I've been fascinated and dismayed by the recent dust-up over the arrest of Harvard's Henry Louis “Skip” Gates for being locked out while black.
The bulk of the conversation—which has, of course, only been intensified by a presidential intervention—has focused on the degree to which racial profiling or actual racial animus might have played a role in the actions of the arresting officer. Given the history of police departments' abusive treatment of black people in the United States, that's hardly surprising.
But I confess to being a little puzled at the defense of his actions the arresting officer has offered. In an interview I heard broadcast this morning, he maintained that Gates in effect triggered his own arrest by being belligerent and that he could have avoided arrest by behaving more compliantly.
Nothing I have learned about the situation to-date suggests that Gates's conduct presented anything remotely like a credible threat of physical harm to the officer. And, indeed, there has been (as far as I know) no claim to this effect. Thus, Gates wasn't charged with assault or something similar, but rather with “disorderly conduct.”
It seems to me that this fact ought to elicit far more troubled comment than it seems to have prompted to date. (i) It underscores the fact that police officers have access to one or more catch-all charges they can use to justify arresting people who haven't done anything that actually threatens the physical safety or the property of others. (ii) It offers a less-than-gentle reminder that a responsible, relatively senior police officer can find it natural enough to suppose that invoking the power to make one of these charges is an appropriate response to someone's verbal combativeness: in short, this officer, doubtless like many others, seems to suppose that he has the right to arrest someone for treating him in what he judges to be an insufficiently respectful manner.
We should certainly emphasize the injustice of police racism. But, in addition, we need to protest the assumption by police officers, or other agents of the state, that they are entitled to attack people they judge to be insufficiently deferential.