by Brien Jackson
I haven’t commented on the Saga of Harry Gates yet, largely because I find the story, or, more appropriately, the media narrative around it, to be so stupid, but let’s clear something up here; what officer Crowley did was not only “stupid,” it was plainly illegal and a gross violation of Gates’s civil rights, and any person or society that does anything but condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms has a real problem on their hands in relation to how it respects the rights of its people.

But there’s the shiny object of race, and it’s a black man challenging the Irish-American white working class no less. Teh horrorz! In a way, I really wish the racial angle wasn’t present in this story. It’s not that there isn’t still a huge problem in the area where the police interact with African-Americans, because obviously that’s still a huge problem, it’s just that in this story, the nature of police abuse really has nothing to do with race, other than Officer Crowley’s umbrage at being called a racist. But it’s not hard to see the situation playing out more or less the same way if Gates had been white and had called the officer an incompetent donut eater or something. And beyond the rather silly question of whether or not the incident was racially motivated, or whether Crowley is a racist, that’s the real story here; the way police use their state sanctioned power to enforce deference to them and squash any criticism of them in public. Indeed, a cop blogging at Crooked Timber actually made the case for why this is a necessity.

Let’s be clear, there are many different ways in which people interpret the first amendment, and many different places at which people draw the line in regards to how far a right extends. But if the protection of free speech is to mean anything at all, it has to protect the right of the citizenry to criticize the government. Take that away and you’re just a run-of-the-mill authoritarian state. And the police, when on duty at least, are agents of the state, excercising state power to enforce the law, deprive people of their liberty, and in some cases their life, and just generally deprive you of your own self-agency. In a liberal democracy, that’s a tremendous power that must be wielded with the utmost discretion. Yes, policing is a difficult job in its own right, and the requirement to respect fundamental rights in cases like this makes it more difficult than it already is, but that’s just the way things are in an open society that’s conscious of protected rights like ours. It is much easier to be a cop in Tehran or Moscow I’m sure, but that’s hardly an argument for becoming more like those societies.

And also, to be as clear as I can, Gates himself certainly seems to be the worst kind of priviledged asshole. At least originally, there’s no reason to think Officer Crowley was doing anything other than checking out a report of a possible breaking and entering, which is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, does anyone doubt that had it been a real burglarly and the police had not responded, or had been slow to respond, Gates would have been (justly) righteously pissed off about that? I doubt it. So Gates never should have said anything, not because he should have feared the gun, but because there wasn’t anything to complain about at the time, but this does not excuse Crowley’s actions. Because while the juvenile “they were both assholes” contention might be true, only Crowley acted in a way that was an abuse of his power, and a violation of the other parties civil rights. It is not a violation of your rights to be called a racist, or pretty much any other name. Similarly, it is not against the law to criticize or personally insult a police officer, because the police are agents of the state and the Constitution protects your right to be disrespectful of state power, plain and simple. Police might not like it, but that’s just a part of the job they absolutely have to respect. And really, I don’t see what’s so hard about that. I mean, would it really have been that difficult for Crowley to offer up an insincere apology to Gates, walked away, and gone back to the station to have a laugh about what a gigantic d-bag Gates was? How does something that stupid even get to you? Anyone working any form of customer service has had stuff like that happen to them, and they don’t even get to talk back, much less arrest the asshole. And maybe more jarringly, is the kind of person who can’t let transparently stupid insults like that roll off his back the sort of person you really want walking around with a gun, and significant societal leeway to use it?

The criminalization of “contempt of cop” simply has got to stop. There’s nothing illegal about talking back to the police, asking for their badge number, criticizing the way they do their job, or even calling them names. It might get under a cop’s skin, it might be totally baseless, and it may even be downright offensive, but it’s simply not against the law. You have a Constitutional right to do it. And in this country, you simply can not be arrested for excercising your Constitutional rights, no matter how much of an asshole you may be in the process. And then you have this:

So, since the president is keen on offering instruction, here is what I would advise he teach his Ivy League pals, and anyone else who may find himself unexpectedly confronted by a police officer: You may be as pure as the driven snow itself, but you have no idea what horrible crime that police officer might suspect you of committing.  You may be tooling along on a Sunday drive in your 1932 Hupmobile when, quite unknown to you, someone else in a 1932 Hupmobile knocks off the nearby Piggly Wiggly.  A passing police officer sees you and, asking himself how many 1932 Hupmobiles can there be around here, pulls you over.  At that moment I can assure you the officer is not all that concerned with trying not to offend you.  He is instead concerned with protecting his mortal hide from having holes placed in it where God did not intend.  And you, if in asserting your constitutional right to be free from unlawful search and seizure fail to do as the officer asks, run the risk of having such holes placed in your own.

So you either acquiesce to police disregard for your Constitutionally protected rights, or they shoot you. Lovely. I have no idea if this guy is legit, or how representative it is of cop culture (or the LAPD culture), but in any event, the warlike mentality of police departments absolutely has to stop.