Gategate

By which, of course, I’m referring to the incident with Henry Gates, a Harvard professor who was arrested at his own home in suspicion of breaking in and subsequently accused the police officer of racial profiling.

Was there racial profiling? The answer to that question is always complicated. Professor Gates did seem to behave suspiciously, trying to force open the door into his home. Would his neighbor have called the police if he saw two white men doing the same thing? Reasonable people will answer this question differently; as for me, I suspect the neighbor would have done the same thing. On the other hand, did the fact that the professor was black make him it more likely that said neighbor called the police? Probably.

But Gates wasn’t arrested for breaking into his home. He was arrested for disorderly conduct – or for disrespecting an authority figure, which happened to be the police.

It’s usually a bad idea to argue with the police because they can arrest you. That, however, is exactly the problem. We give a tremendous power to the police by allowing them to arrest a person. That power is easily abused. If Henry Gates had not been famous or had friends in high places, he would probably have sat in that jail for who knows how long. His wife might have yelled at him for getting them in a gigantic mess. And although he might have thought about suing for being treated in a manner degrading to his human dignity, in the end Mr. Gates probably wouldn’t be able to afford it. Instead he would probably accept the punishment, even if the police were in the wrong.

If anything, this incident serves as a reminder of the importance that the police be carefully regulated and held accountable to the law. The common man or woman is powerless in the face of the police. It is up to the justice system to protect them.

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