Henry Louis Gates Should Sue

That's the provocative notion of Randy Cohen in the NY Times. I'm not sure whether it would be a good idea politically, but I think Cohen is right to point out that Gates has a legitimate case. My favorite line from the article -- the the thing that struck me right from the start of this affair: "There is no law against Contempt of Cop." Here is the relevant part of Cohen's  paragraph for context. I think it makes an excellent and important distinction between acting as a private citizen and acting in a professional capacity:

. . . if Gates overreacted, he did so only as an individual, an outburst that might be obnoxious but is not criminal. There is no law against Contempt of Cop. If Crowley overreacted, he erred as a professional, perhaps abusing his office in a manner that is particularly fraught, given the history of African-Americans and the police. That’s what should be examined in court.

I was also heartened to see that the first few comments following Cohen's piece -- I guess this is what the Times calls a blog with comments -- supported Cohen's thesis and saw the situation for what it was, an abuse of power with an added racial dimension. I'm a white guy, also a professor, and I would have acted much like Professor Gates, though, given my own passions, I probably would have called Officer Crowley a fascist. So I was feeling pretty good about my fellow man until I read the comment from "John," which avers: "Citizens do not have a constitutionally protected right to mouth off to a policeman and hurl personal insults when the officer is just doing his job." Yes they fucking do, John! That's pretty much the whole point of this country if you ask me. Anyway, there are 257 comments as of this writing and I only read the first ten, then skimmed a few more, so I don't know if the proportions would hold up. At least some of my fellow citizens realize, though, that, as commenter RGP put it,  "A police officer who enters a private residence without a warrant is a guest of the homeowner, and it is not a crime for the homeowner to order him to leave, even in a manner that is vigorous or rude." It is amazing, scanning down a few more comments, that so many people do not agree with this very basic and very American sentiment. I mean, isn't that why all those right-wing Second Amendment fanatics are worried about? Being harassed in their homes by the authorities? Funny that the NRA hasn't spoken up about Officer Crowley's behavior. What if Professor Gates had had a weapon? Would he have been entitled to use it to put a stop to Officer Crowley's obvious trespass? Well, nobody every accused the American right of being consistent. Returning briefly to the private versus professional distinction Cohen makes in his piece, we could note that Professor Gates should be held to a professional standard on campus and in the classroom and within the scholarly community, just as Officer Crowley should be held to a professional standard while engaged in police work. When either of them are off duty, as it were, they have the rights of private citizens and within the context of American democracy, ought to assert them. That's just being a good American, doing your job correctly and sticking up for yourself. __________________ Note: Bob Herbert has the numbers -- and the right response to those who would tell the wrongly arrested to just chill out, man.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Henry Louis Gates Should Sue”

  1. And furthermore, this kind of thing happens every day in every city of the land. The profile of this one brings the subject to light, but I also suspect that its “celebrity” allows the complacent to think that it is exceptional.

    I’ve thought that because we give our police a high level of discretion, we must hold them to a high standard of behavior.

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