Saturday, July 25, 2009

The White Cop and the Black Professor

White police Sgt. James Crowley insists that he did nothing wrong in arresting and handcuffing black Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his home last week on the charge of disturbing the peace.

Despite the fact that Professor Gates had shown Sgt. Crowley identification and Sgt. Crowley knew the professor was the legal occupant of the home he was in, Sgt. Crowley claims that his police training taught him that when the professor allegedly directed angry and disrespectful language towards him it became necessary to arrest and handcuff the professor. Sgt. Crowley says racism had nothing to do with it; he was just doing what he was trained to do. Sgt. Crowley's fellow officers, some of whom are black, as well as the Superintendent of Cambridge police, agreed with Sgt. Crowley. Sgt. Crowley said he had nothing to apologize for. He was simply doing what police are trained to do.

You know what? Sgt. Crowley is right. And that is exactly the problem with the police in the United States.

Police are trained to act as authoritarian thugs when they are dealing with people who are not obviously of, or loyal to, the very wealthy elite who rule the nation. Let us give Sgt. Crowley the benefit of the doubt about how Professor Gates behaved. Let us dismiss the professor's claim that he was respectful and that he merely asked if he was being treated the way he was because he was a black man in America, and let us dismiss his claim that he simply asked for Sgt. Crowley's name and badge number. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Sgt. Crowley's account is true--that the professor spoke loudly and angrily and disrespectfully towards Sgt. Crowley. A non-authoritarian, non-thuggish police officer would have ignored that behavior, and just left the scene after determining that no law was being broken. The professor was not disturbing anybody's peace* except perhaps Sgt. Crowley's, and the solution was to just say goodbye and leave. But that is not what Sgt. Crowley was trained to do.

The police in our society are trained to enforce law and order. The order is inequality, based on extremely unequal private property ownership. A few people own billions of dollars of property, most do not even own their own home free and clear, and many own nothing but debt. Class conflict is largely over the question of whether our society should be based on equality or inequality in property ownership, and hence in social status. When people at the bottom do anything that seriously threatens the inequality of the status quo, like carry out a labor strike that actually aims to shut down production, or wage a general strike that threatens to become a revolution as happened in Seattle in 1919, or even just exercise the right to bear arms while being black, the police are called in to suppress it, often with ruthless violence.

Public police departments, historically, were created to suppress workers' strikes; they are publicly funded versions of the private security goon squads that employers initially relied upon for this purpose. The FBI, for example, is actually a spinoff of the notoriously brutal strike-breaking private Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

The police are trained to enforce law and order in an unjust and unequal society, and a big part of doing this requires that they make ordinary people obey them out of fear. Everybody knows that if you are stopped by a policeman while driving your car, you risk being handcuffed and jailed, if not shot, if you are anything less than absolutely deferential to the police officer. Parents, especially the poorest, know they must teach their children this survival lesson. When I was collecting signatures for a ballot question at a shopping mall, which I have a constitutional right to do despite it being private property, the police ordered me to leave. When I told the police I had a right to be there, they refused to listen. They were arrogant and thuggish. When I tilted my head to read the sideways badge number of the policeman, he said, "What are you looking at?" in a threatening manner and told me to leave or he'd arrest me. This is how they are trained to behave towards both white people (like me) and black people.


What about it? Even if the police treated whites and blacks exactly the same way, they would still be authoritarian thugs enforcing class inequality. That's their job. And that's the problem.

President Obama knows that police departments play the same role in society that he, himself, is playing--they defend class inequality and they serve the very wealthy at the top of society. Obama's invitation to Sgt. Crowley to join him and Professor Gates over a beer in the White House is meant to make it clear to the American people that, despite occasional "incidents" that may require smoothing ruffled feathers, police departments in the United States are to be accorded respect and deference. President Obama--the Cop in Chief-- is not part of the solution; he is part of the problem.


* If the charge was actually "disorderly conduct" the point remains the same: it is as absurd to arrest somebody for disorderly conduct inside his own home as to arrest somebody for indecent exposure inside his own bathroom.


At 3:25 PM, July 27, 2009, Blogger eila said...

You have it exactly right, Mr. Spitzer. Thank you for this most articulate analysis.


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