Racism or the American Experience? (Update)

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.

Some will say that a homeowner, whether it be Henry Gates or you or me, could have easily avoided all the unpleasantness by simply cooperating with Sgt. Crowley, whose only offense was to investigate a possible break in and protect the homeowner, whether it be Gates or you or me.  There is certainly merit to the point, as full acquiescence to the demands of a cop tends to avoid invoking their wrath.

Others, of comparable virtue, will argue that it was Henry Gates’ home, his castle, and no one, not even a cop, has the power to tell a man what to do in his castle.  Indeed, they might suggest that he come out firing, the defense of one’s castle being a primary duty of a homeowner.

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.

“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.
Is this the end of the issue?  I don’t think it’s going to be quite that easy.

19 thoughts on “Racism or the American Experience? (Update)

  1. Doug Cornelius

    Officer Crowley really picked on the wrong guy this time. First of all its the People’s Republic of Cambridge so they think the Bill of Rights is quaint because it is missing a few hundred rights. Second, the picked on one of the most preeminent scholars in the city. Third, the guy gets Charles Ogletree to be his lawyer. I can’t speak to his courtroom skills, but this will not end up in court. (At least not for Gates).

    Crowley better start looking for a new job.

  2. Dan

    Among the many serious problems that this incident highlights, one of them is the abusive use of what I will call secondary charges, or bs charges, in this case, the “tumultuous conduct” charge, i.e., charges that allow the police to turn a non-incident into an incident. While it might be hoped that we could rely on common sense and decency, we need to find some mechanism whereby if a primary charge falls, e.g., Professor Gates’ burglary, an officer cannot simply handcuff someone for looking at them cockeyed.

  3. SHG

    I did a case with Ogletree many years ago.  He wasn’t the most practical of lawyers, provided one wanted to win a case.

  4. Thomas R. Griffith

    What can anyone say that hasn’t been said. Good piece. I’m between awestruck and dumbfounded (not even sure these are true words) but you can bet that the race card (all 52 of them) will be thrown down for the next year or so. I’m not even sure I know what law was broken?

    If I was Professor Gates I’d knock on my neighbors doors within eye shot of my house front & back & meet them & thank them for watching the hood.

    Does Moats & the ambulance fiasco on CNN come to mind? Right now they are talking about ‘Black in America”. It’s on folks.

  5. John R.

    Actually, I blame incidents like this on the courts. It is reasonable to demand compliance with the orders of police officers – right or wrong – so long as there is an assurance that when they are seriously wrong they will pay for it. That’s because the police tend to be on the scene and subject to its immediacy, and they don’t have time or calm deliberation. You can make someone’s job only so hard.

    The break down has occurred with respect to the scrutiny by courts, when there IS time for calm deliberation. In the vast majority of cases there isn’t any. It will be different for Prof. Gates, but that’s only the exception that proves the rule.

    Since no one expects even the most egregious police officer misconduct to be seriously addressed later, a confrontation at the scene is more likely. There may be consequences, but at least it will be taken seriously.

  6. SHG

    A very good point, though you give more latitude to the police than I do.  I don’t see that this was all that difficult for an officer to handle without creating war, but what motive does an officer have for being circumspect or appropriate when he’s protected either way.

  7. Karl Mansoor

    Hi John R.

    I disagree with you about police not having time for calm deliberation as you say, “In the vast majority of cases there isn’t any.”

    It is true that circumstances on the street are far from the security and order of a courtroom where some actions are later judged, but police often have the time and opportunity to set the initial tone for many incidents.

    Some officers – maybe not many but at least some – are masters of the art of being a calming presence. They are like a dose of Valium. Some are just the opposite being able and inclined to perhaps cause even Mother Teresa types to get arrested for “assaulting” an officer.

    If one wants to argue that police involved incidents most often have a need for immediate resolution then I would say look at how hostage situations or suicidal incidents are handled when officers with the desire to attempt a peaceful resolution are on the scene. Police make the time to at least attempt to negotiate and defuse tension.

    Most incidents to which police respond don’t have a person with a gun to someone’s head (unless of course it is the officer’s gun to someone’s head). Many incidents of police abusing their authority or using excessive force happen during traffic stops, or stopping a person on the street, or when police already have someone in custody. Police, initiating the contact, have the time to stop, think, and make choices.

    It is true that some incidents are tense beyond control and quickly evolving but generally, from what I’ve seen, police most often have the opportunity to set the tone and defuse tension. Some just don’t take the opportunity.

    I also think the breakdown in accountability is not just limited to the courts. Blame can be widespread.

  8. John Neff

    As expected the disorderly conduct charge was dropped. Prof. Gates would like Officer Crowley to apologize but that seems unlikely.

    An experienced officer should know that when a suspicious person report is made involving a Black or Brown subject it very likely that the reason they were considered to be suspicious is because of their race/ethnicity. It appears to me that officer Crowley probably had a bad day and I suspect he may be in for some more bad days.

  9. Tony Mann

    There was much I thought about this when I first learned of it, but I thank you covered it very well. I looked at as you did you said it all when you said
    “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.”

  10. NTK

    What is interesting to me is that if he had not been arrested nobody but him and the officer would have known about the incident which in now national news.

    I would think most people would not be confrontational with a police officer even in their own home.

  11. John R.

    I meant to say that in the vast majority of cases there isn’t any scrutiny, not that there isn’t time for deliberation. Maybe that wasn’t clear.

    I also meant to say that police should pay a price when they are “seriously” wrong, not that I can really define that easily. But the point is, I tend to agree that we cannot effectively second guess every little thing that goes on in the more or less urgent circumstances police officers may find themselves in. Which is not the same thing as abdicating and shutting our eyes to Really Bad Things.

    At least, I don’t think it’s the same thing.

    Like, for example, maybe the cop uses the F word, and it’s inappropriate and maybe a bit verbally abusive. How big a deal do we want to make of that?

    But then a cop beats up a guy or tasers him over a jaywalking incident. Now I think we need to scrutinize.

    Now you would think this is just common sense. But the reality in the system is that we don’t need to worry about over-scrutiny in the first scenario, but we frequently encounter under-scrutiny in the second, particularly since the jaywalking incident escalates into “resisting arrest” or some such, at least in the cop’s mind, because maybe the jaywalker displayed an “attitude”. And to the jaywalker and often times witnesses this escalation seems absurd and overbearing, but more often than we’d like to admit the courts just reflexively back the cop all the way, because you know there are a lot of cases and that’s what they almost always do. It’s an ingrained habit.

    And the result is that you get more incidents like that because the system is teaching the cops that their word is the law, and as a practical matter it is final. They can be as arbitrary and overbearing as they feel like being, and the chances of them getting second-guessed are almost nil.

    And that’s the current state of affairs.

  12. Lyle

    SHG, you’ve got it almost exactly right, IMO.

    Here’s my question. If you’re a frog, sitting in a pot of water, and it starts to get warm, how do you decide when to draw the line and hop out? After all, at any point in time it might turn around and start to get cooler again. You can’t predict the future, so, again, how do you decide?

    I thought Obama’s election was a sign that the pot was cooling a bit, but things are shaping up to be mostly more of the same. Maybe the pot isn’t getting hotter anymore, but it’s hard to tell.

  13. SHG

    I’m almost exactly certain there’s a point to your frog in a pot of water analogy, though I haven’t the slightest clue what it is.  I will state, for the record, that I do not put frogs in pots of water, warm or cool.  Hope that helps.

  14. John Neff

    I have witnessed a number of misdemeanor mouth incidents that resulted in an unnecessary arrest. If I could have whispered in their ear I would have said “SHUT UP”.

    OTOH I also wish that the President had kept his mouth shut and that someone will tell Officer Crowley that disrespecting an officer is not a crime.

  15. SHG

    While I completely understand what you’re saying, I really hate the fact that the path of least resistance, to just shut up, is the adviseable course.  Frankly, I would much prefer to live in a country where one didn’t take one’s life in one’s hands by speaking one’s mind to a cop.  I hate the fact that obsequiousness is demanded, and expected.  Why can’t an American citizen who has done nothing wrong scream at a cop?  What makes them sacrosanct?

  16. John Neff

    I am not very happy that I live in a county where Black and Hispanic parents have to teach their children how to avoid being arrested. OTOH I would like to keep them out of jail because bad things can happen to people in jail. I guess that means I am in the damage control mode.

  17. Jdog

    The willingness — eagerness, even — of much of the public to tolerate badged misbehavior, largely. Or worse. One of my local badglickers takes the position, explicitly — and no, I’m not making this up — that no, the police are not corrupt or overbearing, and you’d better not say that they are, or they’ll get you.

  18. Uday Gokhale

    It could be the “melting pot”, I guess. As in melting away phenotypic IDs in the light of liberal thought process. But as I write this comment by sitting in India which is full of linguistically diverse people, I do not know how to read the temperament in USA. What I remember when I was in Canada in 1980’s , an Indian Grad Student working for a french canadian “white” elderly supervisor a damn good organic chemist, I had at times misinterpreted his actions during those days. I was constantly ‘aware’about my being different. It wasn’t required. Today after crossing age 50 , I realise that I was wrong to expect ‘politically correct’ action ALL THE TIME FROM every body and that too the ‘action’ which will pass MY test. In ethnically diverse societies, I think such issues will remain unsolved. Even in today’s India , I experience plenty hatred for ‘lower’cast persons. The liberal process has failed in India whatever false pride people may claim for having God Like person like Mahatma Gandhi who raised the hell against racial atrocities experieced by him. The above discussion in my text has departed from the ‘pot’ issue , I realise. But wanted to express my views on this incidence. Reading my name , all Indian readers can fix me on the ‘cast coordinate’. We have to deal with this reality day in & day out in India. I have found no answers to these issues even after practising liberal/humane behaviour for last 30 years or so. Extra-sensitive nature of minorities and either stupidity or inherrent arrogance of the majority are the issues which have found no sustainable answers.

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