A Nuanced Look at the Gates Arrest Situation...

My Thoughts On: August 20th, 2009

Some thoughts on the Gates arrest situation that I wanted to lay down. Lots of little facets to it, I hope you give it a close read.

I know I'm a bit behind the times as this story is over a month old, but I thought for a minute I'd record my reaction and thoughts to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s at the hands of Sgt. James Crowley at his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I watched this story as it unfolded and came to a variety of opinions, all very different and very dependent on the details of the situation as they developed. Sooner than scrap all my observations in light of one "prevailing wisdom", in a situation like this it's good to keep track of all the observations. It's part of being open-minded, and makes for a healthy exercise for the brain.

The situation, as it appeared at first

First we really have to just summarize what went down, and this is just a very brief summary because that's all we got at first. In Cambridge a neighborhood citizen called police identifying two men as possibly breaking into a home. The two men were Professor Gates (a prominent Black intellectual) and his cab driver, and it was his own door that was jarred, so he had to bust the door to get in - his home, fair enough. A white police officer swung through to check out the situation, Sgt. James Crowley. When he showed up he found the homeowner, Professor Gates, at the doorway. Many important details omitted until later, we knew mostly that there was some kind of verbal confrontation, and Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. There were accusations immediately that the white officer was "racially profiling" Gates and that was the only cause for the arrest. Gates was quick to come out to depict Sgt. Crowley as a "rogue police officer" and to politicize the arrest. The disorderly conduct charges were quickly dropped. We'll get into more details as it goes because the flow of details is what really made the situation generate so many divergent views.

So I saw the story and prepared myself for what was predictable. I dislike it when people misunderstand racial issues or use an issue improperly to promote racial special interests. I'm an integrationist, I believe we should all partake in a common culture, and this segregation in the news media is apparent - "race" analysts and spokesmen for race-based special interest groups are a part of the status quo of regular news reporting. Their reactions are predictable and, in my opinion, harmful to the fabric of society as it usually just reinforces divergent, biased opinions. As a Native American, a minority but not an important enough one to have any special interest sway (Native Americans are often mistaken for being mulatto, asian, hispanic or white - I'm not saying people should care one way or another, just stating a fact in my experience), so I have a unique perspective on the situation of race in America. As an American who believes in the "melting pot", I was ready to be annoyed by many people, most of whom represent said pot's chunky bits.

The first reaction I had was to be bothered by people equivocating this arrest with every other biased, racially profiled situation. I have some mixed opinions about racial profiling - I don't particularly agree with grouping together people based on their race or background and saying they're more likely to be criminals. However, to say inner city crime doesn't happen within distinct racial circles - or international terrorism for that matter - is completely silly. Completely off the topic of race, I've always felt gang activity - which is almost always racially influenced, most gangs affiliate primarily on race - is bolstered by the criminalization of illegal narcotics. Take away that revenue source, and you'll notice many racial issues will start to level out as fewer people will be influenced by organized race-based gang activity. Again, that's off topic. In short, while racial profiling is certainly practiced for pragmatic social reasons, it can target innocent people and when it does, it's a public nuisance. As society becomes more integrated we'll quickly see concerns like this fade away, albeit it may not seem that way. As we get closer to the ideal more situations will become sensationalized in the news media instead of reported in the context of an improving society (as in a truly bigoted society, situations are covered up, not reported widely). So if things are getting better, it is my firm belief they will always seem worse than they are, and this is an easy out for people who want to embrace the potential drama.

In my mind the act of racial profiling is just as it sounds, when people are targeted in a suspected criminal situation just because of their race or background. While we often limit racial profiling charges to police, I often think citizens contribute to racial profiling situations. My first instinctive reaction, which I allowed for being wrong - all good opinions allow for the possibility of being wrong (which it was) - was to suspect the caller who phoned in the "break in" to be doing so only because they saw black people on the porch. Of course, as stated, my instinctive reaction was not right, but it's a valid thing to suspect, initially. This was probably the first observation I formed about the situation, before even getting into whether I thought Gates or the officer were in the "right". Now, no cop who receives a call over dispatch about a reported suspected break-in can just not go see what's up, so I can't fault the police officer for showing or inquiring with the people on the scene.

However, what I found often from several black commentators on the news networks, was that they felt it was "race profiling" because the officer - on a virtue of being a white man in position of authority - needed to "win" his argument with Prof. Gates, thus the arrest was sort of an authoritarian gesture of "the man" holding a prominent Black man down. The idea that police officers overexert themselves and sometimes cross a line with citizens is valid, we are at no loss for critical examinations of that on a weekly basis. The news media, in my opinion, has even oversaturated itself with such stories, which is a healthy thing but also easy to sensationalize. However, to the reasoning that this is "race profiling" because a white man was in a position of authority over a black man, I submit the following: police officers feel the need to "win" public confrontations for reasons entirely outside of race. Citizens (sometimes) respect the police, but criminals simply don't, and constantly police officers are put in situations where their authority to handle a situation is challenged by unruly citizens who can sometimes make a dangerous situation worse. Part of the reason we have laws like "disorderly conduct", which are not laws that are intended to ever really be put through the courts, is that it gives grounds to arrest someone who is causing or aggravating an incident in progress. It can be valuable to safely resolve a situation, to calm down aggravated parties, or determine the identities of people on the scene where the identity of a person can be the difference between them being a home owner or a burglar.

That said, this logic is no outright defense of the arrest. I believe there are certainly some police officers who use the attitude that they are the "law" a bit too far, and you certainly need thick skin to do a job like that. You have to be willing to be yelled at, to a point, and walk away. I believe this is simply the duty of a civil servant in a somewhat uncivil society. We don't teach civility - the idea that you treat others based on principles of being in a free society - we teach the maxim of privilege and power, people tend to have attitude problems based on their acquisition of both (or lack thereof). Bad attitudes, however, are not a cause to slap on the cuffs, although I can see the temptation for that. But before we got too far into understanding the situation, someone else had a say which made the situation a little less forgettable.

Stupid is as stupid does

The President was gearing up for promoting his health care program and had a lengthy sit down with the media. I caught some of the press conference on tv, but turned away before a reporter questioned him about the Gates arrest. Now as a President who is black, I find it asinine that he needs to have a public opinion about every situation in the news involving people of his race (I doubt a reporter would've asked him about the situation were he any other color). That said, the President certainly did have an opinion. He stated, in short, that while he did not know all the facts he thought the police acted "stupidly" in handling the situation. Immediately there was a backlash, but again I have to take another nuanced stance about it. I appreciate the fact the President offered his opinion with clear stipulations about his knowledge of what happened, and understood immediately why he thought the situation was stupid (it is true that there is something wrong about a scenario where a homeowner is arrested at his home for any reason really), in fact that position is very agreeable. That said, I thought the way the police handled it was not necessarily stupid. More on that later though.

As the press backlash continued - Obama later reaffirmed his opinion rather unapologetically - something rather interesting happened. The President called up Sgt. Crowley and had a talk with him, and the next morning made an abrupt and unexpected appearance at a press conference to address the issue again. After having talked with Crowley about what happened, the President reaffirmed that Crowley was in fact a good man, and went back a bit on his position that the actions of the police were "stupid" (he said those words could have been "better calibrated"), by making the admission that what happened was most likely the result of two parties who overexaggerated at the situation - with the insinuation that there were things that Prof. Gates could have done better as well.

I really had to agree with the view that this was something born out of an overreaction - of all parties (Crowley, Prof. Gates, the media) - and ideally it would've been avoided. There was a bit of debate as to whether or not Obama actually was by saying this issuing a form of apology for the "stupid" comment, but I think the manner in which the President addressed the situation actually is more of a "leaving it at that" way to resolve the situation. I don't think the President thinks the situation is any less stupid now than it was before, but he certainly has more deference of opinion on it now than he did at first, and that he took the time to look better at the situation was mighty big of him. After all, there are stupid things about the situation and having your first reaction be that it was stupid, is not wrong in the least. Being the President he certainly didn't have to have say anything more, we've dealt historically with bigger gaffs than that one and I doubt it would've lasted longer in the media than it did. He also had nothing to gain to concede a point about Professor Gates having perhaps overexaggerated, after all Gates had been known to be a political ally of the President during his campaign for election. It's easy to try to make someone (in this case Sgt. Crowley) the "bad guy" and to resist the temptation of doing something easy, he instead tried to do something hard by involving himself directly and being decidedly fair in the process.

More details provide more insights

That said, around this time the police report and other details about the incident start surfacing, allowing people to get a better look at the situation. My suspicion about the caller having perhaps been racially motivated to make the phone call was wrong, at least in the pretense of her making a call because she saw black people - she had in fact thought the men were hispanic, and had been very clear in the 911 audio of her call that she didn't know whether or not it was the homeowners going in, just that the people had busted in the door to do so and that this concerned her. I would prefer my neighbors to have that sort of diligence, there is nothing wrong in that. The notion of it having been two black men on the scene only came from early reports, which were at best cursory summaries of the situation. The callout over the police radio was the same, making no mention of black men on the scene - the idea of which certainly playing a role in many people's knee-jerk reaction to the situation.

Another thing to temper the knee-jerk reactions was the fact that Sgt. Crowley is by far insensitive to the issues of race profiling - he is active in his law enforcement community to educate people about racial profiling. Likewise, a very diverse group of police officers backed him 100% on his actions on the scene, testifying for his character as being an outstanding example of an officer. Sgt. Crowley, whose reputation was on the table because of this incident, certainly had the professionals in his industry on his side and it was hard to just paint him as a rogue racist officer as Professor Gates' earliest comments insinuated. It's easy to point out officers who neglect their duties or do questionably racist things, but Sgt. Crowley simply was not that type of individual from any report of his personal character or track record as an officer.

On the other hand, a Boston police officer, Justin Barrett, wrote a nasty mass email calling Professor Gates "a banana-eating jungle monkey" is certainly an example to the contrary, and proof that such "bad seeds" exist. Which I might note, is just completely ridiculous, and it's obvious someone would have to have mental issues to make such a comment. Barrett was immediately suspended for his comments. So yes, I certainly will admit bad seeds exist in the police force - Justin Barrett is one good example - you just can't assume though, you have to try to make a fair judgment based on the situation at hand.

It also became apparent that Professor Gates was out of line with the officers on the scene, a black officer who was at the scene backed up Sgt. Crowley's actions in deciding to take Gates in for disorderly conduct. According to police reports, Gates went off the chain and immediately put the race issue on the table, although whether you see it the same way will depend on your idea of what happened. There was little in Gates rebuttal to decline that he had in fact done this, although he did have a few points of contention as to the events that happened. To gather in more detail what happened I submit the following short summary of the encounter, as I can see it from the gathered details:

After the call went out patrolling officer Sgt. Crowley picked up the report of two suspected hispanic males breaking into a home. As it turns out Professor Gates' home had in fact been broken into in recent history - Gates leaves on long trips, in this situation he had just arrived home from China - although I doubt Sgt. Crowley was aware of this at the time. As Crowley approached Gates' door, Sgt. Crowley (not immediately knowing or recognizing Gates) asked if Professor Gates could step outside to talk to him. Gates said no - in a later interview to a Black pride magazine he explained that "I knew he wasn't canvassing for the police benevolent association", and that the way Sgt. Crowley had asked him to step outside made his hairs stand up on the back of his neck like he was in danger. So Gates asked Sgt. Crowley who he was and Sgt. Crowley gave his name and clarified he was answering a call regarding a suspected break-in. As Crowley offered his reply Gates came out of the house (whether Crowley came into the house or Gates came out is a bit disputed between the two accounts, but I'll presume this happened at the doorway somewhere) and insisted that this was only because he was a "black man in America", and implicated the officer of racism. Crowley of course wanted to know for sure if there was anyone else in the house, which is typically the first concern of an officer looking into a suspected break-in situation. At this point Gates said whether anyone was in his house was none of his business and called someone on the phone, stating he was dealing with "racist police officers".

This led to a bit of confusion on Crowley's part, he knew this was probably just an aggravated home owner, but he did not know for sure who he was talking to. So he asked for ID, Gates did not supply his state ID but did supply his Harvard ID, at which point Gates started demanding the officer for his police badge and details, presumably to file a complaint. This escalated as Gates began to insist he "wasn't someone to mess with". After having telling his name twice to Professor Gates, Sgt. Crowley decides to walk off his porch (he stated this was to make an audible radio transmission because he is being yelled at by Gates, who presumably said he would "see your momma outside" - the radio transmissions were recorded and there were multiple points where there was a loud man in the background, presumably Professor Gates). At this point Professor Gates actually follows Sgt. Crowley outside, shouting him down with further accusations of racial bias and that he had not "heard the last" from him. At this juncture Sgt. Crowley warned Professor Gates twice to discontinue the yelling and that his behavior was crossing the line into being disorderly conduct, and Professor Gates ignored this warning, so the cuffs were slapped on.

The account of Professor Gates differs a little near the end, he depicted it like he walked outside into a snare, to a field of officers (Crowley had called for Harvard police to stop by to check up on the situation, as well as a few extra police officers) and that Crowley had no intention other to arrest him for something. But what it boils down to is that Gates felt he was being visited by the assertive Sgt. Crowley and treated in that way only because he wasn't white. He also denied that he had yelled or made comments about Crowley's mother, although I kinda doubt that Sgt. Crowley had cause to make up that comment, it really seems like something an angry Professor Gates easily could've stated in passing probably not think a thing of it.

I'd supplement my opinion here, but I'll let you let the details gestulate around in your noodle and think about sorta the potential gaps here between the scenario in reality and the various summations you can find online from both sides of the coin, while I divert on another brief tangent, then I'll come back to it.

Definitely not a "Beer Summit"

President Obama, during his phone call to Sgt. Crowley, invited him and Gates to show up at the White House for some beers. I certainly stand by a black protester outside the White House I saw on CNN, who thought that it would be more appropriate if they drank juice instead of beer, if not for the fact that it is a bad standard for children then for the fact that beer tastes like ass and I don't understand how anyone can unwind while drinking it. Gates and Crowley got together prior to the "Beer Summit" - as the media was presenting it - and came to reasonable terms. While this is presumably a form of resolution, it certainly contained few concessions. No party really ever conceded any points, nor should they have to. If they did concede anything, it was kept out of the public eye because all we got out of the meeting between Obama, Gates, Crowley and V.P. Joe Biden's little beer bash was a photo op moment and an inaudible conversation.

This however is probably in the best taste. We don't need America fretting over every little insinuation and difference between two people who have a dispute like this. It's between them to settle as it will always be in every case-by-case basis. It is in that way something of a "teachable moment" which the President had earlier suggested he prefer it be taken as. If we did hear everything Professor Gates said or Sgt. Crowley said about the situation during these private meetings we would've been talking for weeks about certain comments or insinuations. Nobody really agrees with any prevailing wisdom on how to really treat racial issues. That's because most of us are still figuring out how to address the many varied situations that arise from social segregation everyday. There is no single correct prevailing wisdom on the matter.

The White House later came out and downplayed the idea of it being a "Beer Summit", because to them it is was merely a week-long distraction from Obama's key platform issue of health care reform. Speaking of which, health care is another blog post or video blog to come, because I would also like to lay down my thoughts on that. Still I agree considerably with the manner in which the President handled the situation, even when he was up there saying the police action was "stupid", to fault him for any of his reactions or the way he dealt with it is nonsense. There were few people in the media who handled it any better or did anything to put a worthwhile perspective on the situation, and the President at least tried to do this.

That said, I was insulted by one thing in the discourse. There were a number of people, Gates included, who wanted to use this incident as a sounding board for bringing "awareness" to the problem of racial profiling. I don't particularly mind people having concerns about racial profiling, but to use this as a platform for aggravating concerns about it is wrong, because that was part of what made the incident bad. Had Professor Gates not assumed the officer's visit had something directly to do with his race - which it didn't - then there is little chance he would've been arrested for disorderly conduct and we wouldn't have seen it in the news at all. That said, there are things to be concerned about with race and fairness in the criminal justice system, this is just not an example of such a situation. I staunchly disagree that this needs to be turned into an opportunity to "teach" white people about what it means to be black in this country, which is how some people took Obama's "teachable moment" statement. I don't believe by any means that was what he actually meant. That attitude is decidedly arrogant and itself based on racial pride feelings which are part of what perpetuates this problem with race in America. Not every white person in the country should be treated as a racist hillbilly and not every white person with authority needs to walk on eggshells for fear of being called racist. Not saying no such abusive, racist white folk exist, rather that most of them are in the south and smell bad, and I doubt many sired offspring that became upstanding officers patrolling the areas surrounding Harvard university.

The crux of the matter

So rather we come to the center point of this whole conversation, ultimately my opinion on whether or not it was right to arrest Gates in the first place for disorderly conduct. At first, I thought the arrest was an issue of identification at the scene, and if the officer had to arrest Gates because he wouldn't properly offer a real form of ID to present himself, I would've understood that. After all he's responsible for writing a report about who he spoke to at the scene, and needs to identify the people there, that is part of his responsibility when he takes a call on a suspected break-in. However that did not seem to be the case.

What it winds up being is something more along of just whether what Gates did by aggravating the officer despite repeated attempts by the officer to calm down Professor Gates was actually something that qualifies for a disorderly conduct charge. It's not fair to Gates to assume the absolute worst of his behavior, but there is little to contend that he didn't do something out of line. As an officer, if someone is engaging you and they refuse to comply with your requests to calm down, that certainly falls under the disorderly conduct frame of action. It may be your right to talk back to the officer all you want, especially on your property, but there comes a point where your action interferes with his ability to handle the situation in a safe way for everybody. I'm rather torn on the issue. I have little to no sympathy for someone who mouths off to a cop and gets arrested, that said there certainly are times to do just that. Still, cooperation with the officer and setting aside questions about race until later is the best choice of actions. I think a lot of people agree with that, of all sorts of races.

Likewise, while it is understandable that black Americans might ask themselves in the back of their heads when police officers are around if they are getting treated differently, it is not proper in every situation to just assume so and make an ass of yourself as Professor Gates did. If you do just that, you really screw yourself out of a proper understanding of the situation. It breeds unnecessary contempt and loathing not just in other people towards you, but in you towards other people. It's a divisive attitude, and sometimes it is best to approach a situation with the benefit of the doubt. We all have little voices in the back of our heads which tell us we're getting screwed the pooch for being who we are, even the most privileged of us can feel that way sometimes. We have to all sit back and tell those voices to shut up while we deal with the issues in our lives with the one clear voice of reason, unless we want to be assholes or crazies.

That said, I think Sgt. Crowley could've walked off the situation without slapping on cuffs. There was no reason to take him off the scene and take him all the way to the station, booking him, etc. So yes, I would have to side with Professor Gates on the matter of the arrest itself. Ultimately though that was the least of the opinions that one could get from analyzing this situation, and I hope I demonstrated that as we got from the top of this post to here. There are a lot of things to look at with racial issues, and it's not hard to get a little lost, but we have to keep these things in perspective if we want to come to any real, concrete and constructive solutions. Integration doesn't happen any other way.

- Phoebus Apollo