Monday, June 28, 2010

Versus Cops

This is an old stub of an opinion about the Henry Gates arrest. I don't think anybody really came right out and said this at the time. Skip it if you don't like my politics. I shouldn't really have strong opinions on this issue, but I do. And I'm a writer, and I'm vain, so I think I get to say them out loud, even when I know I'm going to piss someone off.

In my "hometown" paper's comments on this column about the Henry Gates arrest, a couple of commenters suggested that President Obama helped make the Gates arrest a racial issue.

I have yet to see footage anywhere of President Obama suggesting this. I think the fact that people view him as a source of the racial tension is a real measure of how fraught and polarized people are about race in the U.S. There was a lot of discussion about race around the Henry Gates arrest.

And, I felt, it was a smoke screen for the real issue. Racial issue or not, I have yet to see anything to suggest that the cop who arrested Gates was right. He arrested somebody who was "causing a disturbance" in their home by  mouthing off to a cop.

I'm not sure that should be an arrestable offense, ever. Even if you aren't in your own home.

Benjamin Franklin's maxim "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty" gets brought out all the time in political discussion, mostly around gun rights.

However, in the Gates situation, and in similar situations, like the Winkfein arrest, the Peter Watts beating, or the UCLA tasering, there seems to be a vocal minority who supports the rights of the police to use force. "It's what they deserve," seems to be the refrain.

I don't know why I conflate the two issues, gun control and out of control cops. Maybe I chalk both kinds of statements up to the law and order crowd because the NRA is so adamant that private citizens need their semi-automatics to ward off criminals. Because I am uncomfortable with how ready people are to give up their rights to police, I feel that those issues make a good compare and contrast exercise, however.

In the case of guns, the essential liberty we give up is unfettered gun use. The temporary security we gain is protection from some crazy ass bastards having guns. Sure, it's a temporary security. Prohibition doesn't work. It just doesn't. But disincentives to gun ownership allow some crazy bastards to get right in the head before they have access to a lethal weapon.

In the issue of police and rowdy citizens, the essential liberty being given up is freedom of speech. The temporary security being gained is that the gun carrying officer will simply humiliate or harass you. He won't  cause you pain instead. Or kill you. Or incarcerate you.

The inequity in that formula is stunning. Although yelling can trigger one's fight or flight response, an armed man really has nothing to fear from a loud citizen who does not also have a gun.

Another maxim attributed to Franklin, probably falsely, is "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." The problem is in the arms race of liberty, a private citizen will never beat the government when it comes to guns. Against the government, you are essentially unarmed, regardless of what you stockpile in you gun cabinet. But in the US, we've beaten the Feds time and time again when we use our voices. Our voices are our protection. And to give that up to the cops, and especially security guards, seems especially frivolous to me.

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