Strange Brew

Last week’s “beer summit” at the White House was, on the surface, an anti-political moment: Four guys sitting down over brewskies to talk out a problem instead of relying on the mechanisms of state to solve it. Exactly the kind of thing most people, and especially anarchists, like to see.

Unfortunately, the event was pretty much all surface appearance and no substance. Three of the four participants were, and remain, government employees. The fourth was brought there for purpose of absolving the institution which employees them of the sins it had committed against him.

Because that fourth participant is an academic with a reputation for being a bit more than usually sensitive to matters of race, and because he had indeed played “the race card” in the incident that led to the event, it’s been easy for supporters of the state to write the whole thing off as a matter of “race relations.” It isn’t. It’s a matter of the relationship between the state and the individual.

We could debate all day long over whether or not the encounter between Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Sergeant James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. would have escalated to the point of confrontation if Crowley was black or if Gates was white. And a lot of people would love to argue over that, because such an argument fits neatly into their worldviews: Crowley’s an overbearing white expecting to be kowtowed to by black people, or Gates is a black man with a chip on his shoulder, ready to blame whitey for everything, and that’s the end of it.

Unfortunately for those theories, the fact remains that no one has credibly accused Professor Gates of causing, or threatening to cause, harm or damage to any person or any person’s property. that night. Black or white, the “crime” of which he was accused, and for which he was arrested, handcuffed and hauled off to jail, was saying something that a police officer didn’t want to hear.

The charges were quickly dropped, of course — not because that’s not a crime either in law or in plain common sense, but because Professor Gates has a reputation, the ability to get attention when he needs to, and friends in high places. Less well-known individuals — black, white, gay, straight, pretty much any category except “wealthy enough and with the time to spare to hire a lawyer and fight such nonsense” — generally don’t get off so easily. Americans are routinely dragged off to jail for “contempt of cop” and end up pleading guilty to nonsense charges such as “disorderly conduct” in order to get things over with and get back to their lives.

The whole point of the “beer summit” was to publicly write off this particular incident as a racial “misunderstanding” instead of confronting the real question. Maybe Crowley’s not racially sensitive enough, maybe Gates is too racially sensitive, but hey, everyone, let’s let it be about that instead of about whether or not a human being has any rights that a servant of the state is bound to respect.

You see, that last question is one the state doesn’t like to answer, because underneath the frilly language, its answer is always “no.”

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