Friday, July 24, 2009

The Police State and Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

[UPDATE July 25, 2009: I added more material on Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. I hope you'll take the time to read it even if you've already read this article. Once I started looking into it in detail, the parallels to today's situation became even more striking.]

I'll try to make this a short post. I just want to get my two cents in on the arrest of Prof. Henry Gates of Harvard. I know I'm a little late and this is hardly what you would call "Future News" - it's more like yesterday's news. Still I'm hoping we haven't heard the end of this. And I'll try to explain why.

Alright, so the arguments come down to.
  • Did Gates act stupidly?
  • Did Sgt. Crowley act stupidly?
  • Did they both act stupidly?
So number one I think that Sgt. Crowley not only acted stupidly, but illegally. I've read a number of opinions on the web and the legal consensus seems to be that there was no way that Gates was guilty of disorderly conduct. The key here seems to be that for a charge of DO to stick, it has to
  • occur in a public space.
  • be capable of inciting public violence.
Crowley, the cop, seems to have enticed Gates into coming out onto his front porch which he (Crowley) knew from his knowledge of the law could be considered a public space. And then Crowley in his report states repeatedly (3 times to be exact) that Gates was acting in a "tumultuous" way. You can see for yourself in these excerpts from the police report.
On Thursday July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. of Ware Street, Cambridge, MA was placed under arrest at Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on the behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.
As I descended the stairs to the sidewalk, Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him. Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates’s outburst. For a second time I warned Gates to calm down while I withdrew my department issued handcuffs from their carrying case. Gates again ignored my warning and continued to yell at me. It was at this time that I informed Gates that he was under arrest.
Why the choice of the word "tumultuous"? It's a good question because it's not a common word used to describe a person's behavior. The reason that Crowley chose to use this particular word is because it is part of the legal definition of "disorderly conduct" in Massachusetts law.

Long Aside on the ridiculous stupidity of Massachusetts Laws

The official laws of Massachusetts are indisputably and undeniably screwed up. Even if you were to read and memorize all the laws of MA you would still not have any idea of what constituted legal behavior and what did not. Furthermore the laws in MA are totally antiquated. For instance there is still a law in Massachusetts that prohibits "fornication".

Chapter 272: Section 18. Fornication

Section 18. Whoever commits fornication shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three months or by a fine of not more than thirty dollars.
And in case you don't know the meaning of "fornication", MA law is nice enough to spell it out for us in plain English.
Chapter 277: Section 39. Construction of words used in indictment

Fornication.—Sexual intercourse between an unmarried male and an unmarried female.
So, just to make that perfectly clear, if you live in Massachusetts and you have sex with your girlfriend, you have just committed a "crime against chastity, morality, decency and good order". And you could actually be put in jail. So just keep that in mind as we talk about "the law" in Massachusetts as it concerns what happened to Prof. Gates. Do you still wonder why I have disdain for the law, police and court system in Massachusetts?

Back to the issue at hand

So the reason I got into that long aside, is that I have read a number of people's attempted explanations at what exactly constitutes "disorderly conduct" in Massachusetts. But if you actually read what the law says, there is nothing that applies to the type of situation that happened in this case. You actually have to get into court cases and read the judges opinions to get any kind of an idea as to what constitutes "disorderly conduct". And even then it's not at all clear.

My conclusion is that the only people that know exactly what is meant by "disorderly conduct" are the police themselves. They have more or less created this concept out of thin air. And through a sort of conspiracy of the police, judges and attorney have incorporated it into the legal system. So that the citizen - who is supposed to be protected by the law - has no idea what constitutes "disorderly conduct". And in fact DO means whatever the police and the courts want it to mean. It's just a charge that can get slapped onto someone when nothing else fits, or added on to a victim of the Police State at the whim of the legal system.

So getting back to the original question - did Gates act stupidly? Well that all depends on what you mean. And I think this is where people online and in the general public conversation are talking past each other. Would it be "smart" to act in a deferential way to a police officer when confronted by him? Well if your objective is to avoid arrest at all cost, then it probably is.

But what if your objective is to uphold your civil liberties at all cost? That's a different question, and one that I think is well worth exploring. And it is in that sense that I applaud the actions of Prof. Gates and wish that he would pursue this case to the limits of the judicial system. Now I don't think he will because even though he presents himself as a sort of rebel, he is basically an establishment Negro. And if that comes off as a putdown, then it is just as I intended. And the same goes for Obama who never speaks up on any issue of racial justice and has already begun to backtrack on his police "acted stupidly" statement. You know - why challenge the system that is so good to you?

But if Prof. Gates did wish to continue to go through with this case, then yes we really could have a "Rosa Parks moment". But first Dr. Gates needs to realize that this case is not primarily about racism (even if there may be a racist component to what occurred) but that it is about a different but related "ism". I'm talking about Fascism and the rise of the Police State in America.

Rosa Parks and Henry Gates

So what did Rosa Parks do? One day she got on the bus all tired and she just didn't feel like walking all the way to the "back of the bus", and either find a seat or be forced to stand up. So she just plopped down on a seat in the front of the bus. And the rest is history. Here is how Rosa tells the story.
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, "Why do you push us around?" The officer's response as she remembered it was, "I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're under arrest." She later said, "I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind."
Henry Gates came home one day from a trip to China and he was all tired and was confronted by a police officer and just wasn't in the mood to take it, and just let it all out. He mistook the officer's attitude as being racist because he could not conceive of the alternative that the officer's attitude was actually fascist. There is no contradiction here because under a fascist system there is usually some ethnic group that dominates the society.

Anyway what Rosa Parks did was to challenge Jim Crow laws. (Did you know that "Jim Crow" was a derogatory term for Black people?) These laws were patently racist and unconstitutional, and yet they had been the law of the land for many years. Similarly, the unwritten Police State laws that we live under today need to be challenged. It is imperative that the police learn that they are indeed here "to protect and serve". Instead the police have slowly become a paramilitary occupation force.

And BTW, this is really interesting. Guess what Rosa Parks was charged with? When she was arrested the excuse was that she was violating Chapter 6, Section 11 of the Montgomery City code. But technically she wasn't in violation because she was actually sitting in the black section when the driver ordered her to move to give up her seat for some White folks that had just boarded the bus.
In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance for the purpose of segregating passengers by race. Conductors were given the power to assign seats to accomplish that purpose; however, no passengers would be required to move or give up their seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers had adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move whenever there were no white only seats left.

So, following standard practice, bus driver Blake noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers and there were two or three men standing, and thus moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."
So perhaps to make sure that there was a "valid" legal reason for charging Mrs. Parks the prosecution added another charge. Have you guessed it by now?
Four days later, Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. Parks was found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.
Is there a better case to illustrate my point that "disorderly conduct" is a catch-all charge and that it is defined by the police and the courts in a manner that suits their purpose at the time? I hope that Prof. Gates, who is an authority on racism in the United States, will take the time to recall the events of 1955 and realize the similarities to his own situation in 2009. It took over 50 years to put an end to the Police State's segregation laws. It's been more than 50 years since then and it is time to take the next step. It's time to put an end to this humiliating behavior on the part of the police. Dr. Gates has a unique opportunity to initiate this action just as Rosa Parks provided the spark for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Sadly, pathetically, our first African-American President has ducked his historical responsibility to further the Civil Rights movement. We can only pray and remain hopeful that the spirit of Rosa Parks will come over Henry Louis Gates Jr. and "cover his body like a quilt on a winter night". And that it will stiffen his spine and give him the courage and conviction to "do the right thing" - just like Rosa Parks.

Police are public servants

The police need to be taught a lesson that they are "public servants". They are here to serve us, not to subjugate us and to keep us under constant surveillance. A police officer should treat all members of the public with respect. An officer should inform a citizen of his rights, instead of trying to devise methods to strip citizens of their rights. A clear example is when Sgt. Crowley lured Prof. Gates out of his house into a "public" space in order to be able to arrest him. This was a trick that he had learned in his training. And he emphasized in his report that he arrested Gates in a "public space". Now I would hardly call a man's front porch a "public space", but the devious Crowley knew that the interior of his house was by no means a "public space".

Why is it that police are not required to inform us of our rights until after we are arrested. In fact those so-called "Miranda rights" are a mere shadow of our true rights. Those are the few rights that we have left after being arrested. For some reason a police officer is not legally compelled to inform a citizen of his full rights when confronted.

For instance Crowley should have informed Gates that he had the right to remain in his house and not come outside. Some have conjectured that had Gates come outside immediately that Crowley would have arrested him. Crowley denies this, but I have no doubt that this is exactly what would have happened. Again, Crowley knew that he could not arrest Gates in his house without a warrant so this was another "trick" at his disposal. But Gates was probably unaware of this.

[EDIT 7/25/09: As it turns out I was wrong about this. According to Gates in a radio interview with Gayle King, he was fully aware that if he stepped outside that the officer would be able to immediately arrest him. He says that it was for this reason that he refused to step outside. He also stated that the officer's tone was very hostile and that made him immediately apprehensive. The audio interview is available in two parts - Part 1, Part 2.]

On the other hand, despite some comments on the internet, my understanding is that Crowley did have the right to enter Gates' home without a warrant. That's because he had received a 9-11 call and that provided him with sufficient reason to enter the home. If he then found some burglars in the home, then he certainly could have arrested them.

Police must have ID in Massachusetts

There is one thing that I want to emphasize because it has received almost no attention in this discussion. Massachusetts has a law that requires police to to carry identification cards.


Chapter 41: Section 98D. Identification cards

Section 98D. Each city or town shall issue to every full time police officer employed by it an identification card bearing his photograph and the municipal seal. Such card shall be carried on the officer’s person, and shall be exhibited upon lawful request for purposes of identification.
That's not some department recommended procedure, that's a law! Sgt. Crowley was surely aware of this law from his extensive training - he sure knew all the laws that would allow him to arrest Prof. Gates - but he chose to ignore it. In so doing he committed a crime! Of course since we are living in a Police State, there appears to be no applicable punishment for this crime.

The point is that Prof. Gates was fully within his rights to ask the officer to properly identify himself. Sgt. Crowley refused to do this. In his reports he claims to have already identified himself, but he appears to be referring to a brief introduction.
As I turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer of xx Ware Street. I made this observation through the glass paned front door. As I stood in plain view of this man, later identified as Gates, I asked if he would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He replied “no I will not”. He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was “Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police” and that I was “investigating a report of a break in progress” at the residence.
I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided at Ware Street and so that I could radio my findings to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard University identification card. Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.

With the Harvard University identification in hand, I radioed my findings to ECC on channel two and prepared to leave. Gates again asked for my name which I began to provide. Gates began to yell over my spoken words by accusing me of being a racist police officer and leveling threats that he wasn’t someone to mess with. At some point during this exchange, I became aware that Off. Carlos Figueroa was standing behind me. When Gates asked a third time for my name, I explained to him that I had provided it at his request two separate times. Gates continued to yell at me. I told Gates that I was leaving his residence and that if he had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside of the residence.

As I began walking through the foyer toward the front door, I could hear Gates again demanding my name. I again told Gates that I would speak with him outside.
Even if you choose to believe the details of the police report - which I don't because police routinely lie in their reports - you can see that at no time did Sgt. Crowley provide his official identification card as required by law. So Prof. Gates had good reason to be upset. Hopefully he will stay upset long enough to take this case to court and to force the Cambridge Police Dept. and police departments across America to begin "to protect and serve" instead of suppress and subjugate.

Additional information and documents
[EDIT 7/25/09: I created this section to provide easy access to some supporting material.]

  • Prof. Gates did an interview with The Root in which he explained the sequence of events which led to his being arrested and taken into police custody. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the editor-in-chief of the The Root online magazine. The article is titled "Skip Gates Speaks".
  • There is a two part audio interview that was conducted by Gayle King in which Prof. Gates directly answers many of the criticisms that have been hurled at him. Part 1Part 2.
  • The Root online magazine which is providing updates and other related articles.
  • PDF of the Police Reports submitted by Sgt. James Crowley and Officer Carlos Figueroa.
  • Partial text transcript of the police report submitted by Sgt. James Crowley.
  • Wikipedia article on Rosa Parks.
If you have any other relevant sources, you can add them to the comments. Thanks.

Related Posts


bill said...

People who show no decency and respect to workers deserve none in return. Gates showed no common decency to somebody trying to protect lives and property. The cop doesn't know who else is there and can't be expected to just walk away from the scene of a break-in with two people involved on the say so of one of those people. Had Mr Gates been a hostage of the second person, leaving the scene would have been gross negligence in the officer's case.

Behaving like an ass is NOT upholding any civil liberty, it's just behaving like an ass. I'd say the same thing about somebody treating the black kid working the McDonald's counter badly.

And calling Gates an "establishment Negro" for behaving like an ass is reading way too much into somebody's foul mood.

Rosa Parks stood up for equality, and all of humanity is better for her efforts. Gates had a temper tantrum, and as a human being he can be forgiven for losing his temper, but reading any sort of noble action into his tantrum is just silly.

I applaud Mr Obama for backing away from his first statements, made on facts he wasn't familiar with, and trying to get two people together in a civil setting to possibly share their personal feelings and perhaps even become friends.

But some people WANT hatred and animosity to rule. Like the bratty kid in the school yard, egging the other kids into fighting for their own amusement.

We can do better than that.

Frank Hope said...

Hi Bill,

[I'm breaking up this response in two parts because it exceeded the limit. This is part 1.]

Thanks for your comment. The facts in this case are in dispute. I think you are basing your comments on the official police report. The idea that Gates had a "temper tantrum" is based on the police officer's account. I personally don't give the same credence to the officer's account as you do because I have had personal experience where an officer lied on a police report. My general impression is that this is quite common. This is also what Dr. Gates alleges.

What Rosa Parks did was to deliberately break the law or at least the law as it was commonly interpreted by the Montgomery, Alabama police. In the case of Dr. Gates, he did not break any laws and yet he was still arrested. And yet you choose to defend Rosa Parks and condemn Dr. Gates. In historical perspective it may appear to you that what Rosa Parks did was a noble thing, but I wonder if you were alive in 1955 if you would have been just as supportive of Mrs. Parks action?

Prof. Gates is a man that knows his rights, which is something very few people in America can say. He knew that he had the right to refuse to come out of his house and that if he stepped out of the house that the officer could immediately arrest him, which is why he initially refused to come out. He also knew that he had a right to demand - yes, demand - of the police officer to be shown his official identification with his name and badge number. This is required by law in Massachusetts.

It is exactly because Prof. Gates did not break any laws and because he demanded that the police officer respect his civil rights that this is such a great test case. Most of us would have slipped up and done something that the police could have used against us, but if we believe Gates' version of events (and I do) then he was fully within his rights.

Now if you want to be a slave to the police state, that is your business. But that is not what the founders of this country had in mind. They clearly envisioned a people that would be able to stand up to authority. BTW, this is why there is a "right to bear arms" in the Bill of Rights. If you believe in the "right to bear arms", then why don't you believe in the right to stand up for your rights and challenge the authority of the police?

I'm actually feeling kind of bad about calling Prof. Gates an "establishment negro". I think of it as a challenge to him, and I hope he proves me wrong. But I accept the fact that I may have stepped out of line with that comment since I'm not familiar with his life.

(continued in the next comment)

Frank Hope said...

@Bill [Part 2]

Dr. Gates did not ask for any of this. He just wanted to enjoy the same rights of privacy in his own home that any other American would expect, just as Rosa Parks did not get on the bus that day looking to get arrested. I just hope that Dr. Gates will rise above the issue of race and see this as a fundamental civil liberties issue. He certainly has the legal brain power at his disposal in Harvard to make a great case out of this and to use it to restore the balance of power between the police and the citizens that has been lost since the start of the "war on drugs" and the "war on terrorism". Isn't it time for peace and justice after so many years of war in America against its own citizens?

I don't know where you get the idea that Dr. Gates is trying to spread race hatred. He is simply someone who is committed to ending racism in America. It's true we don't have segregated busses anymore, but that doesn't mean that racism has been abolished. I actually see more racism in the comments of those who have been so quick to condemn Dr. Gates than in the initial incident. Still as I have said before I hope that Dr. Gates turns this more into a battle for "civil liberties" than a battle for "civil rights".

And just so were clear, Wikipedia defines "civil liberties" as:

"freedoms that protect an individual from the government of the nation in which they reside. Civil liberties set limits for government so that it cannot abuse its power and interfere unduly with the lives of its citizens."

I think Dr. Gates is making the mistake of trying to justify the police's actions by assuming that his main motive is racist. The only other alternative he has is to assume that the officer acts this way to anyone that stands up for his rights. This would actually make the officer more of a fascist than a racist. I don't think that Dr. Gates is willing to confront that truth just yet. But I hope that eventually he will come to this realization and shift the focus of his efforts.

Finally, I do have one request of you. I try to keep this blog as PG rated as possible. I ask that you refrain from using vulgar language. The word I'm referring to begins with an 'a'. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It was refreshing reading your blog to find another who feels exactly as I do. Police abuse of power happens everyday to people of all colors who are simply going about their everyday business. While I understand how Dr. Gates might think it's about race, I hope he realizes there's alot more to it. My deepest thanks for your blog,