A Word About Acting Stupidly.

At a certain point, I was really close to brushing off Gatesgate. I thought it was clear the cops had overreached and that Professor Gates should have known better than to engage the authorities in that way, if only because it spoke poorly of his self-preservation skills. What else was there to say?

I didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. And I’m still not sure if I do.

But this fantastic post from digby needs to be acknowledged. Here’s the thrust of it:

Now, on a practical, day to day level, it’s hard to argue that being argumentative with a cop is a dangerous thing. They have guns. They can arrest you and can cost you your freedom if they want to do it badly enough. They can often get away with doing violence on you and suffer no consequences. You are taking a risk if you provoke someone with that kind of power, no doubt about it.

Indeed, it is very little different than exercising your right of free speech to tell a gang of armed thugs to go fuck themselves. It’s legal, but it’s not very smart. But that’s the problem isn’t it? We shouldn’t have to make the same calculations about how to behave with police as we would with armed criminals. The police are supposed to be the good guys who follow the rules and the law and don’t expect innocent citizens to bow to their brute power the same way that a street gang would do. The police are not supposed wield what is essentially brute force on the entire population.

And yet, that’s what we are told we are supposed to accept. Not only can they arrest us merely for being argumentative as they did with Gates, they are now allowed to shoot us full of electricity to make us comply with their demands to submit.

Please read the rest.

I should have known better than to dismiss the incident, having been stopped by cops on a number of occasions and reading through comically unreliable arrest reports on a daily basis. I should have been smarter. I should have been more empathetic. And most importantly, I should have been more skeptical.

Amanda Marcotte points out this tendency to reflexively side with the authorities, even in clear cases of abuse:

But by and large, I’ve seen more concern out there with whether or not Gates was stupid for not staring at his shoes and apologizing for breathing the second a cop started speaking to him. Since I’ve been blogging for a long time, on and off, about the politics of rape, I know this behavior when I see it—it’s victim-blaming.

And it’s easy to see how this societal acceptance of inexcusable behavior, of cops acting “stupidly” if you will, can start with Gates and end with Shem Walker.


Joel Anderson —blackink —  writes about sports, politics, crime, courts, and other issues far beyond his competence at BuzzFeed. He has worked at media outlets in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Atlanta and contributed to a number of publications, including The Root and The American Prospect, among many others.
  • So. At first, I didn’t see criticizing Gates’ behavior as siding with the authorities or victim-blaming. I saw it more as resignation that X is what we expect from the cops, and Y is how we should behave. And Gates, instead, went with Z. I criticized his behavior, not because he was actually wrong, but because it’s been branded into my brain that black people — black men, especially — do NOT act that way if they want to end an encounter with the cops with their freedom still intact. So, shorter: he was being stupid.

    But with some time to turn it over in my mind, I’ve come around. How that cop reacted was not okay. He was flat out wrong. Gates was an asshole, but if you can’t be an asshole in your own house, where can you?

    And now I hate that my first reaction was, what on earth was Skip thinking? And that first thought, I think, is a result of how normal it is (in my world, at least) for ‘justice’ to be unjustly applied.

  • dilettante

    he police are supposed to be the good guys who follow the rules and the law and don’t expect innocent citizens to bow to their brute power the same way that a street gang would

    What I found interesting was how so many [white] people acknowledge the “problematic” history of relationships between cops and black males, and use that to blame Skippy for behaving badly with the cop. I’m referring to the clip from Morning Joe that had the older white guy &Mika pointing out the “weight of history” blah blah, to the two black guest; Harold Ford & Carlos?
    with the implication being in 2009 you should still know your place.

  • I’m still losing my shit over people who want to believe that Gates said “yo mama,” or who want to take the “neutral” position that they both had reasons to misrepresent what “really” happened. Grrrrrrrrrr.

  • smartygreg

    digby hit the nail on the head. How can you trust a police officer, when they can arrest you simply for making them mad? I know the cop didn’t feel threatened by a middle aged black man. Has the issue been blow to extreme proportions? Yes. Should the President have commented? Not in the way he did.
    Gates was somewhat disappointed in his actions that night and the things he has said in the aftermath. Following procedure or pissed that some dude cursed you out because you made a mistake? mmmm …

  • Right. The rape analogy is not crazy. The person who is on the receiving end of the violation still gets the blame; she shouldn’t have been there/wearing that. Which, of course, reinforces the power dynamic blah blah blah.

  • ladyfresh

    It seems like the dust is settling and most are coming to an understanding that this was an abuse of power, which does seem to become exacerbated with race and class issues (ok i wont dither…), but most seem to understand or can relate to abuse of authority though we can dither on the rest.

    i just read a christopher hitchens
    (i know i know) article firmly coming down on the issue as well. Surprisingly the ‘talk it over beer’ thing doesn’t sit well with him either.

  • ladyfresh

    The rape analogy is not crazy.

    not at all

  • B.L. Haynes

    Thank you for this! I’ve been so annoyed with folks (black and white) accusing Gates of acting stupidly just because he disagreed with the cops. We should not have to turn into bumbling, bojangling aplogetic fools whenever we come into contact with the cops (when we know they are in the wrong) just so as to avoid getting arrested or shot. All the coverage of Gates, in which commentators suggest that he acted stupidly and that both he and the cop should apologize is ludicrous. It is nothing less than victim-blaming, and this nation always seems to do that superbly.