27 July 2009

Notes on a Scandal

The pendulum of social outrage is a peculiar thing. It swings with unerring prejudice to one side and just as quickly swings back, constantly resisting the calming equilibrium between the two extremes. Unsurprisingly, when the most important and influential black intellectual in the world is arrested in his own home for disorderly conduct, the resulting amplitude of the pendulum swing is enormous. And unlike the flying trapeze artist who disembarks at the top of the period, this pendulum just seems to entrap more players, and accelerates momentum.

The details of the arrest trickled out slowly. What we do know, that is, the facts undisputed by both sides, go like this: Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American was arrested by a Caucasian cop investigating neighborly reports of an attempted robbery on what turned out to be Dr. Gates' home in Cambridge, MA.

A tenured professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, Dr. Gates is the academic equivalent of a rock star. His work in the Academy is so widely known and universally respected that in my first week of grad school his The Signifying Monkey was required reading, and his name continued to pop up on almost every syllabus, in spite of the fact that my focus was Early Modern Literature. This is a great man.

So when the story first broke, my instinct deferred to the narrative Dr. Gates presented, namely, that the cop refused to identify himself and then goaded Dr. Gates onto his porch where he could be subsequently arrested. Clearly, the charges had no teeth, and when the police department realized who they had arrested, they issued a contrite apology. Dr. Gates, traumatized and angered, vowed to throw his weight into the issue of racial injustice in law enforcement.

Things got a lot more complicated, however, when President Obama -- in a news conference meant to sell the nation on his new health care plan -- was asked about his views on the incident. His now (in)famous response, and the reaction to it, has subsumed the notoriety of the original controversy. How dare the President weigh in and presumably take a seemingly antagonistic side against law enforcement?

What has become clear to me is that this issue is not so much about race as about our constitutional rights as American citizens. I'm willing to go out on a limb and express my belief that Sgt. James Crowley is not a racist, perhaps a bit prejudiced, assuming the worst in people is part of the job description. The real crime committed by Dr. Gates is that he refused to be totally subservient to Sgt. Crowley, that he didn't kiss his ass. Dr. Gates felt that being suspected of breaking into his own home was an indignity too great to bear without due repercussion.

It's hard to be unsympathetic to Dr. Gates, although, like the President, I do carry an admitted bias. But the clear fact of the matter is that in practically any situation where there is police-citizen interaction, the citizen must show complete and total subordination to the police officer, and if he doesn't, the police officer can and many times will haul you to jail -- just because he can.

Working law enforcement is a difficult job, no argument there. And we should be grateful to the honest men and women whose occupation involves legitimate life-threatening risk. The problem is accountability. Have you been to traffic court lately? In all my experience, there has never been an instance where the judge took the defendant's side, or even minutely doubted every last detail of the cop's testimony. It just doesn't happen.

Let's put aside race for a moment and try to agree on this one national tenet: no person should ever be arrested in his own home when he has committed no crime. Was Dr. Gates being a sanctimonious jerk? Probably. Could this whole unfortunate business have been avoided? Absolutely. Since when is being a jerk an arrestable crime, hell, being a jerk in your own home is a fucking human right as far I'm concerned. Take away Dr. Gates' public visibility and this would have been just another case of abuse of police authority.

It's an awfully heavy pendulum for a society to support when arrest awaits those who refuse to indulge the adolescent ego trips of those in a position of power. In police states, it's a weight upheld with vigor.

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