Disturbed in public

On Tuesday, July 21, I spent all day in court but it was not to be judged for any criminal trespass, but to judge as to whether or not I was able to sit in judgement of another. In short, I was selected for a jury pool.
When the judge asked me whether there was anything that would not make me objective, I said that I would like to know the birthplace of the (black) defendant, because I know the high chances of young black Caribbean men being arrested, and the low chances of them being found innocent.
The prosecutor asked me from what perspective do I write my social columns and replied “From that of the underdog”, pointing out that the state usually has the resources while the defendant has very little. Contradicting him on another point later, I pointed out that jurors generally come into the court with an inherent belief that the defendant must be guilty or else why would the justice system pick on him?
While I was in court, the news that distinguished Yale scholar Henry Louis Gates had been arrested at his home the previous Thursday, was exploding in the press. The charges were dropped the same day the press got a hold of it.
The brief backstory is that Gates returned to his Harvard home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had to force his way in because of a jammed door. A neighbour (and this leads to all kinds of questions) called the police claiming that 2 black men were burglarizing the home (I’m guessing that Gates was new to the ‘hood).
The police came, entered the house and saw Gates on the phone. After supplying identification, Gates obviously didn’t like the attitude of one of the officers, demanded his name and badge number. The officer claimed that Gates was abusing him.
The officer invited Gates out on his porch and then proceeded to arrest him for ‘tumultuous behaviour’. President Obama, when asked for a comment, at first claimed that the police had behaved stupidly. And things just kept escalating.
Should anyone want more background, that’s what the internet is for.
The incident again raised the ugly issue that many Americans want swept under the carpet… RACE. And pretty soon, racial lines were being drawn… OJ all over again.
Race and racial profiling of course became the issue on one side, while another side used it to attack Obama and those ‘uppity niggers’ who clearly don’t know their place. Ok, that’s a bit of a oversell, but many whites sided with the police, saying Gates had no right to abuse the police and all he had to do is cooperate and he wouldn’t have been arrested. Hmm.
While its likely sure there was some level of racism here (I’m sure everything would have been different if it was Bill Gates instead of Henry), lost in the whole issue is the fact that this country is fast becoming a police state. When I read the comments of many white officers, it appears that they have a low tolerance for being abused. But as it is being pointed out, abusing a police officer is not a crime, misdemeanor or otherwise.
It is within Gates constitutional rights to, within the confines of his home, question police procedure, request the officers badge number and even accuse him of being a f***ing racist. None of that is a crime.
However there is an increasing frequency of police arresting people of all sorts, for ‘public disturbances/disorderly conduct’, ‘interfering with an investigation”, or ‘resisting arrest’ in circumstances most of us would find incredibly silly. But these charges have a tremendous amount of grey areas. “Interfering with an investigation” can be nothing more than asking why you were stopped or even asking to be spoken to politely. “Resisting arrest” can be applied simply for not getting your hands up in quick time to be handcuffed, taking a step backwards or even asking to be properly dressed (Heck. If I was going to be photographed, it best be in a tux than my beat-up, moth-eaten favorite t-shirt).
“Public disturbances” is often applied for just asking ‘why?’ or asking for name and badge number, and is used when you are in a public place. That’s why the officer invited Gates outside of his dwelling. As soon as Gates opened his mouth again, he was ‘arrest-able’.
These laws are vague but remain active and abused tools of the police. The law relating to ‘public disturbances/disorderly conduct’ is over 300 years old.
Gates never touched the police officer as even the lightest touch would have resulted in an assault charge.
The question remains that ‘why in a FREE society are these laws still on the books and being used’. The problem is that these tools are often never used against the rich and famous. Gates charges were dropped, but not many have been so lucky.
The same day that the Gates story ran, a Minnesota man (white and probably drunk) was shot and killed by an out-of-uniform policeman after an argument ensued http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090722/ap_on_re_us/us_swim_trunk_shooting.
Note what the witnesses said about what was happening when the man (Tyler Heilman) was shot 4 times.
So the Gates incident shouldn’t be limited to just race but must be broadened to deal with police actions. However it must be borne in mind, how often black people are victims of such police abuse and how often, especially when black people are involved, officers get off scot-free.
Another disturbing aspect of the story is how Obama came to the defense of his black friend, as if this issue never existed before for hundreds of thousands of minorities, and millions of poor people. It was unfortunate for him to say that the police ‘acted stupidly’, but he was absolutely correct.
The disturbing thing is that he backed down, even to calling the policeman and inviting him to the White House to have a beer. Hell, shouldn’t he be doing something more important, like fixing the economy and instituting health care?… just for starters.
Doesn’t world peace, the Afghan war, unemployment, people dying worldwide from starvation, wars, genocide? Hell, 23 people died of ‘bird flu’ in Florida since June, and the United States total is over 300 deaths. New York has the highest deaths with 63.
As I write, the headlines scream “Ousted Honduran president (Zelaya) sees US support waning”. So much for the rule of law and the ballot as against RIGHT-WING military coups. Unlike Henry Gates and a certain policeman, I’m likely to think that president Zelaya won’t be invited to the white House. Afterall, he is neither an Obama friend or a white member of a ‘respected’ profession which can carry a lot of white votes come 2012.
But I digress. I understand Obama wants to sing ‘Kumbaya’ to everyone, (‘cept black folks) and that ‘black folks bi’niz’ is very low priority for him. I understood that during the election, he didn’t want to come across as the ‘angry black man’.
But freak, man, someday he has to grow a pair of cojones. The republicans are pushing him and abusing him at every turn. Yes, he has had results with his demeanour. But sometimes you have to push back… even just a little.
On this issue, Obama has turned his black back on a very important issue for black people. I guess he and Henry Gates can live with that and move on. Pity the next innocent black man shot down in the streets by policemen. He most likely can’t move on, … not with 30 bullets in his chest or back.
PS. I wasn’t picked for jury duty. No surprise there.