Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Truth and Consequences: Implications of Disobeying the Prophetic Ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Implications on Disregarding the Prophetic Ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.
©Wendell Griffen, 2012
Across the United States people are gathering to celebrate the birth and reflect on the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Excerpts will be played and recited from his "I Have A Dream" speech. Politicians will position themselves to gain favor with constituents at such gatherings. Proclamations and pronouncements will be issued and uttered. Choirs will sing. People will gather, present, and perform.
I do not condemn or disparage these exercises. But we should also ponder the tragic reality that our society and its civic, social, commercial, and religious leadership have not been faithful to Dr. King's ministry.
Martin King was the Jeremiah Wright of his time. He was murdered in 1968 a year to the day after he publicly called on the United States to end its military involvement in Southeast Asia. King was the Nobel laureate who confronted the Johnson administration and our nation about the tragic irony of sending black and white men to die together in Vietnam while refusing to help them live together at home. Yet the U.S. is as addicted to war-making in 2012 as it was in 1968.
King was the Baptist preacher who dared to confront clergy in Birmingham, Alabama about their willful tolerance of racist and violent conduct of Eugene "Bull" Connor and Birmingham police toward peaceful civil rights protestors. In 2012, the governor of Alabama is a man with racist and xenophobic policies about immigrants that are morally reprehensible.
King was the civil rights leader who hoped to lead 100,000 poor people to march on Washington, DC to confront national leaders about economic injustice and poverty. Economic injustice is what the Occupy movement is about. Economic injustice is what ACORN was about. Now, just as when King lived and preached, local, state, and national civic, business, and religious leaders continue to favor the wealthy and privileged while ignoring the needy and vulnerable.
King was the moral theologian who openly called on a society addicted to military adventurism, crass materialism, and racism to undertake a radical revolution of values. We remember the "I Have A Dream" speech of August 1963. But we have disregarded and disobeyed what he said on April 3, 1967 during his sermon titled "A Time To Break Silence" at Riverside Baptist Church in New York .
"Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profits motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men [and women] home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood."
More than four decades have passed since Dr. King was taken from us. Sadly, we are reaping the consequences of disobeying his prophetic ministry.
Militarism has increased. Most people pay little attention to the suffering of military personnel and their families. News reports about our war-making are now hidden inside newspapers. Politicians won't talk about how much money this nation has spent over the past ten years on the fabricated war in Iraq and the poorly managed war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we seem to have not noticed that the war atrocities of My Lai in Vietnam morphed into those in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, others in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, and the festering daily travesty we perpetrate and try to ignore of Guantanimo in Cuba. When the Obama administration defended the CIA for killing U.S. citizens who sympathized with Al Qaeda in Sudan last fall the public didn't complain. When President Obama signed a bill on New Year's Eve that authorizes him and any other president to detain and indefinitely hold U.S. citizens without trial the public didn't complain. We've become the land of the un-free and the home of the scared.
Materialism has worsened. The gap between those who have much and those who struggle to survive in this society and our world is more proof that we have disobeyed Dr. King's ministry. We have sunk so morally low that presidential candidates are praised as followers of Jesus even when they publicly oppose providing universal health care regardless of income or employment status.
Racism remains a virulent cancer in our society. When terrorists from Ireland hid in the United States and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City national leaders didn't call for a PATRIOT Act. But today Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents and state and local law enforcement officers target Latinos who are doing honest work to provide for their families. Local police continue to harass and racially profile black and brown people. We have a mass incarceration situation that is so large that Michelle Alexander has accurately called it "the New Jim Crow." If you haven't read her book, I urge you to do so.
Our society is paying a terrible price for disobeying Dr. King's prophetic ministry. Yet we seem unable or unwilling to confess our transgressions and turn to the values he preached. Have we reached the spiritual death Dr. King feared?
I do not know when we will heed King's warnings and "undergo a radical revolution of values." But we can no longer ignore the consequences of having refused to do so.
· There are too many casualties from our military adventures to ignore. The costs of war-making have grown so high politicians hide them from us.
· Economic injustice now threatens entire cities, states, and regions across the nation. Birmingham, Alabama and Flint, Michigan are broke. Gated communities and Chamber of Commerce receptions, dinners, and slick ad campaigns can't cover up the damning results of favoring the privileged few over the needy many for decades.
· New laws requiring voter identification have been enacted in some states that will operate to stifle people of color, poor people, and formerly incarcerated persons who have paid their debt to society.
Dr. King foresaw the plight we now live. And with a prophet's heart and voice he left an encouraging word to guide us onward and upward. Obery Hendricks, Jr. shares King's words at the start of his latest book titled The Universe Bends Toward Justice.
"When our days become dreary with low-hanging clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Dr. King was a prophet for our time. Prophets show us the way to live. Prophets challenge our wrong-headed decisions and wrong-hearted values. Prophets call on us to change. But prophets cannot make us want to change. They can hope for us, pray for us, plead with us, and pronounce moral judgments about us. But when all is said and done, whether we change is up to each of us.
The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Will we cooperate with it or be condemned by it? The answer, as Michael Jackson sang, it's up to "the man in the mirror." So I leave you with this question.
What's happening in your mirror?
 Alexander has detailed the situation in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.
 Obery Hendricks, Jr., a former Wall Street executive and former seminary president, is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary and a Visiting Scholar in Religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. He is also author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. I am grateful to Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. for introducing me to Hendricks and his prophetic work.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
THE NIGHT YOU BECAME INDEFINITELY DETAINABLE
©Wendell Griffen, 2012
On New Year's Eve 2011, while you and I were anticipating the end of the year President Barack Obama signed a law that makes U.S. citizens subject to indefinite detention by military authorities on suspicion of being terrorists.
The National Defense Authorization Act principally deals with funding the Defense Department. But the measure enacted by Congress and submitted to Obama contains provisions that allow the executive branch (meaning the President) to determine whether to order a U.S. citizen detained indefinitely by military authorities on suspicion of being a terrorist.
If you think that smacks of tyranny, you're right.
If you think Obama is smart enough to know better than to sign such a measure, you're right.
If you hoped Obama would demonstrate the fortitude to carry out his publicized threat to veto the legislation if this offensive provision wasn't removed, you're badly disappointed.
Count me among the badly disappointed people who know tyranny when we see it. Count me among the people who take no consolation in Obama's signing statement that his administration won't use the power he signed into law.
This is the kind of foolishness that produced the 1944 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States that upheld the forced detention of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry based on xenophobic and racist hysteria after Pearl Harbor.
The Korematsu decision is generally considered one of the low points of Supreme Court jurisprudence. It ranks alongside the decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford (deciding in 1856 that black people had no legal rights white people were obliged to respect) and Plessy v. Ferguson (the 1896 decision that upheld Jim Crow seating on rail transportation that validated racial segregation for the next half century until it was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education).
I hoped that Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor, wouldn't align his administration with the forces of tyranny. I hoped he would understand the obvious danger to freedom posed by legalizing indefinite detention of any person based on mere suspicion. I hoped that he would resist the temptation to snatch people from their homes, families, jobs, and communities and deny them access to the civil courts.
And I hoped that he was principled enough to admit that the issue isn't whether his administration would ever sink to such a deplorable state as to resort to such conduct.
Despite Obama's claim that his administration won't use the power he signed into law, no president deserves the power to snatch people out of our society at will. No president should be allowed to order citizens or anyone else held indefinitely without an independent and objective judicial finding that they've done something unlawful.
Obama's action takes on more significance when considered from the perspective of the upcoming holiday honoring the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the direction of J. Edgar Hoover based on Hoover's suspicion that King was a Communist.
The law Obama signed on New Year's Eve now allows dissident voices such as Dr. King to be indefinitely detained on suspicion of terrorism.
Several years ago while visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum in Alabama I found a poster of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I admired the photograph of that man who escaped slavery, became literate, eventually purchased his mother's freedom, and stirred the fires of freedom by his great intellect and persuasive oratorical powers.
But I purchased the poster because it bears the following Douglass quotation: "There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own constitution."
Sadly, Barack Obama doesn't have that much loyalty, honor, and patriotism.
Now it remains to be seen whether you and I have it.
Will goodwill followers of Jesus find a way to challenge the oppressive new powers that Obama claims he never wanted and won't ever exercise but signed into law? Will pastors find enough loyalty to righteousness and justice in our spirits to denounce this oppression in the spirit of Amos, Micah, Hosea, Frederick Douglass, Martin King, and Jesus?
Or will we imitate the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan lesson and Barack Obama and look the other way?
God, help us recognize "a good fight," and then strengthen us to fight well.
|The Night You Became Indefinitely Detainable|
By: Wendell Griffen
Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 6:31 am
Section: EthicsDaily.com's Latest Articles
|The Night You Became Indefinitely Detainable|
By: Wendell Griffen
Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 6:31 am
Section: EthicsDaily.com's Latest Articles
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Such a deal should offend anyone who cares about justice. People making $200,000 a year don't need a tax break nearly as badly as people who've been out of work for months need unemployment benefits. President Obama surely knows this. So why would he agree to such a deal? And why, to add further insult to injury, would his administration agree to exempt estates valued at $5,000,000 from taxation? Why agree to add $900 billion—almost a trillion dollars—more to the federal deficit by giving tax breaks to the rich?
The political answer is that some lawmakers won't agree to extend the benefits for unemployed workers unless people with jobs and high incomes get tax breaks. Tax breaks for the wealthy is the price Republican and some Democratic lawmakers are demanding and Obama seems willing to pay so unemployed workers can buy food, provide shelter, and otherwise care for their families. This situation is happening during Advent season when Christian congregations are joyfully singing and preaching about a time when the Messiah will rule the world "in truth and grace."
We are warned at Psalm 146:3 to not place ultimate trust in rulers—no matter what their political party or philosophy may be—but in God. The drama being played out in Washington over extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers shows that politicians are dealmakers. Their primary concern is not justice for the poor, weak, and vulnerable, but the campaign contributions and support they can garner from the wealthy and powerful.
So why aren't religious leaders talking about this issue? Could it be that we, like the politicians, are more concerned about money, church pledges to capital campaigns, and budgets than to how our vulnerable neighbors are treated? Are religious leaders and congregations becoming like the politicians the Psalmist warned against trusting? Are we so much "at ease in Zion" that we're more interested in charity for the affluent than justice for the vulnerable?
I don't expect politicians to think and act like prophets. But it isn't asking too much of preachers and congregations who claim to be God's servants to demand that politicians use public money so unemployed people can have food and shelter. It isn't asking too much of preachers and congregations to challenge and criticize politicians who would rather create more public debt to give tax breaks to wealthy people than protect people oppressed by unemployment. And it isn't asking too much of preachers and congregations to challenge ourselves about how much we cater to wealthy people.
The Biblical prophets had a sensitivity about and compassion for suffering people that inspired them to hold rulers accountable for the plight of poor people, immigrants, children, and others who were vulnerable. They called on rulers to relieve suffering, not exempt the powerful and affluent from the duty to help care for the less fortunate. When rulers ignored the divine mandate of justice for the poor, weak, immigrant, and outcast in their societies, prophets challenged them, criticized them, and condemned them. And when priests sided with insensitive and oppressive rulers, prophets condemned the priests along with the rulers.
Have the preachers and members of congregations supposedly devoted to God and divine justice forgotten this biblical history and forsaken our calling? Sadly, we seem so addicted to materialism and popularity that we can't and won't condemn policies and politicians that violate the biblical imperative to care for vulnerable people.
Shame on us for thinking we glorify God while ignoring how rulers treat people Jesus called "the least of these"! Shame on us for honoring the wealthy and disregarding the needy! Shame on us!
Friday, December 3, 2010
What if you were required to pass through a scanning device any time you drive on a public highway? Would you consider that requirement intrusive? Would you object to being scanned and insist that government agents have some specific factual basis indicating that you pose a risk of harm to others before they interfere with your travel and scan your body and effects?
Would you object less if required to permit government agents to frisk you and rummage through your belongings before you can travel? Are body and container scans and frisks justifiable because people use the highways to commit crimes?
If you value your freedom to travel without mindless suspicion and your right to privacy, you should find this hypothetical disturbing. Yet this process happens every day to every person engaged in commercial air travel in the United States. All persons who board a commercial airplane must first submit to body scanning. The latest body scanners provide images in graphic anatomical detail that are viewed by a TSA employee. Some frequent air travelers are concerned about the health risks associated with undergoing routine body scans.
Persons unable or unwilling to submit to the full body scanners must submit to pat-down frisking similar to that performed by law enforcement agents on suspected criminals. Many persons, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have expressed objections to the pat-down searches.
However, there has been no reported outcry about the requirement that every person seeking to board a commercial airplane be scanned. TSA personnel needn't have a reason to scan or frisk other than the fact that a person is travelling by commercial airliner. Persons traveling from private airports are not required to be scanned, frisked, or otherwise detained for surveillance and search before they board aircraft.
When a government requires people to be searched without any objective indication that they pose a danger to others, one usually associates that activity with a "police state." If freedom and personal dignity mean anything, people have the right to be left alone by others (including the government) unless there is a specific reason to interfere with that right.
Yes, we live in a world where people carry dangerous objects onto airplanes, including box cutters in their carry-on items and explosives in their shoes and underwear. We can't ignore that some people want to hurt others.
But is it fair and right to conduct surveillance, scan, and search every airline traveler like a potential terrorist? If so, what is left of the Fourth Amendment guarantee that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated?
Searches that lack an objective basis for suspecting the persons searched to be dangerous may be thorough and efficient. Such searches may cause public officials and travelers to feel "safe." However, the searches are not based on reasons to suspect that a traveler is dangerous. Governmental efficiency and irrational fear of strangers do not constitute legally valid reasons to treat people as criminals or enemies.
The airport screening issue involves the fundamental moral concern of whether we'll treat people we don't know as neighbors or enemies. Is the woman ahead of me my neighbor or my potential murderer? What reason do I have to suspect her as a murderer?
Am I justified to consider her more dangerous than myself because I don't know her? Is my suspicion because her clothing, language, ethnicity, or some other obvious feature differs from mine?
Would I be offended if she accused me of being a criminal and insisted that I be searched merely because she doesn't know me? And if I deserve to be treated as a neighbor unless there are objective reasons for suspecting me to be an enemy, shouldn't she and anyone else be entitled to the same neighborly treatment?
In his classic work, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman named fear, hate, and hypocrisy (deception) "hounds of hell" that prevent people from creating community. And Fred Craddock reminds us that how we treat strangers is a question on life's final exam (Matthew 25:31-46). Judging from the TSA airport screening process, we're not creating community and we're flunking the final.
Religious leaders and congregations haven't addressed the moral implications surrounding airport screening. Terrorist attacks and threats don't trump justice for strangers. 9-11 didn't change the final exam.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Little Rock, Arkansas
I may be the only person in the world who senses a connection between Clint McCance, Tea Party nationalism, and neo-fundamentalist notions about Christianity. Mr. McCance is the Vice-Chair of the Midland School Board in Pleasant Plains, Arkansas who posted hateful comments about gay youth on his personal Facebook page. His were uttered in reaction to people wearing purple in support of recent gay victims who committed suicide after they suffered bullying.
Among other things, McCance stated, “Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way I’m wearin [sic] it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant [sic] believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves [sic] because of their sin.”
Since the time those and other hurtful statements were circulated over the Internet and drawn intense reactions ranging from a planned peaceful protest at a local school in his community to a public rebuke by the Arkansas Commissioner of Education, McCance has retreated into a reclusive silence.
I see a similarity between McCance and Tea Party nationalism. Like McCance, Tea Party activists have demonstrated intolerance and hostility. Although they deny being motivated by racial animosity toward President Obama and profess that they are displeased by his policies, many Tea Party activists have publicly challenged his citizenship, his religious faith, and his patriotism in ways that are hateful and racially-biased.
McCance and Tea Party nationalists appear to share one other feature—a neo-fundamentalist notion of Christianity that strikes out against people because they are considered "strangers," meaning different. In McCance's case, the "strangers" are gay people, particularly gay youth. For the Tea Party, President Obama is the "stranger." Ever since Obama won the Democratic Party nomination during the 2008 presidential campaign, people have been showing up at public events bearing signs and wearing clothing depicting him as a Nazi, socialist, witch doctor, and threat to the United States. Some have even worn T-shirts with Biblical references calling for his death.
Somehow McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamental Christians (who in many instances self-identify as "Christian conservatives") have come to believe that people who are different are dangerous. They reject the idea that human diversity is valid. For McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamentalists Christians, safety, security, and salvation require sameness.
This mindset is fundamentally wrong-headed. Reasonably intelligent people understand that human diversity is a fact to be accepted as part of a healthy world, not a harmful condition from which people and a society can or should be cured. A worldview that defines difference as threatening contradicts reality. After all, we are constantly learning about new species of plants and animals. Variety in people is no more ominous than it is in anything else in nature.
McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamental Christians embrace an arrogant and self-glorifying anti-intellectualism. I doubt I am the only person who detects irony in the fact that McCance, a leader (Vice-Chair) of his local public school board, was so arrogant as to demonstrate his incompetence with English grammar and spelling in his Facebook utterances that have prompted such an outcry. McCance brings Sarah Palin (former Alaska governor, 2008 Republican Party nominee for Vice President of the United States, and now leading promoter of Tea Party ideology) to mind. Palin's anti-intellectualism has become her calling card. We should not be surprised that American children are falling behind children in other societies when we deliberately elevate and celebrate people such as McCance and Palin as the exemplary leaders.
McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamentalist Christians aren't merely wrong-headed about human diversity. They're wrong-headed and wrong-hearted about the religion of Jesus. The Gospels present Jesus as someone who embraced people, especially people who were otherwise shunned because they were lepers, women, children, religious, political, and social outcasts, and sick. The Christ of the Gospels did not inspire the "Christianity" proclaimed and lived by McCance, Tea Party nationalists like Sarah Palin, and other neo-fundamentalist Christians who condemn people because of their sexual orientation, religion, language, and ethnicity.
There is as much difference between the religion of Jesus and McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamentalist Christians as there is between noon and midnight. As a follower of Jesus, I intend to show McCance, Palin, and the people they mistreat as "strangers" that I know that difference and am determined to live it.
Monday, August 2, 2010
If the Tea Party, Blue Dogs, and other so-called "fiscal conservatives" such as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Steve Forbes, and others are truly concerned about integrity—fiscal or otherwise—they should be complaining about the billions of dollars spent to wage war in Iraq. According to the National Priorities Project (www.nationalpriorities.org/costofwar_home), the United States allocated $747.3 billion—almost 3/4 of a trillion dollars—for the war in Iraq since 2003. Here is what the same amount of money could have done for Arkansas, my home state:
- 2,080,756 people—more than the entire population of Arkansas—could have been provided low-income healthcare for one year; or
- 155,419 police or sheriff's patrol officers could have been employed for one year; or
- 166,758 firefighters could have been employed for a year; or
- Scholarships for 1,083,707 university students could have been provided for one year; or
- 1,261,201 students could have received Pell Grants of $5550 each to attend college; or
- Head Start could have been funded to cover 1,103,815 children for a year.
Mind you, the $747.3 billion allocated to wage war in Iraq does not include any money that must be spent to treat thousands of wounded and disabled service members. If the Department of Defense website is accurate, 13,982 service members were wounded in action and not returned to duty and 17,915 others were wounded and returned to duty. The Iraq war cost tally also does not include what the nation owes to survivors of the 4417 military and Defense Department civilians killed in Iraq as of August 2, 2010, 10 a.m., EDT (see www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf). We should have long ago confronted the hypocrisy of people who profess to cherish human life but never challenge a war that has claimed almost 4500 American lives, perhaps hundreds of thousands more in Iraq, and permanently scarred countless others.
Long before now, ethically sound people should have dismissed the hypocrisy of people who opposed spending money to help unemployed working people survive the current recession but who have never opposed the seven-year-old war in Iraq. And we should have dismissed as moral cowards or moral frauds those who said "I want my country back" when the nation debated enacting national healthcare insurance reform, but who never thought the country was at risk morally, intellectually, socially, militarily, and geo-politically because of the quagmire called Operation Iraqi Freedom.
When almost ten billion dollars of the money allocated for the war in Iraq cannot be accounted for, people who understand the difference between integrity and hypocrisy owe God and each other much more than hand-wringing and head-shaking about the nation's budgetary woes. We should be outraged about the hypocritical conduct and conversation surrounding it.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Missed Opportunities--A Commentary on the Cambridge Review Committee Report on the July 16, 2009 arrest of Professor Henry Louis, Gates, Jr.
On June 15, 2010, barely a month before the first anniversary of the notorious July 16, 2009 encounter between Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, a report was issued by the Cambridge Review Committee, a volunteer panel of individuals selected by the City of Cambridge "… for their knowledge of issues in policing and criminal justice, law, race, community relations, organizational behavior, and conflict resolution, as well as their knowledge of the City of Cambridge." The Report, titled, "Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities," asserts that the Crowley-Gates incident was "avoidable" and occurred because "Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates each missed opportunities to 'ratchet down' the situation and end it peacefully."
Even assuming the best intentions of the Cambridge Review Committee and anyone else responsible for their effort, the report missed the opportunity to state the obvious. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. should have never been arrested for disorderly conduct outside his own home merely because he accused Sergeant Crowley of behaving in a racist manner. Crowley's decision to arrest Gates for disorderly conduct—nothing else—made the incident notorious.
The 64 page report reads as if Gates somehow was obliged to not express his displeasure about being suspected of being a thief in his own residence even after proving his identity and lawful right to be there. The report makes much ado about procedural legitimacy, police discretion, and other concepts, but says nothing about personal liberty to protest how a police officer behaves. For all its words, the "Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities" report missed the opportunity to unapologetically declare that in the United States a person does not forfeit freedom of speech when confronted by law enforcement.
Sergeant Crowley had no discretion to arrest Professor Gates for criticizing his presence or loudly accusing him of behaving in a racist manner. If the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States means anything, it means that the government cannot prohibit someone from complaining about how its officials behave. There is no discretion for any police officer to arrest someone from complaining about how the officer is performing. The fact that the officer is investigating a burglary call does not render the First Amendment pointless, useless, or void.
Had the Cambridge Review Committee desired to honestly address the Crowley-Gates episode, its report would have made this point. The section of the report that deals with "Police Discretion" would have said that while the police have discretion about whether to make an arrest when they observe unlawful conduct, there is nothing unlawful about protesting police conduct that one considers racially discriminatory, insulting, or otherwise demeaning. Disorderly conduct laws exist to punish civil disturbances, not curb civil liberty. Those laws do not justify arresting anyone for criticizing official behavior, whether by the police or anyone else.
The United States is a free society, not a police state. Strangely, the Cambridge Review Committee missed a clear opportunity to say so.