No-brainer of the day: it should not be illegal to yell at the cops.

Here’s what I don’t understand about Gatesgate. And let’s leave the patent racism aside, as well as the question about how Gates’s own neighbor was so clueless that she thought he was breaking into his own home. (She must feel like total shit right now. Good.) The racism is actually the least interesting part of this story, just because we all already know that none of this would have been happened had he been white.

No, the real interesting issue is this “disorderly conduct.” The cop’s stated reason for arresting Gates was that he was yelling at him in front of other people. Let me repeat it. That was the stated reason for the arrest. So riddle me this: since when do we live in a society such that yelling at a cop is sufficiently plausible as grounds for arrest that the cop can actually write it in the arrest report?

Let’s not be confused here: the cop did not claim that Gates was getting violent, or that he posed any threat to the cop or anyone else, including himself. He could not have made that claim — Gates is neither young nor athletic, nor would the cops have had any reason to believe he was any kind of criminal, on any kind of drugs, etc. There was a bunch of drivel about bystanders being alarmed, as if it’s against the law to alarm people… let’s face it, the only grounds for arrest was that he yelled at the cop.

What is this? Why should cops be free from being yelled at? (For that matter, why should anyone who is not a captive audience be free from being yelled at?) Ordinary people don’t get any kind of privilege against being yelled at; if I called the cops to report someone yelling at me they’d come arrest me for making bogus police reports. And it’s not like Gates was causing some kind of public disruption: the yelling was happening in his own home, a place where the police were (quite) explicitly not welcome. The cops could have caused the yelling to cease by doing what they ought to have done in the first place, namely driven away with apologies, leaving only their names and the address for whoever it is that accepts service of process for the Cambridge police department.

The cops seem to think that they’re precious pampered little princes, entitled to some kind of protection against offensive speech. It’s like being yelled at is an affront to their special little royal honor, an act of lesè majesté.

(Slightly edited to tone down the fury.)


15 Responses to “No-brainer of the day: it should not be illegal to yell at the cops.”

  1. Bilbo Gubbinz Says:

    Not to say I’m defending anyone, but as someone who gets annoyed enough to call people for bullshit like treating others like furniture in nightclubs, a silly peeve but a peeve, and being unfortunate enough to live with two conspiracy theorists, I’ve ended up in my fair share of shouting matches where no one comes out smelling of roses. Even a saint can sometimes be goaded into doing something stupid so all it takes is for someone to be a little bit human.

  2. HipHopPoppa Says:

    Ah man on my birthday my girlfriend and I got a ticket for jaywalking across a one way street in a residential neighborhood. The street wasn’t even wide enough for two way traffic. I told the cop “this is bullshit. I’m not going to walk down to the end of the street (which was about 200 yards away) just to cross the street and walk all the way back.” And the cop responded “you will if you don’t want to go to jail.” I said “this is fucking bullshit” and he thundered “so you DO want to go jail! ‘Cause I can make that happen!” And then after he wrote the ticket he gave me back my driver’s license and said “happy birthday. Be safe.” My girlfriend told the cop “I bet you get a lot of pleasure our of ruining people’s birthdays” and the cop said, “OK, now you both need to leave right now!” His partner even reached for his handcuffs and mumbled into his walkie talkie. So we left and my girlfriend ended up paying my ticket as a birthday gift. What kind of prick would do that?

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Bilbo, fair point, but I think cops should be held to a higher standard in light of the huge amount of power they have…

  4. Pony Says:

    Yeah, it’s the same as martial artists being treated more harshly if they get into a bar fight. Or someone who’s licensed to carry a weapon. In Australia, it’s why part of the initial interview procedure for Law enforcement is the interviewer doing their psychological best to piss you the hell off, to see how you react. (My wife was trying for the police force. She did NOT get in. Too easy to rile.)

  5. JL Says:

    What, no illegal search and seizure quip?

  6. Art Says:

    Anyone (of any race) who screams at police officers will be arrested for disorderly conduct.

    After all, the definition of disorderly conduct includes “makes unreasonable noise and continues to do so after being asked to stop”

    Anyone (of any race) who screams at police officers will be arrested for disorderly conduct.

    After all, the definition of disorderly conduct includes “makes unreasonable noise and continues to do so after being asked to stop”

    If you don’t believe me, go try it and see what happens.

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    Jacob, don’t quit your day job and be a real commenter.

    (Everyone else: inside joke, ignore it.)

  8. Paul Gowder Says:

    Art: I do not think that yelling at a cop who ought not to be there, in a heavily racism-tinged situation, “unreasonable?”

    For an apt analysis, see this post by a police misconduct expert.

  9. Arvita Says:

    I don’t know where the element of racism is coming from, other than Gates stating that this was racist behavior and the neighbor assuming that two black men trying to force a door must be criminals.

    If a neighbor calls 911 stating some people are breaking into a house and part of the description is that the burglars are black, why is it wrong for the responding officer to demand some ID from the black person present at the scene? If there is a hit and run and the description is of an indian woman driving a Scion, would the police be wrong in coming to question me?

    Yes, it seems silly to arrest him for disorderly conduct because he’s being yelled at, but it is within the legal definition of disorderly conduct. Also, Dr. Gates didn’t act all that nicely. Instead of verbally abusing the officers as they left, he could have said that he was glad the misunderstanding was cleared up and thanked them for responding to the 911 call so quickly.

    It doesn’t seem like a situation tinged with racism, except for the initial call by the neighbor. Everything after that seems to have progressed the way it would have if the person had been white. For example, officers respond to a call that some white people are forcing a door, they arrive find some people matching the description inside, demand id, and figure out that they actually live there and that the call was made in error. As they go to leave, the occupant comes yelling at them about abusing their power. People have been arrested for a lot less. It seems like race was injected in to the situation by the neighbor at the beginning and by Gates at the end.

  10. Pony Says:

    I don’t know, it seems to me that if a white person was yelling at the cops and threatening lawsuits the police would be a lot more conciliatory.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Arvita, the neighbor is a lot of it — that she couldn’t see her own neighbor behind “black guy breaking into a house.” But also what Pony said, the course of the interaction with police — imagine a white nearly-60-year-old Harvard professor in such a situation.

  12. Ryan Says:

    It’s enough of a possibility that she would have called for anyone that we shouldn’t be as quick as Gates was to assume it was racism.

  13. Joe Says:

    I think “tinged with racism” is a great way to put it. If cops arrest 50% of black people who do one thing and 10% of white people who do the same thing, I hope we can say there was some racism. But we can only call it out probabilistically, because there’s plausible deniability in any particular arrest report.

    Do note, in this case, that the officer chose to point out the accused’s, well, black accent (“ya” and “momma”).

    Also note that the person who called was apparently not a neighbor. For instance,

  14. Ryan Says:

    Joe, it isn’t unlikely that Gates was making a conscious effort to affect that style of speech. Trying to sound more ’street’ than you are is a common way of attempting to intimidate people when mad. I’ll admit it, I’ve done it.

  15. Ryan Says:

    I mean, when one says *that* one doesn’t say ‘i will have a sexually significant discussion with your female parent at the exterior of the residence” one says ” yea, i’ll talk to ya (or sometimes even yo) momma outside” It’s totally plausible that gates would use that pronunciation and it would be awkward for the cop to translate that into “your mother” maybe at best we could have hoped for a “your momma” in the police report… but certainly not “your mother”

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