Viewpoint: The Stupidity of the Gates Arrest

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Cambridge Police Dept. / AP

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct while trying to force open the front door of his home on July 16, 2009

Here is what the absurdist, typically stilted language of Sergeant James Crowley's report on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. really means:

Gates: You're not the boss of me!
Crowley: I am the boss of you.
Gates: You are not the boss of me!
Crowley: I'll show you. You're under arrest.

There is no crime described in Crowley's official version of the way Gates behaved. Crowley says explicitly that he arrested Gates for yelling. Nothing else, not a single threatening movement, just yelling. On the steps of his own home. Yelling is not a crime. Yelling does not meet the definition of disorderly conduct in Massachusetts. Not a single shouted word or action that Crowley has attributed to Gates amounts to disorderly conduct. That is why the charges had to be dropped.

In classically phony police talk, Crowley refers to "[Gates'] continued tumultuous behavior." When cops write that way, you know they have nothing. What is tumultuous behavior? Here's what it isn't: brandishing a knife in a threatening manner, punching and kicking, clenching a fist in a threatening manner, throwing a wrench or, in the Gates house, maybe a book. If the subject does any of those things, cops always write it out with precision. When they've got nothing, they use phrases that mean nothing. Phrases like tumultuous behavior.

Unless you confess to a crime or threaten to commit a crime, there is nothing you can say to a cop that makes it legal for him to arrest you. You can tell him he is stupid, you can tell him he is ugly, you can call him racist, you can say anything you might feel like saying about his mother. He has taken an oath to listen to all of that and ignore it. That is the real teachable moment here: cops are paid to be professionals, but even the best of them are human and can make stupid mistakes.

We have an uncomfortable choice with Sergeant Crowley. Either he didn't know what disorderly conduct is or he decided to show Gates who's boss the only way he knew how — by whipping out his handcuffs and abusing his power to arrest. Police make the latter choice in this country every day, knowing the charges are going to have to be dropped.

We all know it happens. That's why so much of the commentary about this case is obsessed with exactly who said what to whom in the Gates home that day. Most white, and some black, TV talking heads obviously believe that Gates was stupid if he actually exercised his constitutional right to say anything he felt like saying to a cop. Because they know it is not terribly difficult to provoke U.S. police to violate their oaths and the law and arrest people for no legal reason.

The President was right when he called the arrest stupid. It doesn't mean Crowley is stupid. It means that, in that moment, he made a stupid choice. Barack Obama has made some stupid choices on occasion too. We all do. Everyone who is defending Crowley's arrest, including his union, needs to reread his report. There is a crime described in there. In fact, Crowley's report is a written confession of the crime of false arrest.

Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. is an MSNBC political analyst and the author of Deadly Force: The True Story of How a Badge Can Become a License to Kill.