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The Cop and the Professor August 2, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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The dust up between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and a Cambridge Massachusetts cop, James Crowley, played out in a predictable way.

The arrogant professor vs. the racist cop narrative took hold in the media, egged on by the actions of the protagonists, despite the fact that there wasn’t much evidence of arrogance or racism. When an angry Gates claimed, “You’re not responding because I’m a black man and you’re a white officer,” nothing Crowley had done had raised suspicion of racism.  But Gates had every right to be upset by a cop threatening to arrest him because he didn’t like his tone of voice, despite the fact that Gates threatened no one and had already shown his ID.

What was unpredictable was Obama stepping into the fray, calling the cops actions “stupid” before playing the role of mediator by getting both men to meet.

Of course, then matters turned predictable again as conservatives berated Obama for his remarks, with the usual suspects, Limbaugh, Beck, and others acting as if racial profiling and phony arrests of black suspects never happen.

But what was most interesting, and all too predictable, was the response of the public.

If my unscientific assessment of blog comments is correct, most of the public (1) took Crowley’s police report at face value, and (2) thought Gates was stupid for talking back to a cop.

It is simply naive to think that police don’t falsify reports if an honest report is likely to get them into trouble. Moreover, accusing Gates of stupidity for talking back to the cop is another case of blaming the victim.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon sees a parallel with cases in which rape victims are accused of complicity in their rape:

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. […]

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.

Since when is submission to abusive police authority some sort of moral ideal? As Marcotte writes:

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.

Apparently, we hold our police to a lower standard.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



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