Fools and Activists

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.

View All


  1. Interesting. I’ve been bad and not following the news. Someone told me this story….and I said . . .

    “But….but you NEVER mouth off at cops! You kiss a cops rear end! No matter what!.”

    Throwing somebody in jail is over the top for mouthing off at a cop. Seriously. But do we know at what point he started mouthing off?

    I mean was it like this?

    Cop: “Get on the ground now.”
    Gates: “what the *(*&(*& this is my *((*&(*&(*&)(U* house!”

    Cuz if it were me . . .

    “Get on the ground now.”
    “Oh hello officer. You can see I am getting on the ground. I am sorry! How funny! I haven’t my ID and I’m locked out. Can you help me please?”

    Now, I come from an entirely different background, and I grew up learning that cops help you.

    Anyway – yeah – so what was the situation actually?

    1. My point is that it doesn’t matter. We make cops the hand of the state’s authority and give them the means and permission to back up that authority with deadly force. That means we get to hold them, not to a slightly higher standard, but to a vastly higher standard of patience, forbearance, and respect for the rule of law. It doesn’t matter if Mr. Gates was completely wrong about the cop being a racist AND was yelling epithets about cop’s mother – it STILL doesn’t give him (the cop) the right to arrest a man in his own house under a law that was created for quelling riots. That’s using government authority for personal satisfaction every bit as much as soliciting bribes is, and it should not be condoned in any way. So long as a cop is in uniform and on duty, it is their sacred charge to rise above personal pique and uphold the law.

    2. Short version

      As I understand it:

      Respected black college prof. gets home from China, finds himself locked out. He and his driver (also black) force door. Neighbor, seeing two black men forcing a door, calls 911.

      Cop arrives, demands ID. Gates produces ID. Then, identity established, he proceeds to yell at the cop for racially profiling him. Cop then arrests him in his own home for disorderly conduct.

      Later, Obama is asked about incident in an interview (the professor was a friend of his). Obama calls the arrest “stupid”, [ed: marking him as perhaps the first President since Reagan to actually call things like he sees them]. Much talking-head wailing and gnashing of teeth ensues.

      1. Re: Short version

        Okay then. The cop is stupid. Sounds like he arrested someone because his ego was bruised. How is this a race issue?

      2. Re: Short version

        Change the story to match what happened:
        College Professor comes home and breaks into his own home; neighbor, not recognizing him, calls police. Cops arrive and ask for ID, Professor refuses for a long time, then shows college id, not legal id – just to be obstinate. Cop calls University police before leaving. Professor follows the cops out into the street screaming and yelling. Cops ask Professor to stop making a public scene, or he will be arrested for disorderly conduct (multiple times). After arrest, cops bend over backward, handcuffing Professor in front instead of protocol’s required behind back AND give him a weapon, a walking stick. They then wait for the campus security to come and watch the house because the door lock was broken.

        Sorry, I’m a liberal, and the Professor was an idiot just waiting to be an asshole.

        1. Re: Short version

          For comments on the relevance of his idiocy, see the original post.

          He could be a gibbering tinfoil-hat-wearing new-Black Panther for all I care. If all his “disorderly conduct” was doing was annoying some cops who could have gotten in their car and left (thus defusing the situation), the arrest was an abuse of authority to satisfy the cop’s own ego. As far as I know “Disorderly Conduct” wasn’t invented to protect cops from being publicly harangued.

  2. Yes.

    .. Even if, as it somewhat appears, Gates acted like a bit of a jerk–YOU CANNOT BE ARRESTED FOR ACTING LIKE A JERK!


    I also wonder if gates had been an attractive coed–would she have been arrested? The racial stuff attached to this keeps getting weirder the more I follow the story…

    1. edit..

      “SHOULD NOT”–obviously, Gates did get arrested for acting like a jerk–thus, it is possible. 🙂

    2. Re: Yes.

      That’s what scares me – people saying “he overreacted, so his rights don’t matter”.

      I’d like to see them take the same line the next time they lose their temper and find themselves in a concrete cell for it.

      The Bill of Rights wasn’t created only for polite people.

  3. No doubt Gates was tired and just wanted to relax after getting home. I know when I’ve gotten back from traveling I just want to relax and be left alone. He has problems getting in the house and then a cop shows up and is insinuating he was breaking into his home. I’d have to hold my temper too. All this when he’s tired and probably jet lagged. The flight from China is how long? I pity the guy. Now he’s swamped with media.

    The cop may have claimed to have backed down after seeing the ID, but some cops can be real dicks in the first place. They think because they have a badge and gun they are god. I call them “super cops” The cop was probably sad that he didn’t have anyone to arrest. I respect the police, but I also expect to be treated with respect.

    I remember being accused of trying to use a stolen credit card once. I got really mad at the cashier and started throwing various forms of ID at her. That was minor compared to what Gates had to deal with.

Comments are closed.