Concerning the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one thing is clear to me. In America, whether or not you will lose your freedom the next time you encounter a policeman may depend on whether you got a good nights sleep, or what you had for breakfast. Better hope you're not grumpy.
President Obama may not have had all the facts, but I believe he was absolutely correct in his assertion that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."
Wikipedia has both the police account of the incident, and Gates' own account. Even going by the police report, I can't see how arresting Gates made any sense. Anyway I look at it, I find myself in agreement with President Obama. Gates was arrested for sounding off about the way he perceived himself to have been treated by the police. He did so at his own home. Even if there are statues that allow police to make arrests in such circumstances, it is ridiculous to suggest that the police needed to make an arrest of a severely jet-lagged, elderly, and disabled gentleman to restore public order (Isn't that, after all, what the police are there for?)
Rather than arrest Gates, the police ought to have recognized that it was time for them to leave.
To what extent race explains the way the police treated Gates, we can speculate. What is apparent to me is that American law-enforcement personnel do not always go the extra mile to show courtesy in the line of duty; I have noticed that some officers favor a heavy-handed manner. This approach I regard as "stupid" because it can easily stir up trouble where none existed.
It seems to me that arrests and threats of arrest are made far too casually in the United States today. Observe the manner in which a US police officer approached this blogger. Although I was doing nothing harmful to anyone, the policeman suddenly threatened to put me in jail.
If you haven't seen it already, here's the video.
Lucky I was not jet-lagged and irritable that day. Lucky for me that I had not allowed my emotions show to show when the policeman grabbed at my camera. Luckier still for me that the confrontation did not trigger thoughts of resentment about any past discrimination I might have experienced.
These days, being in a bad mood in the presence of an American police officer can get you Tazered to death, or merely locked up in jail. Gates too was lucky.
UPDATE: a former police officer quoted in the NY Times today makes a similar point to my own. See this post.