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Political Animal

Power Play

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/5/2009

Now that time has put some distance between the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. by Cambridge Police Officer James Crowley and the subsequent "beer summit" on the lawn outside the Oval Office, perhaps we can take some time to look at a few things that have gone unstated over the whole course of the brouhaha.

Race notwithstanding (and we'll get to that in a moment), what has been left unsaid about the entire event is how it embodied the relationship in America between the citizenry and the concept of authority and the power it wields. The bumper stickers say question authority, but rarely do we ever discuss what happens when you actually do it.

In February 1982, Raymond Hill started shouting at a Houston police officer, admittedly trying to divert the cop's attention from Hill's friend, who had stopped traffic in order to allow a vehicle to enter the street. Hill was then arrested for "willfully or intentionally interrupt[ing] a city policeman . . . by verbal challenge during an investigation." This formed the basis for the case Houston v. Hill, which was eventually decided by the Supreme Court five years later.

In the majority decision, Justice William Brennan wrote:

[This decision] reflects the constitutional requirement that, in the face of verbal challenges to police action, officers and municipalities must respond with restraint. We are mindful that the preservation of liberty depends in part upon the maintenance of social order. But the First Amendment recognizes, wisely we think, that a certain amount of expressive disorder not only is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, but must itself be protected if that freedom would survive.

So one would presume that shouting at a police officer, even in a "tumultuous" manner, most likely should be considered protected speech under the First Amendment, especially if one is in one's own home. (In the end, that's probably one of the main reasons the Cambridge police dropped the charges almost instantly.) So why arrest Gates in the first place?


The threat of arrest is one of the simplest and most benign tools available to a police officer in any situation of public conflict. Nobody likes to be arrested--the loss of freedom, the indignity, the time and hassle involved all are likely to settle down most otherwise law-abiding citizens. And so with its ease comes its likelihood of abuse. "If you don't shut up, I'll take you downtown as well," is easy for a cop to say to shut down trouble. So what if whatever probable cause the officer might have for that arrest is baseless? Here in Baltimore, we are no strangers to mountains of nol pros cases where the state's attorney's office refuses to file charges on trumped-up arrests in the name of "public order."

Gates was mouthing off to a cop, and once the mouthing off occurred in the presence of other officers, the challenge to authority could not go unanswered--Crowley had to take Gates downtown. It wasn't about race, it was about power. At the start, anyway.

Sad to say, it didn't become about race until the nation's first black president had something to say about it--and note also that what the president said had nothing to do with race either. President Obama said (rightly) that the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly." Considering the state of settled law on the matter, one could argue that Obama had a valid opinion.

But then it became a vivid reminder that the state of race in America, and who wields the power and authority, is shifting. Two hundred thirty-two years' worth of white men ran this country, but not anymore. One hundred ten Supreme Court justices sat on the high court bench before the very real possibility arrived of a female hailing from an ethnic minority joining them at the start of the coming term. Who holds the power and authority in this country is changing, visibly, before our very eyes, and many of the people who have held the reins up to this point are uncomfortable with the idea.

This likely explains the fervent insanity of the "birther" movement, of those who refuse to believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in August 1961. As Bill Maher wrote in the Los Angeles Times last Friday, "You could hand them, in person, the original birth certificate and have a video of Obama emerging from the womb with Don Ho singing in the background . . . and they still wouldn't believe it." It helps to explain the lunacy of Fox News' Glenn Beck, who says Obama has a "hatred" of white people--despite the fact that the president's mother and grandmother are white.

Real change doesn't come without birthing pains, and power rarely surrenders without a fight. As you read this, some officer somewhere, despite the clear-cut evidence that a simple vocal challenge to authority is legitimate, will threaten a citizen with "Do you want me to arrest you, too?" And just as conservatives spent seven years of the Clinton presidency in a rage, the movement to declare the Obama presidency illegitimate will continue unabated. Some things even the law can't change.

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More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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