The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lessons Unlearned

Professor Gates Erred Badly by Injecting Racism into a Case of Dual Bruised Egos

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He is a noted author and PBS television personality. He commands respect from all for his attempts to explore and communicate the black experience in America throughout its history. He earns veneration from many of his fellow African Americans.

Last week, in a single unfortunate incident, he did much to erase all of those previous contributions.

By now, we have all heard the story of Gates run-in with a white police officer investigating an erroneous report that Gates was breaking into his own home. The version of events as described by Gates and the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, vary wildly.

According to Crowley, Gates was agitated and kept yelling at him. He repeatedly accused Crowley of being a “racist officer.” He asked he if were under suspicion because he was “a black man in America.” He also warned Crowley, “You don’t know who you’re messing with” and that police had not heard the last of him or this incident. He initially refused Crowley’s request to produce identification.

In Gates’s version of events, he was suspicious but cooperative and astonished when Crowley appeared to continue his investigation even after Gates had provided identification proving he lived at the property. He said he began asking Crowley repeatedly for his name and badge number but Crowley refused to respond. Only then, according to Gates, did he allege, “You're not responding because I'm a black man, and you're a white officer.”

Crowley agrees that Gates repeatedly demanded his name and badge number and claims that he provided them twice but that Gates paid no attention and just kept yelling at him.

Cambridge police released Gates without bail after booking and subsequently dropped all charges against him in the firestorm that broke out over his arrest. However, Gates seems determined that Crowley and the Cambridge police have not heard the last of him. He says he plans to discuss the incident in his classes as a teaching tool and may explore a possible PBS special on racial profiling.

“This is not about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America,” he told CNN.

Others have been quick to join Gates in his assessment.

“This arrest is indicative of at best police abuse of power or at worst the highest example of racial profiling I have seen,” proclaimed the Reverend Al Sharpton. “I have heard of driving while black and even shopping while black but now even going to your own home while black is a new low in police community affairs.”

This charge ignores two pertinent facts. First, police responded not because of their own observations of Gates on the porch of his home but to a citizen’s complaint. That phone call may well have had some racist-inspired phobia behind it but Crowley and the other officers were still duty-bound to answer it.

Second, Gates’s arrest never had anything to do with suspicion of trespassing. Crowley states in his report, “I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence” even before Gates provided any identification. Instead, Gates was arrested for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place at a uniform police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress.”

For many, Gates’s reputation did more to prove his arrest must have been unwarranted than anything which actually happened that day. “If a mild-mannered, bespectacled Ivy League professor who walks with a cane can be pulled from his own home and arrested on a minor charge, the rest of us don't stand a chance," bemoaned Jimi Izrael in The Root.

Yet unless the police report is a pack of lies, Gates was distinctly less than “mild-mannered” with police. Officer Carlos Figueroa, Crowley’s partner, concurs that Gates refused to comply with Crowley’s initial request to provide identification and angrily accused Crowley of being racist. He also described Gates as shouting, uncooperative, and refusing to listen.

Allen Counter, a longtime Professor of Neuroscience at Harvard insists the Cambridge police have long engaged in racial profiling. As “proof,” he offers his own near arrest five years when police mistook him for a robbery suspect and he could not produce identification. “We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if Professor Gates was white,” Counter maintains.

Gates goes one step further. “I can't believe that an individual policeman on the Cambridge police force would treat any African-American male this way and I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I'm astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States, no matter what their race.”

No citizen would expect questions from a police officer responding to a break-in report because the fact they were standing in a house proves beyond question that it must be their home? Gates keeps setting new bars with his disingenuousness about this matter.

“I'd be glad if somebody called the police if somebody was breaking into my house,” Michael Schaffer, one of Gates’s neighbors, told a local reporter.

If Cambridge Police had dismissed the white neighbor’s phone report as a racist delusion and it turned out she was witnessing an actual break-in, would Gates have subsequently applauded them for not falling into profiling patterns? Or would he have charged them with racism for giving less priority to protecting the home of a black resident?

Crowley has no other known charges of racism or profiling on his record. In fact, his superiors picked Crowley to teach a course at the Lowell Police Academy, demonstrating to recruits how to avoid racial profiling in their duties, which he has done for the past five years with consistent high marks in student evaluations.

Both Crowley and Gates are probably guilty of bias in their recall of the incident. One only has to look at the language used by both sides to see this is less about break-ins or disorderly conduct or racism or profiling than it is dual cases of bruised egos.

Racism charges “deeply hurts the pride of this agency,” admits Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas.

Asked whether he would sue the Cambridge Police, Gates’s lawyer, Charles Ogletree replied, “We’re not focusing on a lawsuit right now. We’re focusing on trying to move forward and clarifying what happened and how to repair the damage to personalities." [my emphasis]

On the one hand, a distinguished black Harvard professor is surprised and embarrassed to find himself under suspicion by police of breaking into his own home. Instead of recognizing him and asking for his autograph, the police officer asks for ID. In his agitation and chagrin, he remembers countless legitimate examples of racism against blacks by police and impulsively injects it into his protests.

On the other hand, a respected white Cambridge police sergeant, responding to a call, is “surprised and confused” by the combative nature of the otherwise distinguished elderly man he find in the house. They exchange words and the man accuses him of racism. Stung by this charge, the officer decides to teach the malcontent a lesson by placing him under arrest.

The saddest thing about this incident is that it happened not between a black man and a white police officer but between two teachers. Both Gates and Crowley should have known better. Gates should never have played the race card in response to a routine and reasonable police inquiry and Crowley should not have arrested a homeowner for no reason other than being understandably if loudly upset.

Still, the greater dishonor must rest with Gates in the end. Crowley was just doing his job if not necessarily as well as he could or often does. Gates conflated an unfortunate incident with an issue that did not appear to be there by any other measure and now plans to develop a TV special out of it. Again, unless the police report is a pack of lies, Gates will only be hurt as more and more details about his arrest become known. In the name of championing racial understanding, charging racism in his arrest will only serve to feed the polarizing prejudices of both blacks and whites.

One of the oldest adages regarding racism is that education is the only cure. Unfortunately, Gates proves one can earn a Ph.D. and still leave lessons unlearned.

1 comment:

Inspector Clouseau said...

We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.