As Banzhaf noted in a recent news release: "The law in Massachusetts, as well as elsewhere, is clear: People cannot be arrested simply for being disrespectful to or shouting at the police, even to the point of shouting insults at them in public. Yet the practice is so common that the alleged crime has been given the name 'contempt of cop.' "So was columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times:
The city of Cambridge recognized that, even if Sgt. Crowley didn't. It agreed to drop the "disorderly conduct" charge against Gates because it knew it wouldn't stick.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, also a constitutional law professor, pointed this week to a "Supreme Court case that says that talking discourteously to a police officer is not 'conduct,' because there is no action in talking, only words." Said Norton, "A citizen does not lose her/his First Amendment rights even when trash-talking or worse to a police officer."
But this is not about making it safe for rabble-rousers to abuse cops. Civility ought to be a hallmark of an open society. Speaking courteously shouldn't be an obligation of a citizen to a police officer or the reverse. Courtesy is a universal duty.
That said, discourtesy is also no excuse for the police to trespass on the Constitution.
Cops, when annoyed, have been known to arrest and charge people with "disorderly conduct" even though they know the charge won't make it to court. The whole idea of such arrests is to shut down, and shut up, the offender. So what if the person arrested ends up with a rap sheet and a mug shot in the files?
That outcome may be satisfying to the arresting officer, but it offends the Constitution, as it should every citizen, including the president. And Obama, also an officer of the court, should not have shied away from saying so.
He did with his silence. And, for that, a lot of citizens will continue to pay a steep and unfair price.
The very first lesson that should be drawn from the encounter between Mr. Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, is that Professor Gates did absolutely nothing wrong. He did not swear at the officer or threaten him. He was never a danger to anyone. At worst, if you believe the police report, he yelled at Sergeant Crowley. He demanded to know if he was being treated the way he was being treated because he was black.And so is Frank Rich:
You can yell at a cop in America. This is not Iran. And if some people don’t like what you’re saying, too bad. You can even be wrong in what you are saying. There is no law against that. It is not an offense for which you are supposed to be arrested.
That’s a lesson that should have emerged clearly from this contretemps.
It was the police officer, Sergeant Crowley, who did something wrong in this instance. He arrested a man who had already demonstrated to the officer’s satisfaction that he was in his own home and had been minding his own business, bothering no one. Sergeant Crowley arrested Professor Gates and had him paraded off to jail for no good reason, and that brings us to the most important lesson to be drawn from this case. Black people are constantly being stopped, searched, harassed, publicly humiliated, assaulted, arrested and sometimes killed by police officers in this country for no good reason.
New York City cops make upwards of a half-million stops of private citizens each year, questioning and frequently frisking these men, women and children. The overwhelming majority of those stopped are black or Latino, and the overwhelming majority are innocent of any wrongdoing. A true “teachable moment” would focus a spotlight on such outrages and the urgent need to stop them.
THE comforting thing about each “national conversation on race” is that the “teachable moment” passes before any serious conversation can get going.
This one ended with a burp. The debate about which brew would best give President Obama Joe Six-Pack cred in his White House beer op with Harvard’s town-and-gown antagonists hit the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Had Obama picked a brand evoking an elitist whiff of John Kerry — Stella Artois, perhaps? — we’d have another week of coverage dissecting his biggest political gaffe since rolling a gutter ball at a Pennsylvania bowling alley.