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Friday, July 24, 2009

Fury, Rage, Gates, Obama, and Cops 

I'm having trouble explaining just how furious I am about all the "commentary" swirling around the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. For those who want the basic facts: The police report is here (PDF) and Gates gave his first post-jail interview here. The transcript of Obama's press conference is here (it was the last question).

I'm so angry that I can't even organize this post in my head. I keep coming up with different things I want to say. Let's start with the basics: This arrest had nothing to do with a break-in. The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, recognized immediately (probably when he saw Gates' Harvard ID) that there was no break-in. The arrest was for disorderly conduct. Crowley said that Gates was yelling at him in his kitchen, calling him "racist". Crowley said he had to go onto the front porch because "the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information". Gates followed him onto the front porch, where he was arrested. Sgt. Crowley recently said: "The professor at any time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or going back inside his house."

Gates says he couldn't possibly have been yelling because he had bronchitis which he contracted during the trip to China from which he was returning. He also claims that Crowley repeatedly ignored or refused his request for his name and badge number. Several lawyers have noted that you can't be arrested for disorderly conduct in your own home, so it's possible that the porch move was intended to get Gates to a location where he could be arrested.

Obama: Acting Stupidly?

(The image at left is the leading graphic right now on the FoxNews website.)

Conservatives are claiming that Obama "went too far" when he said:
Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.
Michelle Malkin, my favorite moron illiterate bonehead who somehow keeps getting on TV, says that "Obama trashed police officers as 'stupid' on national TV". Rush Limbaugh suggests that Obama has "a chip on the shoulder".

A number of police officials are also upset about Obama's remarks. Retired police chief Joseph McNamara of San Jose said: "He [Obama] really hurt the police terribly. What bothers me is the tremendous stature that President Obama has with the minority community. [Obama's comments could cause] a very unfortunate and tremendous setback for police efforts that have been impressive over the 50 years since I became a policeman." Notice: Crowley's actions aren't the problem here. Obama's comments are.

I'm very happy to see Obama's reaction: "What's the problem?" He told ABC News: "I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who's in his own home." Good for you, Mr. President.

As an English teacher, I also have an obligation to point out something very basic: Obama said that the cops "acted stupidly". That's very different from calling the cops stupid. One addresses the actions of the police officers, and one focuses on their identity. Obama took precisely the correct approach — talking about what they did, not who they are.

Authority and Ego

It seems obvious to me that Sgt. Crowley acted out of ego and frustration. He knew right away that there was nothing illegal going on in Gates' home, but he resented being called a racist. I mean, he even did mouth-to-mouth on famous black person Reggie Lewis! How could he possibly be racist, when he kissed a black man!? He's also taught a class about how not to racially profile people. (Let me also include the obligatory disclaimer that I have a lot of respect for police officers, who constantly put their lives on the line, deal with intense pressures, etc etc.)

But none of this changes the fact that he acted stupidly. (Teachers like me deal with intense pressure too — though obviously not as intense as those faced by cops — but when we do something stupid, we should be called on it.) As Gates points out, when Crowley realized what was going on, he did not say: "Is everything okay here?" He did not show the owner of the house any deference. It sounds like Gates was upset (and who can blame him), and Crowley didn't like that. Only one person (Sgt. Crowley) knows for sure whether race played a part, so it's pointless to speculate on his filthy racist mentality or his pure and unblemished love for all peoples of all colors.

The point is this: Sgt. Crowley arrested someone who had not broken the law. He should apologize. And I should stop following this story, because all the "commentary" and lazy reporting makes me more and more furious.

But I do recommend reading What Do You Call a Black Man with a Ph.D.?, by Gates' friend Lawrence Bobo:
I will say that when I moved into the same affluent area as Gates, I wondered whether someone might mistakenly report me, a black man, for breaking into my own house in a largely white neighborhood and what I would have to do to prove that the house actually belonged to me if the police showed up at the door.

I remember joking with my wife that maybe I should keep a copy of the mortgage papers and deed in the front foyer, just in case. I do now. And it is no longer a joke.

Thanks to (who else?) Madsimian for bringing us this superb Rick Astley vs. Nirvana mashup:

Today I'm listening to: Dana Gould! (Not his best work ever; that was his "Swedish Cooking Hour" bit which I would pay lots of money to hear again.)