Gatesgate has reminded us that one of the things that “everybody” knows is not to give cops a lot of lip.
This is information that most people learn by their late teens or early twenties, be they black or white, male or female, strong or weak, feisty or timid. A few “yessirs” and “nosirrs” (or the proper gender-adjusted terms of respect for a female police officer) sprinkled into the conversation doesn’t hurt at all, either.
Somehow, Professor Gates failed to learn this particular life lesson. And it’s not just all about cops wanting respect because of macho swaggering, either. A belligerent verbal attitude on the part of a civilian can be a warning sign of other belligerence to come, including the physical (and including the use of weapons), and the police can be the targets of the latter. That’s why they need to be alert to the possibilities of danger in every encounter they have with the public.
One of my early experiences with the police was during a cross-country drive with my then boyfriend (later to be husband). We were motoring along on a single-lane highway in Arizona, minding our own business and obeying the law, when we were pulled over by a cop. My boyfriend did the usual cautious thing—hands on the wheel, no sudden movements—as the trooper came over and explained that he’d seen him weaving, going back and forth erratically over the yellow line. Had he been drinking?
My boyfriend pointed to a large open bag of potato chips that was sitting on the console between our bucket seats. He’d been happily dipping into it and munching on them as we drove along.
“Officer, I was eating these,” he said.
The trooper frowned, and intoned in a serious voice, “You shouldn’t drive and eat potato chips like that. Next time, pull over if you want to eat potato chips.”
This struck me at the time as exceedingly funny. So very very funny that the laughter just bubbled up in me and spilled out. The trooper and my boyfriend both looked at me sternly and in unison, and I don’t know which one had the more annoyed expression (actually, I do; it was my boyfriend). The trooper was quite calm as he told me that this was no laughing matter.
And if you know anything about laughter, you probably know that it took every ounce of self-control I had to stop; after all, forbidden laughter is the most difficult to resist of all. But I did manage to stem my mirth and convince the trooper of the fact that I took the issue of driving while eating gobs of potato chips very seriously indeed.
He walked off after issuing a warning, and my boyfriend took a moment to impress on me the fact that you don’t mess with a trooper, and that includes joking. You just don’t.
And I never forgot it.