The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Zeitgeist

AKIE BERMISS: I really hate writing about race. I don’t mind reading about it, I love discussing it, and I am fascinated by how it works in our day-to-day lives — but I’ve never tried to write a summation on the subject myself because, really, I hate to write about it.  To me, race relations, race politics, race issues (the whole bag of race stuff) is like quantum physics where its fine to postulate in abstraction, but once you try to measure properties and gauge distances you stymie the pool of information by stepping into it.  And really, the act of finishing an essay on the subject changes the field you’ve been observing instantly.  And then all is changed again.  Race is a constant on-going, inexhaustible engine of  dire possibilities.

But there’s nothing for it!  The recent arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home has brought up race in the national media once again. And now, suddenly, everybody is trying to get a handle on what it is they want to say.  Or want to know.  Or want to do.  Well if it must be done — its best ’twere done quickly.  And so…

I’m Skip Gates – I’m Kind of A Big Deal

You mustn’t misunderstand me — I think what happened to Prof. Gates was abominable.  I think it was tragic and unjust and where the police are concerned: it was unlawful.  Certainly there was a cock-up of enormous proportions in the eventual arrest of the 60 year-old professor in his own home! But I guess before I lambaste those who deserve it MOST, I’d better set the record straight concerning the professor’s own behavior.  You see, whatever the true details turn out to be, it seems Skip was having a bad night.  He’d gotten home and found his door jammed.  Had to go in through the back door.  And then, apparently, he and his driver spent a few minutes trying to force his front door open.  Unfortunately for the Professor (and his nefarious accomplice — the driver!) they were observed by a woman who worked near by.  And she called the police.  Fortunately — for us — the 911 call was released to the public this very afternoon.  And we hear that upon calling even she was somewhat unsure if there was something untoward and was just calling as a precaution.

That’s the backdrop.  The real problems arose when Prof. Gates was confronted by Police Officer James Crowley.  After showing ID to prove that the house was his residence, Prof. Gates was arrested.  Arrested for what, you ask?  Disorderly conduct.  So let’s leave the race issue aside for now. What constitutes “disorderly conduct” from an elderly man in his own house?  The Cambridge police statement refers to it as “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior” in this instance.  And, I suppose (again, leaving race alone for a moment) we expect such things to be left to the judgment of our police force and to be of little concern to us all.  But the problem is: this was a famous man.  Prof. Gates IS kind of big deal.  And you don’t arrest a high profile person without undue media attention.  One would hope, therefore, that an arresting officer would want to be absolutely SURE that the law was on his or her side.

That said, let’s add race to the pot.  So the subject of Prof. Gates’ “loud and tumultuous behavior” was his belief that he was being discriminated against for being a black man.  Now let me just pause here to make an observation: If you’re a black man in America — you’re damned well sure being discriminated against on a daily basis.  No news there.  And I’m not sure what was going through Mr. Gates’ mind, but its a somewhat unspoken caveat among black males in America that when you get confronted by the police: you roll over and play dead.  Otherwise — you could very well end up being dead.  There are numerous instances where police overreaction with respect to black suspects ends in brutal and egregious death (some would call it murder).  As a black man myself, I’ve known the bile of having to play dead for the police in order to prevent a bad situation from escalating to something more mortally serious.  So maybe Mr. Gates was having a bad day; maybe after flying home from China for who knows how many hours and having to jimmy his door open he was not in the mood for the usual, baseline discrimination.  He was fed up and decided to act out.  As far as I can ascertain, he didn’t actually attack Sgt. Crowley physically, but he was quite vocal in his displeasure at having to prove that he was in his own home to an disbelieving police officer.

A recipe for disaster, I warrant you.  Part of me (one I am rather disgusted to admit exists) wants to say, “Dammit, Skip!  Why’d you have to go and do that?  If you’d just swallowed your pride and played nice they would have gone away after 10 or 15 minutes — and you’d be no worse for the wear.”  It’s sad, but true.  I feel that impulse.

On the other hand, there is a righteous deliverance I feel vicariously in Gates’ being able to mouth off at the police.  It satisfies that part of my soul made so dark by my many poor experiences with the police.

Police Power and Black Power

What is in a word?  Is a stupid act by any other name any less stupid?  A lot of fuss has been made over Obama’s use of the word to describe Sgt.  Crowley’s actions.  And to be honest, I loved it.  It was the bald truth.  Unless we want to assume that this was an instance of deliberate racial discrimination or the abuse of police power.  Of course the President subsequently rescinded his powerful rhetoric in place of a more placating tone (possibly for the police unions and out-raged Republican senators).

My problem with that is — Crowley did act stupidly.  And not for arresting Gates, per se.  But for misunderstanding his function as a police officer.  Since when is it a crime to berate somebody?  Mean, perhaps.  Disrespectful, if you like.  But it ain’t illegal.  So why did Prof. Gates wind up in handcuffs.  According to the soundbites of Crowley’s communications with Cambridge HQ he understood that Gates was saying he lived there but found his behavior to be “uncooperative.”  Not dangerous or harmful. Not even alarming.  Just: uncooperative.  Is that grounds for arrest?  This smacks to me of an abuse of power.

Assuredly, the police have the legal power to arrest anybody they want.  Why put it any other way.  If you’re a police officer and you want to arrest somebody… who’s stopping you?  You may not be able to hold them.  You may not even be able to produce grounds for bringing them in.  But in the instant of arrest — you are the law.  On the street — you are the law.  Even in a person’s home — you are the law.  And your word carries the very weight of the law.  This is not a position to be treated lightly — and yet, so many police officers seem to enjoy the power instead of fearing it.  And in the black community there is a historical mistrust of the police for that very reason.  I won’t cite historical references, but suffice it to say there’s been a great deal of friction between black people and the powers that be.  And I would assume (but I could be wrong) that as a police officer one might be aware of that tragic and troubled history.  So Sgt. Crowley finds himself being yelled at by an elderly black man who doesn’t appreciate his presence there.  It might have been nice for Prof. Gates to say, “I appreciate your checking up on the call, but this is my home.  Step inside: here is the evidence of that.  Thank you, Constable.”

But he really doesn’t have to do that at all.  If he hasn’t broken the law, he is not obligated to do anything but show ID and be left alone.  To paraphrase Morgan Freeman’s character in Lean On Me all Gates has to do is: stay black and die.

Let me draw a parallel: As a musician I typically am coming home very late at night from gigs.  Often I am the only person on the street.  But sometimes I’ll find myself on a desolate subway platform with another person.  Sometimes, a young woman.  Now, as an intelligent person, I know that WHATEVER the circumstances may be, if that woman doesn’t know me she is well within her right to be wary of my presence.  Women alone at night in New York City.  Approached by a man she doesn’t know?  If I decide to ask her the time abruptly and she gets defensive — should I take that as a personal slight?  Or recognize that I am in a situation where the woman is dealing with historical and societal predispositions to be cautious of men she doesn’t know when she is alone in public.  A sloppy example, I grant you, but effective nonetheless.  Crowley was a white police officer responding to 911 call where even the caller (even the caller!) was unsure if there was anything illegal going on.  He might have taken that into consideration upon getting involved.  As a police officer, he is in the position of power.  And before him is an elderly black man. One that might have lived through all sorts of civil rights horrors in his youth.  Certainly he posed no particular threat to the officer.  In this instance, who is it that should be responsible for keeping a level head?  For trying to be pragmatic and reasonable?  The man in his house or the police officer who is on the clock?

These are simple questions.  Even without the specter of race, they are simple questions.  How often to police have to deal with actual belligerent people in course of their patrols?  Drunks, street-dwellers, and sometimes just the occasional pure-bred asshole?  I get worried when the police are jumpy about at 60 year old man being cantankerous.  Add the racial aspect of the confrontation — and you’ve got a potential meltdown on your hands.  Crowley acted stupidly.  And the officers who arrived on the scene thereafter, who did nothing to stop the arrest, acted stupidly-in-tandem.  Did no one try to deescalate the proceedings?  Where is the common sense?  The judicious eye? The necessary ability to discern between a potential dangerous situation and a man who is simply angry and “uncooperative”?

I state it here for the record.  It was an unlawful arrest.  A gross misuse of man-power and police resources.  A complete cock-up.  And it would behoove our police forces to take that into consideration.  The black community is still reeling over the Sean Bell verdict — and now we’ve got to deal with the willy-nilly arrest of Professor Gates and the unapologetic Cambridge Police who are saying they did the right thing?!  They don’t even have the decency to say that perhaps there was a misunderstanding or an over-reaction.  No.  They did the right thing.  Don’t question it.  Don’t criticize it.

Well, sirs, I don’t want to end up dead if I get locked out of my house some evening.  I don’t want to end up in jail for being reasonably upset in my house.  And the actions of the Cambridge Police — the enforcers of Law and Order — have done nothing to assuage my fear that PERHAPS there was some racial motivation behind the arrest.

And so the plot thickens — the situation gets worse.  And the intelligence and progress suffer.  Mightily.

A Beer With The President: that’s SO post-racial…

Wish I could say more, but this piece has gone on long enough.  It ends with the President inviting Officer Crowley and Skip Gates over to the White House for a beer and a chance to talk things over.  Really?  Is this the way it all goes down?  The President takes time from dealing with Iran and North Korea, the economy and health care, surly Republicans and thrill-seeking blue-dog deserters — to mediate this mess?  I guess nobody else can step up and do it, huh?  What friend of Obama’s do I have to truss-up and harass with invective to get a beer with the President?

In the end the real shame of it all is that this is getting so much media coverage.  That so many people have decided this is the event that makes it necessary to deal with race in America.  Including Professor Gates!  Sure he’s got his books and essays (and apparently his upcoming PBS program), but where was he when Sean Bell got shot?  Or the cops who did it were acquitted?  Why now suddenly is he become a smoking gun?  My roommate put it best — the tragedy is not that this happened to Professor Gates, but that it happens everyday to black men all across America and as yet nothing is being done.  Except a beer in the White House.

Well I suppose its a relief that they didn’t act out Dave Chappelle’s brilliant old routine: shoot the suspect and then, upon discovering that they’d killed an innocent man, sprinkle some crack on him and take off.

There’s that.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Can’t take any issue with what Akie has written whatsoever. Race is inescapable relative to what took place between Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates. But I come from a different perspective, and I’d like to point out that both Barack Obama’s criticism, and the larger issues many people have with Sgt. Crowley’s act itself, would be perfectly valid had race not even been part of the equation.

First, the act itself. Those trying to find a middle ground have pointed out that Mr. Gates did not act respectfully toward the police officer harassing him in his own home. It’s awfully hard for me to hear this, and think anyone legitimately believes Sgt. Crowley had the right to continue harassing Gates, particularly once Gates produced ID, and as Crowley made clear himself, was obviously the owner of the house.

Once that fact became clear, it was incumbent upon Sgt. Crowley to leave. I have heard many make the point that Crowley needed to make it clear that he was in charge. HE DID NOT. Crowley’s job isn’t to prove some subjective standard that he is the boss of the neighborhood. His job is, and I quote, “To serve and protect.” He is there to make certain crimes aren’t committed. No crime was being committed. Job done. Go home, and leave the citizen alone. This is reprehensible behavior otherwise. To take it beyond harassment, to then arrest Gates for what Crowley then knew was utterly justifiable frustration at having to prove he lives in his own home, is particularly egrigious.

So those defending Crowley by pointing out he isn’t a bigot are missing the point entirely. It doesn’t matter if he is a bigot, or good at his job generally. In this instance, he abused his power. He behaved stupidly. This would be true regardless of Gates’s race.

And when President Obama is critical of a police officer for abusing his power, I applaud him for it. The police unions who tried to take his comment about a police officer behaving stupidly in one instance and expand it out to a more general statement are way out of line. In fact, if police unions wanted to win public relations wars, they’d criticize officers who do such things as the rare exception- as I believe they are.

But there is a segment of our population that can’t seem to distinguish between criticism of an individual action by an individual member of a select group and overall general criticism of the group itself. The difference, in other words, between actively opposing Sgt. Crowley’s actions in this particular circumstance and making the ignorant statement, “Cops are stupid.”

Well, cops make mistakes, and we are remiss if we don’t point it out when it happens. Teachers are dedicated public servants, but they aren’t always right. Even those serving in the military are not above reproach. When a teacher does something reprehensible to a student, or a member of the military acts with reckless abandon, we can neither avoid criticizing that individual act, nor can we apply it as a whole to the group.

This may be too much gray area thinking for some, so I’ll leave it with a black-and-white point that has nothing to do with race: if the police abuse their power, I want my president speaking out against it, politics be damned.

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