Reflections on the Gates’ Arrest

Posted: August 5, 2009 in multi-ethnicity
Tags: , , , ,

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.

  1. Kevin says:

    Hey PSC. One of the most balanced commentaries I’ve read on the debacle. Thanks.

  2. T. C. says:

    I could not agree more with your analysis Dr. Rah. Thank you for weighing in!

  3. LT says:

    Why is Professor Gates excused from his part in “keeping the peace?” Yes, had Officer Crowley simply walked away and not looked back, the situation would have never become the media spectacle that it did. But backtrack a little when the officer first asks for ID – what if Gates had just reached into his backpocket, pulled out his wallet, and flipped to his driver’s license, sans the rest of his theatrics? End of story. This ordeal wouldn’t have saw one second of CNN airtime, and we wouldn’t even know this Officer Crowley (unless of course, you knew he was the man who tried to revive Reggie Lewis, a black professional athlete, after he collapsed during a practice – another interesting side-story to this whole mess).

    Instead, Prof. Gates initially refuses to produce identification and proceeds to go on his tirade, which you seem to try to downplay, why? Because he was grouchy from his long trip. And he was a little sicky-poo. Furthermore, you seem to imply that because he is an officer of the law, swallowing verbal abuse is part of his job description. Let’s say for a moment that it’s true – cops do have a responsibility of taking the higher road in these situations. What is remarkable to me is that no where do you reprimand Prof. Gates, the educated scholar and writer, for acting stupidly. But you do slap the harsh, harsh label of “less than courteous” on him, while you still conclude that the officer was the one who acted stupidly.

    In the end, I think it’s clear that both sides acted made mistakes. I would go out on a limb and say they both probably owe an apology to each other. However, you seem to have did your best to subtly play possible-racial-profiling-victim advocate:
    -Some of his alleged comments seems “uncharacteristic” — do you even know Prof. Gates personally?
    -Having several cops at the scene was out of line because the subject was small in stature — Seriously? Forget that it was a possible crime scene. Forget that it is probably standard procedure to call for back-up whenever possible for the sake of the officer’s safety. Forget that little guys can carry and use weapons too (no, I’m not saying this because he’s black).
    -If the subject was white, this prooobably wouldn’t have happened — the admittedly speculative, cliche assertion when all else has failed to pin the racist.

    This post was very much written through the eyes of a sociologist, who I would think would understand that racial issues are not limited to our nation alone. Why are “we” a nation of cowards on this issue? Are people so much more open and cordial on discussing this issue in other countries? Maybe they should run future beer summits.

  4. John M. says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think that replaying the ins and outs of what occurred during the arrest is a morass of unknowables. Crowley’s actions are based wholly on his judgment of the situation as it unfolded. I think the question is really about whether or not his actions were wise, and not whether they were justifiable. Just because you can arrest a person doesn’t mean it’s the wise thing to do. It seems to me that arresting someone can be a disproportionately strong response to that individual saying something that hurt your feelings.

    I think your point about the way the nation, and especially the story hungry national media, responded is the real story. Talking about race brings a lot of emotions into the conversation and draws high ratings for networks. Like you said, every one already has an opinion and mostly they just line up and take their sides. Plus, I think there is incentive to have inflammatory commentators on news shows, and not necessarily people who can help make progress in the race-relations dialog by speaking with nuance and caution. It’s all very sad.

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