Thursday, July 23, 2009

THE GATES CASE: WHAT THE MEDIA DIDN'T NOTICE

Dave Lindorff, Counterpunch - Professor Gates, who was understandably outraged at the whole situation, properly told the sergeant that he wanted his name and his badge number, because he intended to file a complaint. Whether or not the officer had done anything wrong by that point is not the issue. It was Gates' right as a citizen to file a complaint. The officer's alleged refusal to provide his name and badge number was improper and, if Gates' claim is correct, was a violation of the rules that are in force in every police department in the country.

But whatever the real story is regarding the showing of identification information by Gates and the officer, police misconduct in this incident went further. Gates reportedly got understandably angry and frustrated at the officer for refusing to provide him with this identifying information and/or for refusing to accept his own identification documents, and at that point the officer abused his power by arresting Gates and charging him with disorderly conduct.

There's nothing unusual about this, sadly. It is common practice for police in America to abuse their authority and to arrest people on a charge of "disorderly conduct" when those people simply exercise their free speech rights and object strenuously to how they are being treated by an officer. Try it out sometime. If you are given a ticket for going five miles an hour over the posted speed limit, tell the traffic officer he or she is a stupid moron, and see if you are left alone. My bet is that you will find yourself either ticketed on another more serious charge, or even arrested for "disorderly conduct." If you happen to be black or some other race than white, I'll even put money on that bet. . .

There is no suggestion by police that Gates physically threatened the arresting officer. His "crime" at the time was simply speaking out. . .

Very little of the mainstream reporting I've seen on this event makes the crucial point that it is not illegal to tell a police officer that he is a jerk, or that he has done something wrong, or that you are going to file charges against him. And yet too many commentators, journalists and ordinary people seem to accept that if a citizen "mouths off" to a cop, or criticizes a cop, or threatens legal action against a cop, it's okay for that cop to cuff the person and charge him with "disorderly conduct." Worse yet, if a cop makes such a bogus arrest, and the person gets upset, he's liable to get an added charge of "resisting arrest" or worse.

We have, as a nation, sunk to the level of a police state, when we grant our police the unfettered power to arrest honest, law-abiding citizens for simply stating their minds. And it's no consolation that someone like Gates can count on having such charges tossed out. It's the arrest, the cuffing, and the humiliating ride in the back of a cop squad car to be booked and held until bailed out that is the outrage.

I'm sure police take a lot of verbal abuse on the job, but given their inherent power-armed and with a license to arrest, to handcuff, and even to shoot and kill-they must be told by their superiors that they have no right to arrest people for simply expressing their views, even about those officers.

Insulting an officer of the law is not a crime. Telling an officer he or she is breaking the law is not a crime. Demanding that an officer identify him or herself is not a crime. And saying you are going to file a complaint against the officer is not a crime. . .

In a free country, we should not allow the police, who after all are supposed to be public servants, not centurions, to behave in this manner. When we do, we do not have a free society. We have a police state.

The following appeared in the front of the Coast Guard manual when your editor was an officer in the 1960s. It is from Alexander Hamilton's instructions to the first officers of the Revenue Marine, forerunner of the Coast Guard, and is one of the best descriptions of how law enforcement officers should deal with citizens. Not surprisingly, it has since disappeared from the Coast Guard manual.

Alexander Hamilton - While I recommend in the strongest terms to the respective officers, activity, vigilance and firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their deportment may be marked with prudence, moderation and good temper. . .

They will bear in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and as such are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of domineering spirit. They will, therefore refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness or insult. If obstacles occur, they will remember that they are under the particular protection of the laws and they can meet with nothing disagreeable in the execution of their duty which these will not severely reprehend. . .

This reflection, and regard to the good of the service, will prevent at all times a spirit of irritation or resentment. They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty -- by address and moderation rather than by vehemence and violence.

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