It’s been suggested, especially in conservative circles, that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was a damn fool to yell at a cop. Well of course he was. What I don’t understand is how this is relevant, or why it should in any way excuse the cop’s reaction.
“He should have expected what he got” is typically a rhetorical device to shift blame to the victim. Sure, rape sucks, but walking through town at that time of night in that outfit, she should have expected what she got. Sure, we all know that cops abuse their authority but we can’t do anything about it, so provoking them makes whatever comes after your own stupid fault. Case closed.
And yet for some reason we don’t apply this principle universally. As a society we praise and honor those who have done damn fool things in the name of principle, dignity, and freedom. When it’s Jesus, or Rosa Parks, or an Iranian freedom activist, or an American peace activist getting arrested in front of the capital, we say yes, pragmatically speaking that was a stupid thing to do, and thank God someone had the guts to do it anyway! Even if we know it’s unlikely to change anything in the near future, we still praise the foolhardy-but-principled act.
And yet when a home-owner yells at the government in the form of a police officer invading his home and (seemingly) racially profiling him, we say “that was a damn fool thing to do… period”.
Allow me to suggest that activism against overweening authority doesn’t just take place in carefully planned campaigns and in cordoned-off Free Speech Zones. It happens every time an individual refuses to quietly bow their head and swallow their pride in the name of “just getting along”. And it is equally worthy of our respect whether it takes place on the National Mall or on someone’s front porch.
Nobody is arguing that Gates’ actions were the “smart” thing to do. Activism is rarely “smart” from a self-preservation perspective. And it’s not always planned. It’s just the right thing to do. And if there are consequences, they are the responsibility of the man with the gun and the mantle of authority – NOT the “fool” standing up to him.