I wanted to comment on the story of Professor Gates even before President Obama stepped in, but after the President’s recent comments I simply could not hold back any longer.
July 16th, 2009: Professor Gates Arrested
Police Sgt James Crowley is an Cambridge, MA police officer who was handpicked 5 years ago to teach the department’s diversity training class. He has taught the class – called “Racial Profiling” – ever since. He is white.
These two men met when Mr. Gates returned to his home after a trip to Africa. He found that the door to his Cambridge house had become stuck. Calling on his chauffeur for assistance, he proceeded to force entry.
A concerned neighbor did not realize this was Mr. Gates breaking into his own home and called the police. Crowley and his partner were the officers who responded. By the time they arrived Gates was already inside the house.
According to Gates’s lawyer – fellow Harvard professor Charles Ogletree – Crowley asked Gates to step outside the home without allowing Gates to explain what was going on. Gates tried to explain that he lived in the house, but Crowly insisted he step outside. When Gates asked Crowley who he was, the officer responded by asking for Gates’s ID and subsequently arrested him for disorderly conduct even though the ID proved he lived in the house – a clear case of racism. (NPR)
Of course Sgt. Crowley’s account is considerably different. According to him Gates was verbally abusive, insulted his mother, called him a racist, and refused to cooperate with his simple requests. If only there had been a third witness!
As it turns out, there were several additional witnesses. When Gates followed Crowley outside there were at least two other officers there already – Figueroa and Lashley (who is black). Both Figueroa’s official report (linked from NPR) and Lashley’s statements (Courant.com) back Crowley up completely.
According to all three of them the reason that Crowley asked Gates to step outside was that he was yelling at Crowley so loudly it was hard for Crowley to communicate with dispatch on his radio. In addition to calling Crowley racist, he also shouted things like “You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” and “You haven’t heard the last of me!” and even brought up Crowley’s “mama”. (Bloomberg)
Gates claims this is an example of racial profiling. Clearly it is not. If you see someone attempting to break down the door of your neighbor’s house you are probably going to assume it’s a break-in. Especially if your neighbor has been away for an extended period of time. How is race a factor? If you are a police officer responding to a reported break-in and you find a man inside the home with the door obviously damaged you are going to ask for identification. How is race a factor? If the man yells at you so loudly that you need to go outside to talk on your radio you are going to ask him to come outside with you. How is race a factor?
Race has been a factor in only one way in this story. By playing the race card and relying on his fame Gates got the charges against him dropped without a fight. If a middle-class white man had behaved the way Gates had behaved he would be headed for trial.
I am tired of the complaints about how black men are treated by police in relation to this case. This may be a real problem, but that is not what is going on here. Someone should explain to Professor Gates that even white men are taught that its your responsibility to be respectful of police officers and to obey immediately all of their lawful requests. Nothing Crowley requested was unusual, unlawful, or in any way racially motivated.
July 22nd, 2009: President Obama Weighs In
According to a HuffPo piece, Obama and Gates know each other. Maybe that explains why President Obama apparently forgot he was president when responding to a question about the Gates incident at a press conference. He stated that the Cambridge Police had “acted stupidly”. Not only is this an ignorant and unpresidential statement, but it was also politically stupid. Police are like nurses, teachers, and firefighters: when you go after them politically they have the means to put up a serious fight. Even against a president.
And the Cambridge Police Department – from the top down – has decided not to roll over and play dead for President Obama. Instead of hanging Crowley out to dry, they are backing him 100%.
Dennis O’Connor is the president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association. He responded to Obama’s comments by calling them “misdirected” and further stated that Cambridge police “deeply resent the implication” that Gate’s arrest was based on his race. He went on to call for an apology from the President. (Courant.com)
Alan McDonald is a police union attorney. He called the president “dead wrong” and stated that “Had professor Gates simply cooperated… [Crowley] could have cleared the matter” (NPR)
The two quotes above are just a sampling of the pushback that Obama received. As the news story continued to gain momentum he realized that he needed to do something, but for a man of Obama’s ego apology is never an option. And so he called Crowley and then called him “an outstanding police officer and a good man”. (Chicago Tribune) So far so good. But then he went on:
And because this has been ratcheting up — and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up… I want to make clear that, in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically — and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley.
In what Orwellian universe does it make sense to try and argue that saying an entire organization “acted stupidly” isn’t maligning them? That’s what it means to malign: “speak unfavorably about”. (Princeton.edu)
Then Obama called the entire incident a “teachable moment” in his trademark patronizing tone. The one who has a lesson to learn here more than anyone else is President Obama. And the lesson is this: you’re not everyone’s idea of a divine Messiah. There are still plenty of Americans out there who believe in doing their job, and who will not fall on their swords because you put your foot in your mouth. Even the unions are against Obama on this one!
Next up is Gates. Professor Gates needs to learn that all Americans (not just the black ones) are expected to treat police officers with respect while those officers are doing their duty. Responding to things like break-ins in progress is not as safe as lecturing from within Harvard’s ivory tower. Gates can spew on and on about the injustice as long as he likes, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s not sacrificing anything. This is cheap, shallow outrage. Meanwhile officers like Crowley, Figueroa, and Lashley continue to risk their lives in the line of duty while putting up with childish nonsense like Gates’s. If anyone has a right to be outraged, it is them.
And finally comes Crowley who, I hope, has learned the best lesson of all. Sometimes the race card doesn’t work, and sometimes your fellow officers and even superiors will stand tall to protect you from vicious and untruthful allegations. Even against the Messiah himself.
And that’s not such a bad lesson to learn after all.