a cop to quit staring at her ass. When it’s not our cops, it’s a lot easier to see that demanding perfect submission to police authority is fucked the fuck up.
*Indeed, the only problem I have with Obama calling the cop’s actions “stupid” is that he doesn’t see that every minute that his administration continues with Bush-era policies that run over basic human rights, they’re being the same kind of stupid.