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The Gates Conundrum: Racism or Police “Authority”

Whenever I read about an incident such as the one which happened with Henry Louis Gates Jr, in which a police officer arrests someone for, essentially, not paying them enough respect, the old Cartman line “respect my authoritae!” floats through my mind.

After reading the officer’s account and Gates account, I have no idea whether racism was at the core of Gates being arrested. But I will lay long odds that if Gates had done everything Sergeant Crowley had told him to do and done it snappish, well, he wouldn’t have been arrested. My interactions with police in the US have all reinforced to me that even something as simple as a question is interpreted by many policy as a direct assault on their authority, and that they have no tolerance for any such thing. If a policeman in the US asks you to do something, or tells you, you’d best do it, right now, whether he has the right to order you around or not. And if you don’t, be ready to deal with the consequences.

Which is to say, I agree with lawyer Scott Greenfield, when he writes:

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 post 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.

The counter to this is that “cops everywhere are cops”.  Now there’s certainly some truth to that.  But I will say this.  I don’t fear Canadian police the way I do American ones.  My sample size isn’t large, but I’ve found that unless there’s a real crisis or threat (ie. not an unarmed 60 year old man), most of them don’t demand instant obseqious obedience to their every demand and are willing to answer reasonable questions.

In the US my experience has been that unless I want things to get unpleasant, I’d better click my heels, cringe and do as commanded.

So, racism?  I don’t know.  Could well be.  But I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke racism to explain officer Crowley’s behaviour.  He was disrespected by someone who didn’t obey his every command.  To his mind he was even lenient, he gave his orders multiple times.  Gates stepped out of line and needed to be put in his place, not because he was black, but because he was a civilian who wasn’t doing what a police officer told him.

The real dividing line may not be black and white, the real dividing line may be the blue line.  You either wear the blue, or you don’t, and Gates didn’t.

(Addendum: I read the police report when it was released.  When I went looking for it today, it had been taken down both by the Boston Globe and the NY Daily News.  How… interesting.  Fortunately someone saved a copy. I’m so glad the press has an adversarial relationship with authority.)


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  1. 9/11–the bad cop’s best friend.


  2. senecal

    I think you have this right, Ian; hanging the racism rap on this little incident is absurd. To your alternate analysis I’d add the “class” issue — cops get extra uptight when priviledged university types (students or professors) act up.

  3. “…I have no idea whether racism was at the core of Gates being arrested….”

    Uh, lemme help ya out, Ian. The flatfooted swine in the blue uniform and jackboots was way outta line, ‘kay? The cops were wrong on this one. And, rather than admit that, they flexed their police-state muscle to impress a herd of white bigots and remind the uppity ni99er of his place.

    The brother broke into his own home. Skip showed the popo a state-issued ID, verifying that the house was his, no matter what nosey well-meaning neighbors told 911 dispatchers. Skip was more or less arrested for pitching a fit about the cops being called on him for forgetting his keys and jimmying his own front door lock. Once Skip showed the pigs his MA Drivers License, this idiocy should have been over, with the cops conceding no-harm-no-foul. But, that was too close to civil and righteous for this prick.

    Think about it this way, Ian; had Skip been white, would the cops have capriciously lured the man out to his porch just to animositously slap cuffs on him to haul his ass off on this lame disorderly conduct charge? Hell to the No! No matter how badly Skip cut up inside his home where he was constitutionally protected from them, protesting in righteous indignation at some ignorant cop violating his rights to not have his property invaded by some dickish cop in wrong who refused to identify himself to the homeowner whose home he had violated! How would this white jerk have felt had some jerk-off black cop invaded the sanctity of his home and arrested him for little more than being a white homeowner who had forgotten his house keys? Professor Gates proved that he not only lived at that residence, but was a tenured member of the Harvard faculty. Yet, even after Skip shows this jerk proof that this was in fact his home, Officer Dickweed goes on to excaserbate an already sensitive situation, arresting a man for little more than being black at home.

    Let’s not try to pretend that, just because Barack Hussein Obama got elected to the Presidency of the United States of America, the fear, anger, and resentment bread by centuries of xenophobia no longer exists here in this country born from the absurdity white rule by the virtue of divine providence and murderous imperial colonialism. Racist disharmony and hatred have been nationally institutionalized to the point of being practically publicly traded in this social economy where people who look and think like Skip Gates are intentionally not the beneficiaries. Keep in mind that we have yet to heal from people who look and think like this white cop chained up and brought people who look and think like Skip to this country by the boatload as chattel. For all the apologizing for slavery to attempt to assuage generations of animosity and guilt, there is still no peace, because there is still no justice, equality, or real freedom. AmeriKKKa is still a place where people who look and think like Skip are too often dismissed as ungrateful, impudent, belligerent, unworthy, undeserving, and in need of constant reminding of who and where they should be, how they should act, and what they should think to be publicly acceptable. This ethnic bondage nationally speaks of anything but humane civil equity. But, until you’ve lived in a skin of the color of former slaves in this inequitable social enconomy, you don’t know this. And, what’s tragically worse, you’re afraid to confront it in any critical way that will actually challenge or change the paradigm. It’s easy for you to give the police the benefit of the doubt to justify that the cop was not motivated in any way by the professor’s ethnicity. Lemme ask you Ian, do you think the Cambridge cop would have called Harvard to verify the professor’s employment status, had Gates be British, blond, fair skinned, and blue eyed, despite the stink he was putting up about the cop’s failure to identity himself?

    This recalcitrant cop now has the audacity to play the victim of Skip’s academic popularity as a globally known human and civil rights advocate, going on some sports show to protest that he is never going to apologize. Truly rich! He vows to never ever even sit down with the professor to reason this thing out. Though the flatfooted pig cannot refute a single fact stated in Skip’s account of the events of his ubiquitous arrest, Skip was somehow wrong because the pigs are always right! Because, Ian, when one is a petulent little white dick with a badge and a gun, probably once laughed at for pissing himself in gym as a highschool sophomore by folks like Skip with brains and bladder control, this is how one gets his rocks off and 15 gratuitous minutes of fame. I’m just living for the minute CNN reports that, to avoid a king-sized lawsuit, Cambridge police demand this dick either sit down with the professor or RESIGN from the force!!! I hope Skip Gates sues the City of Cambridge from hell to breakfast and back three times, and wins!!! After all, money still talks. Since Skip can’t get justice, he deserves to get a pile of money for this offence of his rights as a citizen, with his black self!!!

  4. Ian Welsh

    Well Rage, as I noted in the post, I think cops have enough of an “obey me or pay the price” complex that they might well have done it to a white man. That said, of course racism could be a complicating factor. And if Gates sues, I hope he takes them.

  5. I agree that there’s no reason to posit racism to explain what happened. It’s just that when there is, or might be, racism involved these incidents get a whole lot more noticeable. Cartman’s line ran through my mind, too.

    BTW, it appears the original police report was redacted to protect the privacy of the “suspect” and some witnesses. Here’s the revised version (PDF).

  6. The notion that a 60 year old crippled man clumping along on his own front porch presents a threat to the officer or to public safety is ridiculous. The primary purpose we charge police officers with is the preservation of public safety. Arresting Gates was clearly not necessary in order to do that. The purpose of the crime “disorderly conduct” was originally to preserve public safety, not to create a police state where you must properly “HEIL!” and salute upon being ordered to do so by a jackboot even if it’s not necessary in order to protect the public.

    I do agree with your general hypothesis, however: Gates’s primary crime was not kissing the officers ass upon demand, and, furthermore, being irate about being confronted in his own home by an officer of the law. Racism certainly must be considered any time that the Boston or Cambridge police are involved, and undoubtedly this officer got a small smidgen of satisfaction from “teaching a ni**er his proper place”, but that was a side matter.

  7. Overall, Ian you have it right on the police in the US. Pretty much they are in authoritarian mode and out of control, excepting with people that obviously outrank them. In the officer’s mind, the black professor didn’t outrank him. However, a white professor of similar rank might have.

    There is another interesting issue here, though. While my experience of police around the US has been that they generally have authoritarian personalities, this is not so much the case in Massachusetts, which is a very liberal state and the police are much more mellow. While, the police officers in many other states really are pretty much out of control authoritarians, that has not been my experience in Massachusetts or in the Boston area. I don’t feel safer with most other police and security officers, but I have never had that feeling while in Massachusetts.

    I would not be surprised to see this kind of behavior in other places, but I was surprised to see it in Boston/Cambridge, especially in dealing with a very senior Harvard faculty person. This case is going to have wide and deep ramifications in Massachusetts security circles behind the scenes, from the governor on down. As the president said, it was stupid behavior that looks very unprofessional, if not racist. I really doubt it would have happened if the man were not black. Would this have happened to Prof. Noam Chomsky, who could very well have exhibited outrage under the circumstances? I think it is doubtful.

    Needless to say, the right wing racist backlash is totally faux concern and stands in contradiction to their libertarian views about a person’s home being their castle. This is just total hypocrisy, that is accountable only on the basis of racism and whipping up white resentment.

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