The Henry Louis Gates Jr Arrest:  ‘Uppity’ in 2009

The arrest of famed historian Henry Louis Gates by the Cambridge, Massachusetts police raises some important questions about what this country has been losing in terms of civil liberties and due process.

Although I have no doubt that race played a factor in the Gates incident, there are implications for people of all races.

It will be recalled that Professor Gates, returning from a trip, had trouble opening the door of his house (one time my only key snapped off in the lock of the front door of my apartment in Chicago as I was trying to enter at 2:00 a.m., so I can sympathize with the consternation this causes). Gates and his driver were struggling with the door when a passerby called the police with a report of a possible break-in.

A policeman arriving on the scene challenged Gates to identify himself. Gates produced ID which proved that this was his house, but nevertheless he was arrested and dragged off in handcuffs for “disorderly conduct” because he had been “argumentative” with the policeman and initially reluctant to come out of his house to talk to the cop.

Charges against Gates have been dropped, and President Obama has criticized the police for what many see as an action that would not have happened had Gates not been African American.

This has set off a national debate. Supporters of the police action have set forth many reasons for which they don’t see it as being illegitimate. Some have even accused Gates of racism for complaining about his treatment at all. Even though Gates provided ID to indicate that it was his own house, some raise the following reasons for the police to want to continue with the confrontation rather than just going about their business:

1. Even though Gates demonstrated that the home was his, there could have been some other kind of illegal activity going on in the house.

But the police had no evidence that any such activity was going on, unless it is evidence enough that Professor Gates is African American. There was no probable cause, once Gates established his identity. Without probable cause, police have no business entering people’s houses, accosting them, demanding that they come outside to talk.

2. It was possible that the arrangement by which Harvard University provided the home to Gates had been somehow canceled, the locks changed, and therefore Gates was trying to break in.

But again, the police had no information from Harvard University or anybody that there was anything like that involved in the situation. Again, no probable cause, and so no reasonable pretext for the officer’s action.

3. It was possible that there was an order of protection against Gates on the part of someone in the house, and, the locks having been changed, Gates was trying to get into the house to wreak some sort of physical havoc against a wife, child or other person.

But once more, the police had no evidence of any of this being the case, so had no probable cause to do anything other than check up on the neighbor’s call, and once Gates identified himself, the cop should have wished him good day and departed, end of story.

4. It is possible that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Gates’ attic, planning to carry out a sequel to 9-11.

Actually nobody made that accusation which I just invented, but it makes as much sense as the others.

Some say that it was justified for the police to arrest Gates because he initially wound not come out of his house when they ordered him to, and because he was “argumentative” with them.

In response I ask the following questions:

Where in any state, federal, county or municipal law book does it say that absent probable cause and/or a judicial order, or a genuine red-hot emergency, a policeman can order a citizen to come out of his house? Police can’t just decide that they have the God given right to order people to come out of their houses in spite of there being neither probable cause nor a warrant, and arrest them if they don’t, any more than they have the right to enter someone’s house without a warrant.

What statute, law or ordinance makes it a felony for a citizen to be gruff or irate when talking to a policeman?

When did being “argumentative” become a Class X felony?

Since when is being grumpy a hanging crime?

Where in the Constitution does it state that everybody has to be 100 percent polite to police officers all the time?

Is there a “politeness to cops” clause I have somehow missed?

On the contrary, though in my mother’s house no rude people were raised, and I myself generally keep a civil tongue except when I don’t, I would argue that we have the right to be rude to police officers and other authority figures if we want to (whether this is tactically wise or not depends on the specific situation, but it is our right). This is both a free speech and a due process issue.

And for some no doubt it is still a race issue: One way for an African-American to be sure of being arrested, if not killed, in certain parts of this country within living memory, was to act “uppity” which meant not showing sufficient deference to white, ruling class authority.

Maybe we all need to practice being “uppity.’