The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
—Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Last week in the final seconds of a nearly one-hour press conference on Healthcare reform the president of the United States commented derisively on a curious case of police activity in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Barack Obama, despite admitting he did not know the hard details of the case but did have a personal relationship with the accused, said the police acted “stupidly.” After a close review of the police report it turns out the president was kind. What the police did to a Mr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was beyond blunder or misconduct. It was criminal, and when all is said and done should be tried and convicted as such.
The “stupidly” part came afterwards.
The ensuing furor over the president offering any commentary on such a random case, despite its thorny racial overtones, was heated and somewhat warranted, even though as the first citizen of the United States and its chief executive officer and protector of the constitution, and also, (yikes!), a black man, he was simply asked and answered honestly. However, rarely are presidents as candid and forthcoming on such matters, excluding, of course, the famous quote from Richard Nixon about Charles Manson’s obvious guilt smack dab in the middle of the most dramatic trial of the 20th century. The president busting on cops would be a cause for uproar. Apparently the president can only mock the press, dissidents, evildoers, or hippies without backlash.
Of course the president eventually backslid, as everyone does these days, which is very disappointing. Just because it hurts the odd feeling or crosses an invisible line of presidential etiquette does not make the observation false or wrong. It was true and right, and quite frankly not strong enough. Perhaps the president should have been more up on the details, then maybe he would not have been so quick to try and make nice, and make nice he did the day of this writing with a hollow and creepy White House “Beer Summit” between the victim and his most ardent critic, Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department.
Most troubling is that this P.R. fracas misses the most salient points—the entire episode has less to do with race, freedom of speech, or the presidency than it does with the priority of the Fourth Amendment.
Let’s begin with the incident at large, and then move on to the subsequent silliness.
Firstly, there is a fair argument to be made that Henry Louis Gates Jr., author, scholar, literary critic and Harvard professor for nearly two decades, was harassed within the walls of his own home because he was a black man. Cambridge is a lily-white upper crust town, and that upon returning home from a trip to China his driver, also an African American man, attempted to help him gain forced entrance through a “jammed” front door. Moreover, the woman who called the cops, Lucia Whalen, was caucasian.
If you’re African Amercian this might seem more than a tad coincidental. However, I too might be inclined to call the cops if two guys I did not recognize were trying to jimmy their way into a home. That’s not true. I’d probably mutter, “That’s a shame” and walk away. But I get it. Then again I’m not black, so how could I begin to understand what someone who is might say to such an overt act of suspicion and the subsequent goofy actions by the local police.
This gets us to the climax of this notorious tale of bungle: When responding to a report of a possible break-in, the Cambridge police cuff and arrest Gates, charging him with disorderly conduct after what the officer described as “a confrontation,” but was later revealed as pretty much an overly dramatic wigout by Gates. Here’s where things get weird whether you relate or not.
Once the officers arrive, Gates clearly shows his identification and suffucient proof that the house was indeed his residence. Now it no longer matters why anyone called the cops, what color Gates is, what he does for a living, or what the hell the president of the United States or anyone else thinks of the proceedings. It is a blatantly indefensible Fourth Amendment violation, and no matter what harrangue followed, barring physcial abuse to the officers, civil servants of the state grossly overstepped their duty and broke the law.
Oh, and by the way, prosecutors later dropped the charges, all but admitting the police at the very least acted inappropriately.
How the president could cave when the facts of this case were later made clear beyond mere public relations is beyond fathoming.
Could it have been the insipid ranting of Right Wing idiots blabbering on about Obama hating white people or dinosaurs like George Will mucking up network news shows with the most out-of-touch Jim Crow gobblygook imaginable? Probably. Now that an outspoken Hispanic woman is in the dock for the Supreme Court and middle America needs to be greased for the Healthcare dirge, it’s time to placate; but since this space is not written by a politician or anyone running for the Congeniality ticket, it won’t fly here.
One thing Will, who knows less about race relations in this country than he does about baseball (at least he didn’t write a laughably moronic book about race relations), said about Gates was right; he’s a victim. But Will seems to think the president made him one, instead of the police, who actually ripped the guy from his home and arrested him for merely being an asshole. And shit, I can have half the people I know dragged to the tank for that.
Will, like all the crazies who attacked Obama for his commentary, professes to be a card-carrying conservative who cannot stop whining about how the country is besieged by sudden tyranny and scream bloody murder anytime someone mentions gun control—we need to protect ourselves from an authoritarian state, you know—appear comfortable with thin-skinned coppers playing Gestapo in someone’s living room.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella. Archives of Reality Check are available at jamescampion.com.