Friday 31 July 2009

Both the professor and the cop were stupid

On July 16, 2009, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. had just returned to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts from a trip to China and discovered to his horror that the front door to his house was jammed shut. Since the cab driver had not yet left, Gates asked him if he could help him force open the front door of his house. Lucia Whalen works near Gates' home and was on her way to lunch when she was stopped by an elderly neighbor on the street who pointed out the two men and was worried they were breaking into the house. She called the police. This was the right thing to do. I can only presume that she had a cell phone on her and used it when she called the police.

Before the police arrived, Gates and the cab driver managed to get the door open but shortly after that, while Gates was in the foyer of his home, Sergeant James M. Crowley, the first officer to arrive on the scene, confronted Gates. He told Gates to step outside of his home. The police officer asked Gates for identification to prove he was the resident. An argument apparently erupted and heated language was used as Gates stepped onto his porch behind Crowley, who then handcuffed the professor and took him to a police station on a charge of disorderly conduct.

I can appreciate the concern that Crowley had at that moment since there had been 23 break-and-enters in 2009 in that community, many of them in broad daylight when the owners of the homes were at work. His request for Gates to provide ID to show that he lived in the home was the appropriate thing to do.

However, at this moment while Gates was just outside of his home, everything went south for both of them and I blame both of them for the fiasco that followed.

Gates was upset. After all he was in his own home. There is no doubt in my mind that he got snippy with the police officer. The officer claims that when he told the professor he was investigating complaints of a break-in, Mr. Gates shot back, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Then, without provocation, he accused Crowley of being a racist. Crowley said he arrested the professor (according to his report of the incident) after he “continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him.” According to the police report, Gates shouted at Crowley several times, "You don't know who you're messing with." which is ironic for a man also claiming to be a victim by virtue of his minority status. He is, in effect, claiming at one and the same time to be both downtrodden and so important a person in Cambridge that the officer had better think twice about angering him. Witnesses claim that Gates demanded, “Do you know who I am?” What gall.

When asked to step outside, Gates replied, "I'll talk to your mama outside." Gates denies having said the latter. But what is telling is not whether Gates made such a statement but rather that in a subsequent interview he snidely suggested that Crowley must have picked up the "mama " line from watching the TV show, Good Times.

I believe that Gates made that remark. Gates' statement; even if only made mockingly, that Crowley's sum-total knowledge of the black community derives from a defunct 1970s sitcom, is inexcusable, especially coming from someone who spends a great deal of his time as a professor in academia and who, as it happens, is the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Sergeant Crowley entered a potentially dangerous situation in his role as guardian of public safety, only to be confronted by a name-calling elitist who, without provocation, assassinated the officer's character.

Gates claimed Crowley refused repeated demands for the officer to give his name and identifying police badge number. Crowley in response said that Gates exhibited loud and tumultuous behaviour, causing him to handcuff and arrest the professor. If Crowley was in uniform when he approached Gates, I have presumed that Gate’s demand for Crowley’s name and badge number was made as an attempt at intimidating the officer. It was an inappropriate demand. The fact that Gates thought that he had been denied his civil rights because he cannot be uncivil to a civil servant with impunity, is absurd. It suggests that he is completely disconnected from reality and possesses a sense of privilege that the overwhelming majority of Americans, black or white, could never even dream of. Civil rights do not preclude civility.

Gates is an expert on race relations. He is regarded as someone who makes some white folks feel comfortable about talking about race. He should have known better. Because of the history between blacks and whites, a black man accusing a white man of racism parallels the n-word in the sense that it shares no racial equivalent and that it is the quickest way to irreparably damage relationships and derail meaningful dialogue. Gates should have known better than make stupid remarks to a police officer who was just doing his job. If someone else had broken into Gates’ home and Crowley arrested him, Gates would be grateful.

Unfortunately, Professor Gates is also a race-baiter from a way back. He has made a career of documenting what he sees as systemic racism by white Americans and American institutions against African-Americans. Given his overbearing and contemptuous manner in television interviews and lectures, I have no trouble believing he went from zero to obnoxious instantly when approached by Sergeant James Crowley on his doorstep near Harvard's campus. The Harvard historian acted stupidly to such a degree that Sergeant. Crowley was provoked into arresting him.

The officer’s first statement should have been, “Hello Sir. We got a call that someone was breaking into this house. Are you the owner of this house?” Gate’s first statement to the officer should have been, “I can assure you officer, this is my house and I can show you my driver’s licence to prove it.” If Crowley had made his initial statement like I proposed he should have and Gates had responded as I proposed he should have and brought out his driver’s licence and given it to the police officer, everything after that would have been fine.

Many years ago in the 1950s when I was in my mid twenties, I had rented a room in a nice home in the ritzy district of Shaunesy Heights in Vancouver. One night I came home after one in the morning and to my horror, I discovered that I had left my house key in my other pants which were hanging in the closet in my room. There was a ladder on the ground so I placed it against the roof of the front porch and climbed up it to get at the window of my room which I knew was partially open. Just as I was about to climb into the window, a police cruiser showed up in front of the house. Two officers stepped out of the cruiser and one of them shone his flashlight on me and said, “Come down the ladder, young man.” I obeyed him and when I reached them at the foot of the ladder, one of them asked, “Would you like to tell us why you are attempting to climb in that window? I told them my sad tale and the landlady confirmed that I was a tenant in her home. The officers thanked her and wished me a goodnight. That is the way it should be done.

Even if officers are wrong, most of the time they deserve co-operation because their task is to restore peace and uphold the rule of law. There is a growing divide between police and citizens, however for the most part, officers are acting in what they believe is the best interest of the public. There is however an obligation on both the part of an investigating police officer and the citizen he confronts to be polite. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always occur.

This certainly didn’t happen in Cambridge, Massachusetts when these two fools met for the first time. Crowley was too quick to take offence and he felt insulted. He had every right to feel insulted but police officers are insulted all the time. They should have thick skins by now. Perhaps that’s not the way things should be but that is certainly the way things are. Crowley should have ignored the insult and let Gates prove that he lived in the house providing Gates was smart enough to provide the officer with his ID.

To convict someone of disorderly conduct, the prosecutor must show that the accused acted in a manner that shocked the community by disturbing the peace or hat he committed an offence against public morals. Whatever Gates was doing was nothing at all like acting in a disorderly manner. You can call a cop a shit head and that doesn’t constitute acting in a disorderly manner. I think Crowley couldn’t think of any other offence he could have charged Gates with so he pulled that old chestnut out of the fire. By now, Crowley must have been convinced that Gates was legally in his own house when he showed up even if Gates hadn’t at that moment showed him his ID. If not, he would have charged him with break and enter. He should have simply walked away without another word, got into his cruiser and driven to wherever his next destination was. Instead, he acted like a dumb cop who lost control of himself and colloquially peed all over his fellow officers so that they could collectively share the stain of his stupidity. Needless to say, smarter minds than that of Crowley decided that the charge was nonsense and it was withdrawn.

If our sovereignty in a democracy is to be upheld, we must be allowed to act stupidly in our own homes and on our property. So long as we are no threat to others, are not engaged in criminal activity and are not disturbing the peace of our neighbours in some significant and persistent way, we must be free to act as we see fit, even if that means being foul-mouthed and verbally abusive to a police officer. It’s not the decent thing to do but it doesn’t merit being arrested by a police officer who takes offence at what is verbally being hurled at him.

Gates spent a short time in a police cell before he was released. It looks good on him. He acted in a snotty manner that is worthy of contempt. If he acted politely like anyone in the position he was in at that time and explained quietly that he was in his own house, I am sure that Crowley once satisfied that Gates was telling him the truth, would have apologized for the inconvenience and if Gates had decency, he would have recognized that the officer’s attendance at his home was in fact in his best interest and thanked him for showing up so quickly. Instead, he was pompous, prickly, and pugnacious.

When considering Gates’ claim that he was a victim of racial profiling, I can't help but wonder whether the elevation in status experienced by African Americans during the 20th century has so badly distorted their second-sight that some black people have completely lost touch with the problems that also face white people. I am not convinced that Crowley is a racist. He was a fool but that doesn’t make him a racist. I think he would have arrested a white person also had he felt insulted by that person.

Gates seems unaware that encounters with rude police are not exclusive to the black experience; especially when police officers are questioning people they suspect may be dangerous. By virtue of compassion or fear, most people understand that it is prudent to defer to police authority; however inconvenient or accusatory it may feel, because (a) police help maintain the laws that govern our society, and (b) police can make life pretty miserable if you don't. But alas, Gates refused to show Crowley even minimal respect. He outright insulted him so he made Gate’s life miserable. Now Gates looks like a pompous ass; an image he will spend a lifetime tying to erase and Crowley looks like a police officer who has a thin skin and it explodes when in contact with verbal insults.

The American struggle with race flashed back into the national debate when Obama; the country's first black president inserted himself into the angry give-and-take between the policeman and the professor. He said, “What I think we know separate and apart from this incident, is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact. That disparity is a reminder that race remains a factor in the society.” unquote He is right, that problem still exists in North America.

Obama, who had already acknowledged regret for saying that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in the July 16th takedown of Gates, Americans felt that the president was entitled to only poor marks for the manner in which he weighed in on the controversy. He should have kept his mouth shut, especially when one of the protagonists was a black man like him and was a personal friend to boot. To make matters worse, he made a joke which incidentally was extremely funny but inappropriate. When referring to Crowley arresting Gates after he broke into his own house, the president is alleged to have said, “If I didn’t have the key to the White House and was seen by the police trying to break in, I would be shot.” That statement doesn’t reflect favourably on the police force in Washington D.C.

The president invited Crowley, who steadfastly denied race was a factor in the arrest, and Gates, to the White House to thrash things out face-to-face over a beer on the White House lawn in order to smooth things between the two protagonists. I don’t know if it worked but it appears as if it was an attempt on the president’s part to make up for his original unsolicited intrusion into the affair. I am forced to ask these two rhetorical questions. If Obama and Gates weren’t friends, would this invitation be extended to these two fools? If Obama and Gates weren’t friends, would he have accused the police force in Cambridge of acting foolishly?

Crowley is 16 years younger than Gates and a child of the post-Jim Crow era. Unlike Gates, he has never known an America of institutionalized racism or segregation. He was fortunate enough to have grown up in integrated Cambridge and has always had black friends and colleagues. He has even taught a course on avoiding racial profiling after being handpicked for the job by a former police commissioner named Ronny Watson, who is black. That is why I am convinced that racism had nothing to do with his arrest of Gates. Should Crowley have left as soon as he confirmed that Gates was indeed the owner of the house? Yes. Was his decision to arrest Gates on his own porch, as Obama suggested, stupid? Absolutely. But Crowley's folly was one of misplaced macho pride, which is not the cancer on American society that racial prejudice is.

Hopefully, the three men have learned from this unfortunate affair----(Gates) be nice when a police officer approaches you when it appears to him that you may have done something wrong; (Crowley) don’t get into a snit just because someone doesn’t give you the respect you think you deserve; and (Obama) don’t personally get publicly involved with the problems of two individuals, especially when one of them is a friend of yours.

No comments: