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July 21, 2009

Life in the Democratic Police State

By: Bernard Chazelle

What do you call "Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr trying to open the front door of his house with the help of his friendly cab driver"? Answer:

"two black males breaking into a home near Harvard University."

That's, anyway, how the caller to the police station put it. A cop was dispatched promptly.

Gates gave the officer his driver's license and Harvard identification, but became upset when the officer continued to question him.

So upset in fact that

[t]he sergeant said he was forced to step out of the home because of Gates' uncomfortably loud yelling.

Gates asked the police officer for his badge number and name several times but received no response. The sergeant told Gates that they could discuss the matter further outside, to which Gates allegedly replied,

"ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."

Police reinforcement arrived (presumably the anti-"uncomfortably loud yelling" unit) and Gates was arrested for

"exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior" in his home.

Not that one should, but forget the racial angle for a minute. So you're minding your own business at home, not bothering anyone. A cop comes and interrogates you. You forget to genuflect. Pronto, you're in jail!

Don't misconstrue my target here. It's neither the caller nor the cop. It's the people who accept that living in a police state is a small price to pay for our security. It's the people for whom authority is something not to challenge, but to defer to. I see that among my own undergrads. And it's gotten worse over the years. It's the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics in reverse: slouching toward tyranny.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 21, 2009 10:54 AM


Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 21, 2009 12:09 PM

The Stockholm Syndrome, writ large.

Surprised this hasn't happened to Obama yet. I bet he doesn't walk on K Street much after dark.

Posted by: Oarwell at July 21, 2009 12:35 PM

Skip Gates refused to "accept" it.

"Git yer fat, donut-stinkin,' honky-cop ass the fuck outta my house right now!"

Would be regarded as too much temerity by most fat, donut-stinkin', hankey-assed cops, I suspect.

I called a cop a pig and he laughed. When I then called him a fucking moron, he arrested me. They don't like to be reminded...

Posted by: Woody at July 21, 2009 02:20 PM

But isn't it the cop, too? The cop who knowingly works for and advances the police state?

The people who work for the police state ARE the police state. To pretend they are victims of the same system as those uninvolved with running the police state is false. People CHOOSE to work for the police state, and they are the guilty ones. Cops, soldiers, senators. Guilty all.

It is also the caller's fault - I know everyone who lives in my building - far more people than on some ritzy block near Harvard. If this person had bothered to walk a few doors down, this wouldn't have happened.

Posted by: Christopher Wing at July 21, 2009 03:07 PM

Never talk to the cops. Name and address is all. The rest they can talk to my lawyer (and that's even when I'm not doing anything wrong.)

Watch this:

Posted by: Willy at July 21, 2009 03:21 PM

Well yes, cops in general are dicks, but it's absurd to pretend that this isn't fundamentally about Prof. Gates's pigmentation. Of course the cop is worthy of criticism, and in fact of being fired. And the caller obviously interpreted the scene based on the melanin production of the protagonist's skin cells. I mean, duhh.

Posted by: cervantes at July 21, 2009 03:25 PM

"ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."

Now, I'm going to be repeating this over and over all day.

"ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."

Posted by: RTT at July 21, 2009 03:58 PM

Don't misconstrue my target here. It's neither the caller nor the cop. It's the people who accept that living in a police state is a small price to pay for our security. It's the people for whom authority is something not to challenge, but to defer to.

This might be a reasonable point if, at any point in the past, people in authority had abused their power. But when you look at humanity's history, this simply has never happened. It's just not something worth worrying about.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 21, 2009 05:32 PM

RACISM IS THE POLITICS OF AMERICA AND BIGOTRY HER SOUL. And a cop is a cop and yes its a police state, THEREFORE bitiching at the cops WILL bring out the cuffs. SURELY they would have taught a Blackman that at Harvard by now. KEEP PAYING KEEP PLAYING.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 21, 2009 08:24 PM

I find it interesting that those whom support the police in this matter tend to be those whom are anti-big government conservatives.

Posted by: Iron Butterfly at July 21, 2009 11:49 PM

I find it interesting that those whom support the police in this matter tend to be those whom are anti-big government conservatives.

Posted by: Iron Butterfly at July 21, 2009 11:49 PM

One mustn't loudly with great tumulosity shout at an intruding interrogator else in frightening or merely surprising the uniformed man armed with deadly force one finds one's person tazzered or shot on one's own front lawn professor or no. Happened plenty times before.

Democratic police state indeed. Been inching here for a long time for all. Been here always for many folk.

Posted by: Steve in Los Angeles at July 21, 2009 11:50 PM

I wonder how much influence the show "Cops" has had on people's thinking. Cops show up at a trailer part after someone calls in a "domestic", drunken shirtless guy with a mullet yells at them to "get off mah proppity", gets cuffed and taken to jail. The cops, who, of course, are aware that a camera crew is filming their every move, never lose their composure.

And the racial aspect is never present: it could just as well be a black cop arresting that white trailer-park denizen.

The point of view is always that of the cops, the cops are never shown to be in the wrong, while people who argue with cops are idiots and always in the wrong.

The show's been on your teevee for 20 years or so, dutifully propagandizing for the police state. Hard to believe it hasn't had an effect.

Posted by: SteveB at July 22, 2009 11:43 AM

SteveB, how absurd your theories! The only part of COPS that effects people are the commercials, which is why corporations pay millions of dollars to have them produced and aired. The content of the show, although it may come as a surprise, has no effect whatsoever on the viewer.

Which is why they call it programming.

Posted by: Oarwell at July 22, 2009 12:23 PM

Wait...isn't Insufficient Deference to Blue Team Colors known to be illegal in this country?


Posted by: scats at July 22, 2009 05:10 PM

What? No on the spot torture by tazer administered?

Posted by: DavidByron at July 23, 2009 12:03 AM

cleanup endeavor by the police department, the officer actually gave mouth to mouth to a black basketball player... he can't be racist

"Crowley, also a trained emergency medical technician, not only pumped the local legend's chest, but put his mouth to Lewis' own and attempted to breathe life back into the fallen athlete."

Posted by: ahmed at July 23, 2009 06:30 PM

It's mighty depressing. I grew up in the South, moved up near Cambridge. Not only are the local police pretty quick to chat up any black face they see on the street, they have not even bothered to memorize the faces of the (half-)dozen black kids that live in town.

I had hoped that the Cambridge cop would be savvy enough to say something along the lines of "I don't much like being called stupid by the president, but I reckon I can apologize to Professor Gates." At which point, I can almost guarantee that he gets a personal phone call (and perhaps an apology for the "stupidly") from Obama thanking him, probably a letter too so he can frame it. Because, after all, if you're big on respect for authority, you pay attention to what the president says.

Posted by: dr2chase at July 23, 2009 10:38 PM

With due respect, I think your comments are overblown. I think what is significant in the Gates affair is his arrogance, not his skin color. He acted as if, being a "Professor at Harvard" exempted him from the laws of society and the duty to demonstrate minimal courtesy to a fellow being - who just happened to be a police officer. He deserved what he got.

Posted by: Caryl Johnston at July 24, 2009 08:23 AM

The comments over at Ta-Nehisi Coates's place are worth reading; one sums up his attitude toward cops as the following: "Do not try to get justice from the cop. Try to not get killed. The lawyers and the judges can sort out who is right and who is wrong later."

Is there any place where cops don't have a reputation for abusing their authority with some regularity?

Posted by: grendelkhan at July 24, 2009 12:57 PM