Now that the dust has settled and the beers have been consumed, maybe we can have a less-charged discussion about the arrest of Professor Gates. No, we will not get all the facts straight and the tone and emotions during the interaction between the two men will never be completely clarified; but maybe we can take a look at some of the mistakes and insert commentary about the entire process.
(1) The police came to the home of Prof. Gates to investigate a potential break in. It was perfectly legitimate for Office Crowley to do his job and request ID and to question Prof. Gates. He was doing his job in responding to a neighbor’s phone call. (I suppose one could question the motivation of the neighbor’s phone call, but having been a recent victim of theft from our home, I actually wouldn’t mind if my neighbors had phoned in suspicious behavior. It is interesting to note that the individual who phoned in the “break-in” claims that she did NOT mention the race of the duo she thought was breaking in).
My take on this initial investigation is that if I were a Cambridge police officer working the Harvard beat, I would have recognized one of the most prominent Professors on campus whose face is on PBS almost every other day. But Crowley is not me and I can’t fault the man for not recognizing one of the most prominent African-American scholars in the world and quite possibly the most recognizable face among the Harvard faculty (Quick, what does Drew Faust look like? Is Drew male or female? What about Harvey Cox?). Maybe, if it had been Cornel West, this incident would not have occurred. After all, West has been on The Matrix (albeit the worst of the bunch: Part III).
(2) Whether intentional or not, Prof. Gates felt antagonized by the officer. He has just returned from a long trip, he is suffering from bronchitis, he has trouble getting into his own home (as someone who travels a lot, I am pretty miffed if there’s any sort of delay getting back home after a long trip), and then the police show up at his front door step and accuse him of breaking into his own home. I’m sure that Gates’ temper was short and a whole host of thoughts raced through his mind.
I don’t doubt that Gates was less than courteous to the officer. Some of the comments that Gates have been accused of making, however, seem really uncharacteristic. But let’s assume that those comments were made. Even then, they do not justify arrest. If true, they make Gates look bad, but those actions are not a criminal and arrestable (is that a word?) offense.
(3) “The Cambridge police acted stupidly.” Up until the arrest, I personally can’t find fault with the actions of the Cambridge Police. They were responding to a call. Asking for ID and questioning Gates was a legitimate response. However, as soon as Prof. Gates produced identification, the officer needs to bow out gracefully. Even if he’s hurt or feels verbally abused – he is an officer of the law and his main goal is to keep the peace. The best course of action is to walk away, no matter what the individual is saying. At the point that it is established that this is indeed the person’s home, you leave. Gates is about 5’7” and weighs what? — about 135 pounds, and walks with a cane. Why was there a need for seven or so cops to be in front of Gates’ house? If John Malkovich (a Cambridge resident) had reacted as Gates had reacted, would John Malkovich have been arrested? Prof. Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct IN HIS OWN HOME. There’s something not quite right about that.
Up until this point, my take on this situation has not been focused on the race issue. Even without the issue of race, I think the Cambridge police officer acted stupidly. Keep the peace. Walk away from the man’s home. But I see race as a factor in two main ways. This is speculation on my part, but I don’t think Gates would have been arrested in his own home if he were a prominent white professor. Again, if this had been John Malkovich, the officers would have probably walked away – knowing that he wasn’t going to harm anyone and that there would be a huge firestorm of controversy surrounding the arrest. Was race the only factor? No, but it certainly was one of the factors. Secondly, I see race as a factor in the ensuing controversy that enveloped our President. Why was Obama asked about this incident? In the middle of a heated ongoing debate about health care? If a similar incident had occurred to (again) John Malkovich during the Bush Administration, would Bush have been asked this question during a press conference on the war on terror? Some have posited that Obama’s favorability rating was affected by his response. Huh? I am reminded that when the word race, racism comes up – we all head to our respective corners and we become fearful of having a deeper discussion on the issue of race.
Maybe we really are a nation of cowards when it comes to the issue of race. It feels that anytime a discussion of race needs to happen, we become trapped in trying to prove whether racism exists or not. It feels like when racism is raised as an issue, the one who raises the issue of racism is labeled as a racist. Maybe some genuine progress was made at the beer summit (not that we’re going to find out what was actually said). But it still feels like we have such a long way to go.