henrylouisgatesarrest

Those Who Resist the End of Racial Profiling

It didn’t take long for the gutless Washington Post writer Neely Tucker to chicken out on the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrest. Beginning his article with the lame certainty of a Duck and Cover film, Tucker wasted no time suggesting that the conformist maxim “Don’t Mess With Cops” was “one of the common-sense rules of life.” Tell that to the 320 people who complained of racial profiling in 2007 to the Los Angeles Police Department, only for the LAPD to report back in April 2008 that not a single case had merit. Tell that to Zakariya Reed, a Gulf War veteran in Toledo who retired from the U.S. National Guard after twenty years of service, and who, like many Muslims and Arab Americans, was interrogated at the Canadian border because he had converted to Islam and because he had changed his name.

henrylouisgatesarrestThere are more truths to be found in this eye-opening ACLU report released last month, which demonstrates that racial profiling is alive and well in the United States. And you’d have to be more sheltered than a stray Samoyed hoping to woo an owner before getting the gas not to know that the color of one’s skin often remains more suspicious to a police officer than hard evidence.

But if you’re Neely Tucker and you’re a privileged white guy living in “a predominantly white neighborhood” and you cleave to the naive notion that even the bad cops can have their corrupt actions halted by a next-door neighbor, and if you’re “thrilled” to have the police search your entire house without considering that they might be overstepping their authority, then I must ask in all sincerity just how vanilla your understanding of human nature really is. I must ask whether you even have a basic understanding of American history.

The Fourth Amendment’s beginnings, as Leonard Williams Levy’s Origins of the Bill of Rights helpfully informs us, emerged by linking the right to privacy in one’s home with the Magna Carta maxim that a man’s home is his castle. In 1589, a clerk by the name of Robert Beale asked why agents could “enter into mens houses, break of their chests and chambers” and carry off any evidence that they felt like taking home. Beale was the first figure to suggest that the sanctity of a man’s castle applied to everyone. And over the next two centuries, the English propensity for warrantless searches would draw numerous protests.

Here in the colonies, in 1766, the writ of issuance would face protests from Daniel Malcolm, who allowed customs officials to search all parts of his film save a locked cellar and defiantly responded to these efforts with a set of pistols and the threat, “Try it and I’ll blow your head off.” (A crowd had formed. The officials abandoned their quest. Malcolm and the crowd shared the cask of smuggled wine that he had, after al, hidden in the locked room.)

But the writs of assistance, which gave tax collectors a remarkable degree of powers to violate Beale’s egalitarian link between privacy and the sanctity of home, restricted free speech with the case of John Wilkes and were famously derided in a blistering five hour defense by James Otis. The seeds for the Fourth Amendment were sown. But the fledgling federal government wasn’t exactly upholding its principles. To cite one of many abuses that came in the United States’s first decade, in 1777, six Quaker homes were violently violated, with numerous papers confiscated. Legislation, such as Frisbie v. Butler (1787), was enacted to limit any search which there was reason to suspect. This set down the flagstones for “the right of the people to be secured in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” and the Fourth Amendment’s ratification.

These incidents created an ongoing dialogue — helpful in an emerging nation that valued vital rights and liberties — about what searches and seizures were acceptable. But incidents like Henry Louis Gates’s needless arrest outside of his own home, in which the arrest is motivated by race, the abuse of police power, and police reaction that is incommensurate with the incident being investigated, must likewise cause the dialogue to continue. Gates was fortunate to have the charges dropped, but how many others in this nation don’t have such a luxury?

The complicity of knee-jerk authoritarians like Neely Tucker, who are better suited devoting their limited talents to writing about forgettable two-part TV movies, is part of the problem. It is part of what Martin Luther King once identified as the “almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.” Progress begins by identifying a different form of resistance — namely, those who perpetuate grave injustices by endorsing them with their silence. There once was a time when people drank from different fountains or were forced to sit at the back of the bus. And there will eventually be a time in which people will scratch their heads, wondering why the police went around arresting people for irrational reasons.

(Image: Demotix Images)

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16 Comments

  1. I was shocked by some of the comments to a Gates post on the LAT’s Jacket Copy book blog. There’s definitely an attitude out there that Gates deserved his treatment because he talked back to a cop, wasn’t deferential — didn’t bow and tug his forelock, I ‘spose. The cluelessness is shocking. (And “clueless” is the most charitable word I can come up with for it.)

  2. “It is, I think, a dumb idea to provoke a cop.”

    It’s pretty dumb to fuck with the Klan, or neo-Nazis, too. People should definitely learn to be more docile in the face of potentially lethal authority wherever it is encountered. Gates should have said “yes sir, no sir!” in his own house while being bullied by a glorified security guard: that’s a no-brainer. It’s obvious that Gates’ body language and speech patterns are those of a hardened criminal and that the centurions therefore had no reason whatsoever to *not* jump to the conclusion that they were dealing with a felonious black-skinned niggra. Kudos to our quick-thinking troops.

  3. Well, I’ll leave it to you and Ed to behave belligerently toward “potentially lethal authority,” Steven. It’s not an endorsement of the actions of the police, or of their tacit policies, to suggest that the sane posture to take toward aggressive and armed men with the legal authority to use force is not necessarily the principled one. Sorry, there’s no quicker way to get a cop to put his hands on you than to tell him not to put his hands on you. And any further resistance is a chargeable offense, period, fair or unfair. You don’t have to be a University Professor at Harvard to know that there are better places to take your rage and better ways to seek redress.

  4. Andy, if no one’s brave enough to call the heavily-armed centurions on their ever-spreading attitude that “disrespecting” them is in and of itself a crime, how will the behavior stop? I think you (and the police) have forgotten what it is the police are supposed to do: protect the legally innocent from abuse… not expose them to it.

  5. I haven’t forgotten anything, Steven. Like I said, if you want to “call” the responding officer on his behavior, that’s your choice. You’ll have his foot on your back in a twinkling. I don’t quite understand the principle you’re defending. It’s too abstract for me. When a civilian is ordered to do something by a cop, or two cops, or more, the civilian has absolutely no leverage, irrespective of whether the civilian is in the right or not. It’s asking for humiliation, at best, beating and arrest at worst. You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right. I don’t agree with it, it’s absolutely Orwellian, but that’s how it is, and that’s how it’s been since long before concepts like “Miranda warnings” and “probable cause” were admitted via the thin slit through which things gain entry to cops’ consciousness.

  6. “You’ll have his foot on your back in a twinkling.”

    Well, people have been fire-hosed or billy-clubbed, by the police, for sitting at segregated lunch counters or swimming pools, too. It’s a mistake to assume those days are entirely over.

    “You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right.”

    Uh, no, Andy. No.

  7. Steven: You are trolling here. Knock it off. This is not the kind of bullshit I want to have on my blog. Andy has the right to his opinion. There’s no reason to badger him like this.

  8. Of course, Ed. Because you’re so gentle, circumspect, and never, yourself, pursue an argument. If only I had the class to follow your example. Next time someone disagrees with me, rather than respond (please note the absence of ad hominems in ALL of my comments), I’ll just forget my point and write “LOL”. Because nothing really matters, anyway. You’re just *pretending* to be passionate in your beliefs; you’re only passionate about your ego, obviously. I get it now.

    Don’t bother banning me, you phony. Hope your fantasy as a “crusading journalist” pays off. LOL.

  9. How is your implication, Steven — supported, as usual, only by a reading of my remarks that is either malign or feebleminded and by selective quotation that removes the material from its ironic context — that I am a racist who supports abusive police tactics anything but “ad hominem”? You don’t have to tar and feather me to make your point. I get your point. To the extent that you’re arguing in favor of standing up for individual and civil rights, I agree with the point. Our disagreement doesn’t arise from the end, but from the means, and you haven’t actually acknowledged the reality of the cost that I’ve said, quite plainly, I’m unwilling to pay. It’s a personal choice to which I have a right, just as you have the right to get your head split open mouthing off at a cop, or to spend the night in some county lockup on a bogus charge, if you so choose. Speaking of rights.

    I would say that in this instance, Professor Gates miscalculated. Five minutes’ humiliation for him could have yielded career-stunting censure for Sgt. Whatshisname. All Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had to do was contact the Mayor of Cambridge and that cop would be working at the impound lot for the next five years. Instead we have a high-profile he said/he said situation that will yield neither truth nor a resolution of the problem. The media will chatter for the next week about the difficulties black men in America face, then go back to sleep.

  10. See what you did, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? Leave it to the blacks to tear the very fabric of our litblogs apart.

  11. I think both sides need to evaluate where they’re are coming from before they start putting numbers in the sky. I called the number in the sky and I got these dudes, Steve and Andy. I just wanted a boat. I have millions of dollars in assets at my disposal.

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