Thursday, July 23, 2009

Prof. Gates


I wasn't going to touch this one at all, but now that the President has deemed it important enough to speak about, I'll throw in my two cents.

Briefly, Prof. Henry Gates is a well-known professor at Harvard, specializing in African-American studies. He was arrested at his home in Cambridge a few days ago when he was attempting to forcefully enter his own home and ended up in a scuffle with police. At least some of the media is reporting that Gates was arrested for breaking into his own home. There are questions being raised about racial profiling. And, of course, the charge of racism is being loudly trumpeted by Gates himself as well as many others. But is this an example of racism?

According to the police reports (which were mysteriously removed from The Boston Globe's website), police were called to Gates' house by a neighbor who witnessed two men trying to break in. As I mentioned, Gates had just returned from an out-of-town trip and found the door to his house was jammed and was forcing his way in with the aid of his driver. The police apparently arrived as he entered the house, and not being aware of his identity, demanded that he show his ID. Again according to the police report, Gates initially refused to show ID, and became increasingly agitated, yelling at the police and saying things like "This is what happens to a black man in America." He did show the police identification, but continued to shout at the officers. When he was asked to step outside on the porch, he continued to yell (now in front of a growing crowd of onlookers), and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

So where's the racism?

The police were called about a break-in in progress, and came upon Gates in his house. Not knowing who he was, they were right to demand his ID. I don't see how this is an example of profiling. How should the police have responded to an apparently increasingly agitated Gates? Everything I have been taught about dealing with the police suggests that this kind of behavior will not endear you to the officer on the scene, and this is often the charge that will be used to cuff you as one way to defuse the situation.

Of course, the Professor's version of the events is somewhat different than the officers--he claims that he was very cooperative, and that the officers refused to give him their names or badge numbers. This does not seem very plausible, given that uniformed officers most often have their names and badges prominently displayed, this being confirmed by the pictures of the officers arresting Gates on his porch; I can clearly see three badges in the picture.

My guess is that the true version of events lies much closer to the officer's version than to that of Gates'.

It is unfortunate that the charge of racism was almost immediately vomited all over the place. I mean, I thought racism was a redneck, fly-over red State kind of thing, and certainly not to be found in the progressive bounds of Cambridge, Massachusetts. People who are familiar with the officer so labeled are in disagreement with this rash assessment. I am not aware that his record indicates any kind of racist problems in the past. But perhaps because he is a cop who is white this is the default assumption.

I'm not sure why Obama decided to wade into all of this, which essentially amounts to a local police incident. His claim that the police "acted stupidly" is premature at best, given that not all of the facts appear to be in. From what I can read, the police acted quite appropriately, and without obvious bias.

I will admit that this whole thing could have been handled differently by all concerned--cops and professors both.

1 comment:

Petronia said...

yeah, yelling at the police seems like a pretty stupid thing to me. i wonder what the neighbor is thinking right now.