Today, Henry Gates; Tomorrow, You

by , July 28, 2009

After a week, the turbid tale of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge police has finally settled into the tedium of the 24-hour news cycle, singularly focused – but predictably superficial – in its debate over whether race played a prevailing role in Gates’ doorstep arrest on July 16.

That happens when a black, liberal scholar charges the white police officer who arrested him with racial profiling, and when the president, who happens to be black, says the police acted "stupidly" for doing so. The debate has thus found its shopworn but comfortable partisan trajectory, with Democrats using Gates to reopen a "dialogue" on race relations that forever churns but goes nowhere, and Republicans, largely represented by the right-wing blogosphere, loyally falling in behind the cops, holding the Thin Blue Line on the political front.

It has become a timeless political and media waltz, one that serves neither side, especially the actual victims of racial profiling.

But an interesting and even momentarily hopeful thing happened in that fertile space of time between when a news story breaks and the mainstream media’s wagons circle a simple, safe narrative. People started talking about the police. And civil liberties. The phrase "contempt of cop," referring to bogus arrests triggered when an officer perceives a challenge to his authority (typically when an individual in an exchange refuses to fully cooperate, is deemed disrespectful, asks too many questions, or asserts his rights), was invoked in relation to Gates in places as mainstream as National Public Radio.

On both the Left and the Right, commentators and bloggers were reflecting – however briefly – on their own relationships with police, and the ever widening gulf between “civilians” and cops, made more pronounced by post-9/11 hyper-criminalization and 21st-century communications like cell-phone cameras and YouTube. Early critics wondered openly not only about racial profiling – which remains an important touchstone here – but about police egos and the punishment for not keeping one’s mouth shut.

“What I see as more significant [than race] is the phenomenon of persons being arrested who challenge the authority of police,” David Rudovsky, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, told the Christian Science Monitor on July 24, in a discussion of "contempt of cop" charges. “It’s street punishment.”

Former congressman and federal prosecutor Bob Barr agrees. "Reducing this simply to a racial conversation pretty much guarantees future problems," he said in an interview with Antiwar.com. "The fact of the matter is, this situation raises troubling questions about citizens being required to be overly submissive and condescended to by police." Sure, the badge should be respected, he added, but if the police are acting unreasonably, "I don’t think the citizenry ought to sit back and take it."

Frustratingly, others suggest passivity is the only viable approach when dealing with police: "So you want to make friends, join the glee club," writes Neely Tucker at the Washington Post. "You want to yell at people who are lousy at their jobs, go to a Redskins game. But, all things considered, Don’t Mess With Cops. It usually works out better that way."

Michael Mechanic cuts to the quick in his own take for Mother Jones: "I understand Gates’ indignance and what he must have been feeling at that moment. … But get righteous on a street cop and you will lose every single goddamn time. Gates should have known as much."

So we have become a nation of passive, potential suspects, and often it is the random circumstance like a jammed door that can bring it all down, superseding in an instant everything else – background, race, social class, pristine criminal records – everything.

One year ago Wednesday, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo found this out most horrifically while he and his mother-in-law were restrained with cuffs by county police and shoved onto his kitchen floor. As he lay face-to-face with the bloody corpses of the beloved family dogs – which had been summarily shot by police moments earlier – Calvo must have wondered how his own seemingly solid identity as good neighbor and community leader had so quickly evaporated with the firepower of the SWAT team now swaggering around his Maryland home.

Unlike Gates, Calvo was in plastic handcuffs before he could even demand, "Do you know who I am?!"

The cops had busted down the Calvo’s door on a no-knock warrant (that we know now never existed) with the intent of arresting him for the 32-pound package of marijuana that had been delivered by the mailman and was sitting on his doorstep. But the package wasn’t meant for him; it was part of a drug dealer’s mail-order scheme (that the police were already aware of), involving unwitting residential addressees. The mayor and his wife were later cleared, but to date the police have not apologized for killing the dogs and have maintained the circumstances at the time warranted the paramilitary response. The Calvos are reportedly suing the Prince George’s County Police and Sheriff’s Office, but as this February recount suggests, the psychological trauma is enduring.

In a separate request for a civil rights inquiry last August, Calvo invoked a 2006 study by Radley Balko and Joe Berger that found botched law enforcement raids had increased across the country, along with the frequency of SWAT "call-outs" – 3,000 a year to 40,000 in 2001:

"More disturbing, we now have received reports of similar misconduct involving other innocent homeowners, including invasion of the homes of other innocent county residents and killing of other innocent family pets. This appears to be a pattern and practice in our law enforcement agencies where a lack of training and supervision is apparent."

Patti Davis, daughter of the late president Ronald Reagan, gave voice to what many law-abiding, white suburbanites were likely thinking when they eyed the clean-cut images of the pre-raid Calvos, smiling as they walked the black Labradors they had loved as their own children:

"We have all been living in a climate of ‘shoot (or accuse) first, ask questions later.’ And that attitude is contagious. … Prince George’s official county Web site defines itself as ‘a county of livable communities.’ That’s what we all wish for – a livable community, a home where we feel safe. We want to feel that if the bad guys come, we can call the police and they will be the good guys. We want to believe that if we’re innocent, armed men with government badges won’t handcuff us and shoot our pets and wave their weapons in our faces.

"But more and more of us don’t believe that."

Just a month ago, a 72-year-old grandmother was tased by a patrolman twice her size after she refused to cooperate during a routine traffic stop. As the video shows, grandma was being stubborn, used at least one expletive, and would not comply with the officer’s request to sign a speeding ticket and stand two steps away, behind her truck. He tased her, leaving her writhing on the ground, mewling eerily like an injured animal.

This recalls the case of 71-year-old Eunice Crowder in Portland, Ore., in 2003. Allegedly hard of hearing and vision, she tangled with a city worker who was cleaning up her yard on a warrant. Police were brought in. Her glass eye popped out when they hit her in the head. She was pushed to the dirt and tased three times. She eventually settled for $145,000 in a suit against the city.

Of course, not all Taser tales end with a fat check for the victim. In the now infamous "Don’t Tase Me Bro!" incident at the University of Florida in 2007, school officials determined the police were quite right in tasing student Andrew Meyer, who refused to stop shouting questions at John Kerry after the senator gave a speech. Meyer might have been the butt of a few jokes (a 50,000-volt shock to the body is funny!), but the fact that police and other government officials continue to defend the growing use of Tasers to immobilize individuals, even children and the mentally ill, even when it kills people, is nothing to laugh at.

Surely outrage is in short supply. Often it seems futile. Public officials more often than not take the side of police, maintaining a nearly religious deference to law enforcement that cannot be brooked by video evidence or a disgruntled citizenry.

Take this guaranteed cringe-worthy video. It depicts clearly unhinged Oklahoma state trooper Daniel Martin choking paramedic Maurice White while a patient waits inside an idling ambulance on the way to the hospital. While it is obvious to anyone watching that Martin had no regard for the fate of the patient (he even appears to threaten her family members as they beg him to release White) his ego-driven, unprovoked physical attack on the paramedic lands him a mere five-day suspension and an anger management class.

"There are no more checks and balances in these sorts of situations, and there need to be," charges Barr. "Public officials need not be afraid to say, yes, we respect our police, but they make mistakes and we need to look into this."

Journalists aren’t immune either, like Asa Eslocker, who was manhandled and arrested by Denver police while he was trying to cover a story during the Democratic National Convention last November. His alleged crime? Refusing to leave a public sidewalk in front of a hotel where a number of VIPs were gathering.

Not surprisingly, after being hauled to jail in handcuffs, the charges were dropped.

Carlos Miller, a Miami journalist, recently started a blog describing his own arrest after he refused to cease photographing a traffic stop on a public street. In April, he linked to a video of two El Paso journalists being arrested for covering the scene of an accident (in other words, doing their jobs), and more recently, a tape of an Idaho man being sodomized by a police Taser. The officers in that case have been "disciplined," according to news reports.

Unfortunately, while members of the so-called elite media like James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, acknowledge that "arresting Professor Gates was an unwise use of the officer’s authority," exploring this theme further seems unworthy of their attention. If they had, they’d easily find a body of case law defending Gates’ position. See Poocha and Duran for examples of men who were much more belligerent toward police than Gates but whose First Amendment right to free speech ultimately shielded them from conviction.

Now that should be the story. But as of Sunday, Gates has merely sparked what the Washington Post tiredly calls "a national conversation on race and law enforcement." Baloney. The "national conversation" merely allows the media to go on virtual autopilot while the he-said-she-said/black versus white narrative takes over, leaving any analysis of the law enforcement part a lifeless afterthought.

Even Taranto’s explanation, that the original Sturm und Drang occurred between "two stubborn men," is a cop-out. As Maureen Dowd said Saturday, "the strong guy with the gun has more control than the weak guy with the cane." That might be the best place to start, if a real conversation is what we’re after.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos