You know what they call a black man with a Ph.D.?

Sergeant James Crowley (Cambridge, MA)
Stupid, belligerent, violent

One of the advantages of not being even remotely connected with electoral politics is the fact that, unlike, say, Barack Obama, I have no votes that I need to collect from timid white moderates, and also no sniffy self-important special interests or political respectability rackets that I need to appease. I don’t need to care what professional blowhards or doughfaces think of me, or whether or not a white police sergeant in Massachusetts, and all his buddies in the Brotherhood, are disappointed in me. So while Obama may feel compelled to re-calibrate, I have no reason to back off out of concern for sensitivities of conventional-delusional political thinking. So if he won’t stand by his own perfectly reasonable comments, I at least am free to say, without qualification or calibration, that when Sergeant James Crowley cuffed, arrested, and imprisoned Henry Louis Gates on his front porch, for daring to holler at a cop inside his own house, Sergeant James Crowley was damn well acting stupidly. As a matter of fact, he was being stupid, belligerent, and violent towards an innocent man who he had absolutely no right to arrest.

Of course he was. He putatively showed up to investigate a possible burglary (in the middle of the day?) when a neighbor called in a report that two black men were forcing open the door to the house. (Gates had just gotten back from a long trip to China and found that the door was jammed, so he asked the man who drove him home — who was also black — to help him shoulder it open.) The cop showed up, demanded that Gates step outside, entered the house without a warrant and without permission when Gates refused to step outside, demanded identification while refusing to give his badge number, and when it was conclusively demonstrated to him that Gates lived there and was, in fact, breaking in to his own damn house, he and his gang brothers ambushed Gates on his front porch and arrested him for being loud and tumultuous in his own house where he had a right to be. Quite in spite of the fact that, even if you grant for the sake of argument every single detail of the cop’s own version of events, once it was clear that Gates lived in the house he had supposedly been burglarizing, Sergeant James Crowley had absolutely no moral or legal basis whatsoever for remaining one second longer, or for arresting and imprisoning Henry Louis Gates, since raising your voice to a police officer is not a crime, and neither is calling him names (whether those names are fair or unfair), and neither is hollering loudly and tumultuously inside your own home. Shoving your way into a man’s house to hassle him, and then arresting him for these non-crimes when he gets upset, is a stupid way to handle a situation when you’re not sure what’s going on; the cuffing, arrest, and jailing were also an act of physical force carried out against an innocent man by an entitled bully who had no right to be there but who has no problem with using intimidation and violence to get his way.

And, as it happens, in this case, his stupidity, intimidation and violence took the specific form of stupid, belligerent, violent racism. As they so often do when government police (especially, but not only, white government police) interact with black men and women, even black scholars in their late 50s who rent their houses from Harvard University and walk with a cane.

And the opinions of the usual bellowing blowhard brigade to one side, it actually doesn’t matter one bit whether or not Henry Louis Gates could or should have been more calm or cool or collected under the circumstances; whether or not he actually should have been grateful for being hassled in his own house by a sworn officer of the law in the name of Service and Protection; whether or not the names that he called this stupid, belligerent, violent cop were in fact fair or unfair given the situation; or whether he ought to have changed his behavior or his attitude in the least. Henry Louis Gates’s behavior and attitude aren’t in question; whether or not he was acting as he ought, Sergeant James Crowley had no reason to be there and no justification and no excuse for arresting him or hauling him off to jail. Nothing that Gates could possibly have said, under the circumstances, would have made the arrest and imprisonment justifiable or even excusable; and when legally-privileged agents of the state go around attacking innocent men, I’m a hell of a lot more worried about that than I am about policing the conduct of the victims of their aggression and coercion.

All this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever dealt with government police, or knows much of anything about the world around them. Of course, that rules out politicians, media commentators, and other professional blowhards, who rarely talk to anyone but each other and have very little experience of being on the business end of government policing, or much of anything other than their own self-important power games. But the rest of us know perfectly well that cops often act with tremendous arrogance and entitlement, especially when they feel uncertain or threatened by the situation that they are in (that they have, in fact, been trained very explicitly to stay in control of the situation by any means necessary); that they also tend to view men and women of color, regardless of class, and poor white men and women, too, as more disruptive or more threatening than affluent white men and women; and that either conscious or subconscious racial profiling is the order of the day in virtually all street-level urban policing. It is also both obvious and widely known that cops routinely use incredibly vague chickenshit charges like disorderly conduct, even when it is absolutely obvious that none of even those incredibly vague criteria actually apply, in order to shove people around, intimidate them into complying with arbitrary orders, or to humiliate and punish those who do not comply. Even when the charges are sure to be dismissed, you can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride, and all that. Anyone whose understanding of policework is not basically mythological in nature, or is not constrained by non-rational political imperatives, knows these things, and should be outraged, but not even remotely surprised, that all this went down.

And the fact that a bunch of cops get indignant about the offense to their honor by being called out, for once in their professional lives, on their stupid, belligerent, violent behavior doesn’t change the fact one bit. What happened is typical, damned typical; the only thing atypical is the political and media connections of the victim. And Sergeant James Crowley, as a sworn police officer, was just living up to the standards of stupidity, belligerence, violence and racism that his gang brothers have set. You might be tempted call stupidity, belligerence, violence, and racism the occupational disease of government police in America. If not for the fact that it is their occupation.

See also:

18 replies to You know what they call a black man with a Ph.D.? Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Gary Chartier

    Couldn’t agree more. The basic problem here is whether cops somehow deserve to be held to moral standards significantly lower than the rest of us. Those defending the arresting officer apparently think so. Their worldview frightens me.

  2. Rad Geek

    Gary,

    Yep. Just for funsies, here’s Big Ed, a a right wing libertarian who believes live and let live, and proprietor of libertarianhumor.com on the case (redacted to remove stupid textual bleeps where everyone knows what word you’re using):

    I’m not black and I’ll not sit here and tell you that I know anything about being black, or about experiencing racial profiling which I know does occur, but if something suspicious is going on at your house, and the police show up, shut the [fuck] up and do what they say. … I’ve accidentally tripped the alarm at my home more than once, and when the cops show up I know the three magic words that all people need to learn and remember when confronting the police. Those words are yes, no and are always followed by sir. … I could be wrong, but if Gates did anything but be polite and courtious to the officer, then he got what he deserved.

    Down in the comments, he clarifies that he takes this position because he believes that the appropriate norms for government police officers in their conduct towards ordinary citizens are like the norms for parents in their conduct towards small children:

    I’ve spanked my son a total of about 3 times in his decade in this earth, and that’s because nothing else was working. Gates wouldn’t shut his mouth and he got spanked.

    Well, there’s definitely something humorous going on at that site. But not because libertarians are generally going to be laughing with him….

    Of course, I’m just picking on this particular dude because I was reading his website today, and because he claims, improbably, to be a libertarian. Views like that, and more or less identical ways of expressing them, are utterly typical among run-of-the-mill conservatives, white liberals, and the broad swath of conventional-delusional political mainstreamers.

  3. Marja Erwin

    Charles,

    And because those views are so widespread, when those of us who have survived police brutality speak up, others who have not will mock us, and will blame us. This culture makes millions of us feel hated, outcast, and surrounded, for what the police have done to us. This victim-blaming is one of the keys to any system of oppression.

    I think I need to speak up from time to time, to remind other survivors that you are not alone, and you did not deserve this.

  4. L. Neil Smith

    I have long believed that in a police “situation” the cop in question should be required to hand his gun over to the first responsible adult who happens along. Also, Kevlar has made them arrogant and must be strictly forbidden.

  5. Discussed at aaeblog.com

    Best Defense | Austro-Athenian Empire:

    […] See also Charles’ post. […]

  6. Jim Davidson

    The cop was stupid, belligerent, and wrong. He probably likes to beat down “suspects” and plant evidence, too. Bullies should be treated abusively, and free speech should never be punished.

    In my view, cops like this ought to be killed by their intended victims. Any threat to life, liberty, or property justifies defensive force, and I don’t see any reason to exclude cops.

  7. Darian

    Thanks for writing this. It was disappointing to see Obama back down from his surprisingly bold and true (for a politician, anyway) statement on the situation. But from the system’s point of view, Crowley did not act stupidly, he just miscalculated by bullying someone who had the social standing to push back. Once you assume the sanctity of the stupid, immoral, disgusting police state as a good, bullying by cops to keep subjects in their place makes perfect sense.

    Regarding racial profiling:

    I took Intro to Criminal Justice at Rutgers. It was an absurdly easy class taught by a cop. When discussing profiling, it was noted that the NJ State Police got in trouble for racial profiling a few years ago, and that their protocol called for profiling gun and drug traffickers by a number of factors and that race ended up getting overemphasized. So if you were an apparently low-income minority from out of state traveling up I-95 with little luggage, you were probably more likely to be searched by the cops.

    Hence Talk To Neighbors, Not To Cops

  8. Discussed at littlealexinwonderland.wordpress.com

    Daily Briefing — 26th-27th July 2009 « Little Alex in Wonderland:

    […] (author unknown)Free .pdf of An Agorist Primer by Samuel E. Konkin III 25 July 2009 Wendy McElroyYou know what they call a black man with a Ph.D.? 25 July 2009 Rad GeekPro-Israel Groups Push Back Against Settlements Policy 25 July 2009 Daniel […]

  9. Jeremy

    This story is a bit encouraging: two cops are unanimous in stating their opinion that, once it was established Gates was the owner, they should have left - regardless of any insults hurled their way.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106990080

  10. TGGP

    A girl who apparently knows officer Crowley has a post vouching for his character. At the end she notes that he gets quite irritated if anybody disses the police. So you better not accuse him of being a pig bully, or he will proceed to bully you.

    Realistically speaking, I would act just as subservient to a cop as any of the other commenters that disappoint you. I’m not stupid. If I just got back from a long flight from China only to find my door jammed, my executive function would be bit drained though.

  11. liberal_feminist

    Most adult feminist women don’t appreciate being referred to as ‘girls’, and I suspect Rad Geek, who also identifies as a feminist, feels the same way.

  12. TGGP

    Whoops, I see the about tab identifies her as 26. I continued referring to my peers as “kids” throughout college when they were legally adults, but 26 is quite past the line. Unless that’s what you’re into.

  13. Bob Kaercher

    BTW, there’s a charming little “I Support Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley” page on Facebook:

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105571724006&ref=mf

    Here are a few of the highly enlightening comments:

    “The man was doing his job leave him alone. I wish the cops in my county would do the same.” —Chris Craft (Aflac)

    Who knows? Perhaps Mr. Craft will soon have his wish granted and he too will be hauled out of his own home and into the local police station for the grave offense of telling off a badged intruder…or maybe he’ll just quietly submit to the humiliation of being treated like a criminal in his own home.

    “This has gotten blown way out of porportion. All the professor had to do was answer a few questions and take his ass to bed.” —Nate Gillard

    I know what you mean, Nate! Gates had some nerve, right? If I’m ever in the same situation as he was, you’re damn straight that I’ll just do my civic duty and justify my presence in my own home to the armed government agent who is privileged to initiate violence against me if I dare say an unkind word about his intrusive presence.

    “The liberal media is so on Gates side its sickening…like caller never said the suspects were black…you go to house and the guy happens to be black what was the officer to do…makes me sick!!!” —Steve Ciaburri

    You know, you have to admit that Steve might have a very good point here. I mean, I’m perfectly willing to give Sgt. Crowley the benefit of the doubt that he’s an equal opportunity bully. Whether you’re black, hispanic, white…you get uppity with him and it’s off to the local cage with ya!

    “I think we just need to be one nation and forget about all the bullshit that is being said. I am tired of hearing the same stuff over and over again. It does get old and people are just tired of it. Let the man do his job and forget about the race or color that does not matter the man was doing his job. The one that acted stupid was Obama because he had no clue what was going on.” —Angela Pemberton Bennington

    Oh, Angela…That is so true! I, too, am sick and tired hearing about case after case, incident after incident, of abusive cops bullying and in some cases even beating and killing people. Louis Gates, Sgt. Crowley, Oscar Grant, blah, blah, blah, blah…I mean, come on! United We Stand, right?

  14. liberal_feminist

    “Unless that’s what you’re into.”

    Granted.

  15. Rad Geek

    TGGP,

    Well, FeministX’s argument on the issue of racism, such as it is, is not very convincing on its own merits, any more than Crowley’s own defense about how he couldn’t have been doing something racist in the Gates arrest ‘coz this one time he stuck his mouth on a dying black athelete’s mouth. And I have to say that, having encountered her writing before, under circumstances that I’ll discuss in private if you like (because they have to do with business on another website), I’m not sure that when the author of posts like this call for eugenic sterilization or her famous series of posts on Australian aborigines vouches for some dude’s not being a racist, that her word lends much credibility to the conclusion.

    Realistically speaking, I would act just as subservient to a cop as any of the other commenters that disappoint you.

    I don’t think the problem is being subservient to cops. That’s a tactical decision that you have to make for yourself given the circumstances and your own temperament.

    What is a problem is when people move beyond that, and start siding with the cops and blaming the victim. In reality, the ethical responsibility not to bully and shove people around belongs to the aggressor, not to his victims.

  16. TGGP

    The general term is “blaming the victim”. Usually one group of people will say “You should have known that was a risky thing to do”, while others say “That doesn’t excuse the actions of others and ideally there would be nothing wrong with the victim’s behavior”. I don’t think either point contradicts the other. When the risk does not come from morally responsible agents we are content to just focus on our own behavior in response (though it is still generally rude to remind someone of any mistakes they might have made for sufficiently bad outcomes). Being an evil reductionist materialist with the belief that all morality is subjective, I am content to maintain that lens in all situations (even if not to the exclusion of all others). The difference when the risk comes from human actors* is that we can hold those actors responsible in order to deter acts we don’t desire. The “blaming the victim” objection might be that we are implicitly treating the aggressor like an Act of God, which gets off scot-free.

    *That isn’t quite right, you’re at risk from human actors whether you walk home drunk across a busy intersection or dangerous neighborhood. The latter case features criminal intent while the former falls more in the negligence area. We could hold drivers just as responsible for hitting pedestrians as we might a first-degree murderer and this would likely increase caution and reduce the number of fatalities. Like Gordon Tullock’s spike in the steering-wheel, we have decided the costs outweigh the benefits.

  17. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-07-29 – Clown suits:

    […] Gates, the renowned Harvard professor of African-American studies, and Sergeant James Crowley, the stupid, belligerent, and violent Cambridge cop who stupidly arrested Gates on his own front porch, allegedly for committing […]

  18. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-07-31 – The Police Beat:

    […] story that the cops all agreed on for their report is more than enough reason to call their conduct belligerent, violent and stupid. Cops have exactly no business singling out black teenagers to be hassled, or for forcing them down […]

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