When the feces began to rain down on the Cambridge Police Department, and particularly on the head of Sgt. James Crowley, it was unclear what it all meant. The details in the Boston Globe’s report were fuzzy, making it uncertain whether an officer was simply doing his best to make sure that a house wasn’t being robbed, a man over-reacted, a black man believed himself to be unfairly targeted and lost his cool.
The police report offered a clear version of an officer just trying to protect and serve. Police reports always provide a clear version.
But since the black man was Henry Louis Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, further scrutiny was inevitable. As the picture came into focus, reports firmed up the details of Gates’ encounter with Sgt. Crowley.
There is no question that a call was made by a white woman who observed two black men appearing to force a door to a house open, and the police responded to the call. When they arrived at Gates’ home, he was inside.
According to his lawyer, Professor Gates told the sergeant that he lived there and showed his Massachusetts driver’s license and his Harvard identification card, but Sergeant Crowley still did not seem to believe that Professor Gates lived in the home, a few blocks from Harvard Square. At that point, his lawyer said, Professor Gates grew frustrated and asked for the officer’s name and badge number.
According to the police report, Professor Gates initially refused to show identification.
Had a white man opened the door to Sgt. Crowley’s knock, it was likely that he would have been assumed to be the owner of the small white house on Ware Street. Of course, the report was that it was two black men who were pushing against the door, so the inconsistency may have played some role in Crowley’s assumption.
On the other hand, Henry Louis Gates doesn’t exactly give the appearance of a gangbanger. With his cane in hand, he was a distinguished looking man. Even in his mug shot, courtesy of HuffPo, he appears distinguished, if disgruntled. But more to the point, when a cop knocks on the door to question whether a break in has occurred, the robber doesn’t usually answer. These factors alone should have given Sgt. Crowley some sense that he was not staring a bad guy in the eyes.
There are some things we should not be compelled to do in our own home. Be directed to step outside to speak with a police officer is one of them. Prove to the officer’s satisfaction who we are is another. While answering the door with a shotgun is not a sound approach, the Castle Doctrine does have a role to play here. Henry Gates was within his sanctuary. Sgt. Crowley had very good reason to believe that the homeowner answered his knock. A calm conversation as to why he was there might have ended in Gates thanking the sergeant for his efforts in protecting his home from possible invasion, and the encounter would have ended without incident. Instead, it ended with Gates’ arrest.
Was the tenor of Sgt. Crowley’s approach to Gates the result of racist assumptions, that the distinguished man who answered the door was black rather than white? This can only be answered in a meaningful way if there was a basis for comparison. It could well be the case. Or, it could equally be the case that Sgt. Crowley would have done the same thing no matter what color the skin of the man who came to the door.
The problem is that the American experience with police has achieved a certain degree of racial equality, in that police can be just as wrong in dealing with a white man as a black man. The stories are legend of police officers demanding compliance from people of all colors except blue. Be obsequious and survive. Be defiant and suffer the consequences. Black or white, defiance to the command of a police officer will not be tolerated. It doesn’t matter whether the officer has the authority, or the propriety, to make demands; it only matters that he is a police officer. Compliance is the only acceptable response.
Once Henry Gates showed Sgt. Crowley his drivers license and Harvard identification, an act of compliance that some will believe already exceeded any obligation on the part of a man standing inside his own home, the sergeant had everything he could possibly want to confirm, as if confirmation was necessary, that this distinguished man was within the walls of his castle. The reports emphasize that Gates at first resisted Crowley’s demand for identification, but then complied.
While the implication of the initial refusal is that Gates had his cockles raised to begin with, it’s important to bear in mind that he was being asked to prove to a cop’s satisfaction his right to be inside his own home. Many, including a few hardened officers of the court, might well have refused the officer’s demand, that bone in their head requiring them to be passive and compliant having long been excised. That Gates ultimately complied by providing identification is an act of cooperation above anything required of him as a man in his own castle.
Even if we were to credit Sgt. Crowley with a excess of zeal, but a well-intended purpose of making absolutely certain that no intruder had entered this lovely Ware Street home, he used up all his chits after checking Henry Gates’ identification. That would have been a good moment to apologize for challenging a man within his castle and disturbing his tranquility. An awkward smile, head slightly bent, and Sgt. Crowley might well have been offered some small degree of appreciation for his thoroughness, even if it exceeded what a thoughtful officer might have done.
Instead, Sgt. Crowley remained firm in his resolve that Henry Gates, the man unquestionably within his own home, acknowledge the sergeant’s supremacy of authority. Gates, for his part, demanded the same of the sergeant. Gates believed the officer’s conduct to be the product of racist excess, and he said so in no uncertain terms. Some will find Gates to have rushed to an unwarranted conclusion, a hyper-racial sensitivity perhaps. Those who do are likely white, and never lived the life of Henry Louis Gates. Even if Gates was mistaken in his accusation that Sgt. Crowley was racially motivated, Gates is as entitled to believe in his view of events as anyone else. We find it far easy to be critical of the conclusions of others, whose life experiences differ from our own, though we are absolutely certain of our own conclusions. Ours are always justified. Theirs may not be.
It doesn’t matter whether we interpret events the same as Henry Louis Gates. Whether he was right or wrong is not for us to judge. It is his interpretation of events that forms his reality, and it’s not as though it was an absurd leap into the abyss. There is some very good reason to suspect that this would never have happened had this been the home of Alan Dershowitz. Indeed, not even Sgt. Crowley would likely to have a sufficient metacognitive appreciation to explain why, at critical moments, he acted and reacted as he did. Racial assumptions are often too deep below the surface to be facially appreciated.
But there is similarly a possibility, based upon a larger experience by those who follow the conduct of police officers, that this was unrelated to Henry Louis Gates’ race. This encounter could have, and has, happened to whites as well as black, to Hispanics as well as Asians. To old women and young men.
Henry Louis Gates was arrested for engaging in “tumultuous” behavior. Only in Cambridge would the complaint use the word “tumultuous”. But many a man forced from his castle upon the command of a police officer who refused to accept that he was at home would have been outraged. Tumult seems an appropriate way to act. The crime was Gates’ hurling words at Sgt. Crowley at a time when the sergeant commanded him to be obsequious and compliant. Gates would not calm down. There is no law that requires him to be calm because a police officer ordered him to do so. Other than the expectation that we do what an officer tells us to do, no matter what.
It may well be that what happened to Henry Louis Gates reflects, as he is accused of screaming at Sgt. Crowley, “what happens to a black man in America.” Because the black man happens to be the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, perhaps the pre-eminent black scholar, it will open a discussion that we still need to have, black president notwithstanding.
It is also possible, however, that what happened to Henry Louis Gates is the outgrowth of the conflict between law and order, order represented by police who have been empowered, in our p
ost 9/11 age, to believe that their every command is the law, that our blind obedience is mandatory. Other than a few old-timers on the Supreme Court who live in a fantasy world where ordinary people can assert their rights and refuse to comply with the command of a police officer with impunity, this encounter between a distinguished scholar, within his own home, and a police sergeant who believes that his command is sufficient to create the divide between citizen and criminal, may offer the chance to question who commands whom in our society.
Perhaps Henry Louis Gates suffered the experience of a black man in America. Perhaps he suffered the experience of all men in America. The conversation needs to include both possibilities, as neither one is acceptable.
Update: The AP reports that charges against Gates have been dropped.
The city of Cambridge issued a statement saying the arrest “was regrettable and unfortunate” and police and Gates agreed that dropping the charge was a just resolution.Is this the end of the issue? I don’t think it’s going to be quite that easy.
“This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department,” the statement said.