As with all disputed incidents, the place to start is with the facts that are not in dispute. Here are the facts that neither Dr. Gates, nor the neighbor who called the police on him, Lucia Whalen, nor the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley disagree on. Upon returning to Cambridge, Dr. Gates was driven home by car service; the driver was also black. Dr. Gates couldn't get the key to work on his front door, so he and the driver entered by the back door, and forced the front door open from the inside. Whalen, seeing two black men enter the house after failing to open the front door, called 911; while Dr. Gates was on the phone, Sgt. Crowley pulled up and asked him -- not ordered him, asked him -- to step outside. Dr. Gates declined, found out that Crowley considered him to be a burglary suspect, and angrily went to get his ID. Gates says that he gave Crowley both his Harvard ID, which contains a photograph plus his name and title, plus his Massachusetts driver's license; Crowley says that Gates gave him only the Harvard ID first and said, "don't you know who I am?," then had to be asked for his driver's license. Both agree that Gates then got really angry. Both then agree that Dr. Gates asked the sergeant for his name and badge number, as (neither disputes) is his right under Massachusetts law. Dr. Gates says the officer refused and walked away; Sgt. Crowley says that he gave the professor his name and number and Gates wasn't listening. The officer alleges that among the things Dr. Gates yelled was something about "your momma" and that Dr. Gates was behaving threateningly. The officer further alleges that Gates, who had by then followed the officer out onto the porch, was in danger of inciting a riot (the standard for charging someone with disorderly conduct under Massachusetts case law) among the bystanders, who consisted of the officer, his backup, the neighbor who called 911, and one other neighbor who was standing on the other side of the street with a cellphone camera. Because he allegedly believed that the 2 witnesses were about to riot, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.
I'm sorry, but the president got this one right the first time: Sergeant Crowley, however sterling his record to date, handled this one stupidly. President Obama won't go as far as to say that James Crowley is an idiot, but I will: Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley is an idiot, proven so by his own admissions.
Let's give Crowley the benefit of the doubt about part of this, just once, as a thought exercise. Let's suppose, even though he clearly isn't telling the truth about the disorderly conduct charge, and even though nobody has ever heard Dr. Gates say "your momma" in anger to anyone, let's imagine that he might have been telling the truth when he alleges that Gates, at least at first, only handed him his Harvard ID and asked, "Do you know who I am?" This is not a stupid question from a prima donna, this is an entirely legitimate question, because Henry Louis Gates isn't just any random black homeowner. He's a black homeowner who has lived in the neighborhood that Sgt. Crowley patrols for 18 years. But he isn't just any 18-year homeowner, he's an 18-year homeowner who has been a department chief at Cambridge's single most important employer for that whole 18 years. And he isn't just any senior management employee at the towns's single most important employer, he's Henry Louis Gates: MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" fellow, author or co-author of thirteen books and star, writer, and/or producer of eleven documentaries or documentary series for multiple networks, award-winning and heavily advertised on TV. I'm extraordinarily bad at recognizing faces, and I'm pretty sure I would have recognized Henry Louis Gates, ads for his specials have been on my TV almost as often as Billy Mays was.
But even if we give the officer some tiny shred of remaining benefit of the doubt, let's assume that he didn't trust himself to identify Dr. Gates, or even that he watches so little television and reads so little news that he had never heard of him. Once Gates gave him that Harvard ID card, Sergeant Crowley could now see with his own eyes that the man he was questioning was Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He then asked him for proof that he lived at this address? He was continuing to accuse a 59 year old cripple with multiple Ph.D.s of maybe having broken into somebody else's house to burgle it? Do a lot of wealthy elderly crippled Ph.D.s engage in daylight home-invasion burglaries in Cambridge, and I just don't know about it? Is this something the officer had any plausible excuse to be thinking? No? Then he's an idiot.
Damn straight Gates was angry. It didn't even happen to me, and I'm still angry about it. Oh, and trivia that I didn't know: Gates has especial reasons to be angry when this happens to him, it's happened before. The reason he left Duke University to move north, 18 years ago, was that in the deep south he ran into constant, repeated problems with white people who just flatly refused to believe that a black man owned a house as nice as the one he was living in, and he got sick of it. So here it is 18 years later, and a black man is President of the United States, and he's being called a possible burglar, despite his age, appearance, and almost two decades in the community? What is he supposed to think that the cop is thinking?
No, I know what the cop was thinking. He asked for that proof of address before he thought about what he was saying. But he couldn't bring himself to apologize, because to a certain kind of cop, ever apologizing for anything is "showing weakness." Many cops live in mortal terror of "showing weakness," since
So even if he's not a racist, he clearly is a bully and an idiot.
If he goes ahead and follows through on that supposedly-accepted invitation he got from the President of the United States to sit down, over beers, with Dr. Gates and let the President mediate this between them? Something that probably isn't the President's job, but Dr. Gates is a long-time personal friend of his? And Crowley wants any chance of getting to keep his job, let alone his pension in a false arrest and civil rights infringement lawsuit that Dr. Gates is entirely within his rights to file? The first words out of his mouth need to be something on the close order of, "I was wrong. I screwed up. What I did was stupid. I won't do it again. Please forgive me." And if he's not man enough to say that, he's a disgrace to his uniform and his badge and his oath, no matter what his career record says.
* Footnote: I heard it once said that within a year on the job, every cop learns to divide the world into three categories: cops, perpetrators, and potential perpetrators. And that within five years on the job, most cops drop the 3rd category.