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As usual, I've waited a nice, long time to see if any additional facts came out after the arrest of (and consequent dismissal of charges against) Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and to see what other people, supposedly wiser than me, had to say about it. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if anybody, anybody in journalism, in the blogosphere, in academia, or in politics is capable of actually thinking, because an amazing amount remains unsaid. And since most people have failed to notice some of the most important details, if they were ever told them at all, and most of the people who have seen all of the details failed to think clearly about what most of them meant, it should hardly count as surprising that virtually everybody is full of crap on this subject ... except, ironically, the one man who's drawn the most grief over the incident, President Barack Obama, who got this one thing mostly right.

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 potential perps* civilians outnumber cops about 450 to 1, so they think the only way they can be safe is if every potential perp civilian lives in fear of all cops at all times, defers to all cops at all times on all issues even when the cop is clearly wrong. So Dr. Gates asked for his name and badge number. That was a threat, and the cop knew it: a threat to file a complaint, and probably file a federal lawsuit alleging infringement of civil rights. It's a threat I never make, anymore; I learned at a tender age that it escalates the tension, puts the cop on notice that he needs to start destroying evidence now, and is entirely pointless since you can get that same information from the dispatcher, even if you have to subpoena it to do so -- but it is a threat that Dr. Gates was both legally and morally in the right to make. Cops don't like being threatened, even when they're in the wrong and the other person has every legal right to threaten them. So he tried to put that complaining potential perp civilian in his place by cuffing him and dragging him down to the station, and then falsified a police statement to cover himself.

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.


( 119 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 26th, 2009 09:15 am (UTC)
Thank you for saying this. I'd drawn a similar conclusion, but you went into a much more details and well-organized analysis.
Jul. 26th, 2009 09:21 am (UTC)
No way you apologist, not this time. Someone has to take a stand here, everyone reading this knows what I mean. Some old black man breaks into a house, hangs his 50 forged honorary degrees all over the damn place, tries to pass off a library card as Ivy league ID when the police show up, and when the house's real owner gets home ALL THE ICECUBE TRAYS ARE EMPTY. I'm sorry if I broke some kind of taboo by bringing this up, but it's about time we as a society stop pussyfooting around it. This is a real problem and even though they are thoroughly discouraged from doing so by liberal activists police have a duty to protect our frozen water. I'm no racist, they have the duty to protect the frozen water of any citizen, but lets be honest about who's emptying these ice cube trays, huh?

For my real thoughts and an embarrassingly awful musical parody one can click here: http://ff00ff.livejournal.com/264274.html
Jul. 26th, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)
This is a refreshing thing to read. It didn't change my opinion of the matter, but it added information that I didn't have before. You might also be interested in Monsieur Ioz's brief commentary.

This incident definitely illustrates two disturbing currents in American thought: the current of racism, and the current of excessive deference to authority-like figures. There might be a third, the current of thinking that the police and other public servants should be held to less scrutiny than private citizens instead of more, which is just as bizarre and wrong-headed as the first two.
Jul. 27th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
What is desu desu desu.....? besides used backwards....
Re: question - l33tminion - Jul. 27th, 2009 02:51 am (UTC) - Expand
more desu - krinndnz - Jul. 27th, 2009 03:53 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 09:46 am (UTC)
The "it's happened before" link doesn't seem to be about his time at Duke. Are your links crossed?
Jul. 26th, 2009 09:50 am (UTC)
Link fixed, sorry; I pasted the URL from the wrong NYT blog entry. And then fixed again, I goofed up the edit. It should be working now.

Edited at 2009-07-26 09:52 am (UTC)
(no subject) - mothwentbad - Jul. 26th, 2009 09:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 10:17 am (UTC)
This was pretty much the impression I'd gotten so far, but I tend to read between the lines...
Jul. 26th, 2009 12:12 pm (UTC)
I was about to post something similar to what krinndnz posted above: there are two, almost unrelated issues here.

The first is the racism of assuming that a black man can't belong in a nice house. And that's the issue that everyone's talking about.

But, in my opinion, that's the SECONDARY problem. The even bigger problem is a police officer getting angry at being wrong, getting angry because that racism was pointed out, and responding by abusing his power to arrest the person who pointed out that he was wrong.

"Do you know who I am?" is a perfectly legitimate question when the answer is "the owner of the house that you're accusing me of burgling."
Jul. 26th, 2009 12:36 pm (UTC)
defers to all cops at all times on all issues even when the cop is clearly wrong.

Didn't we argue for like three days about this back in 2004 or so?
Jul. 26th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Probably, although I don't remember the details off-hand. Where it makes sense to give the cops the benefit of the doubt, I do. When a cop describes something that's really highly implausible, where the more plausible explanation is that the cop is lying, I don't.

And I have a very thoroughly ingrained reflex to be polite to the guy with the gun, if I think there's even the slightest chance he'll use it. Notice above: I figured out that there was no percentage in asking a cop for his own name and badge number during an incident. Right or no right, that's egging the cop to be a jerk. And I'm not a wealthy celebrity; I know the cops have no fear of messing with me.
(no subject) - kimchalister - Jul. 27th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
Frankly, I decided the cop was an idiot when I read his report and saw that he had carefully put the "your momma" statement into the mouth of an almost-60-year-old, cane-wielding, highly-educated professor. Even if the professor did say it, who's going to believe he said it? "Do you know who I am?" is perfectly credible; "your momma" is so far beyond credible that it marked him as a liar. When have you ever heard that phrase from anyone over the age of forty or with more than one college degree?
Jul. 26th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Actually, the phrase "your momma" is a perfectly legitimate thing for a dignified, educated college professor to say? It's all a matter of what was left out.

Prof Gates: "How dare you come into my house and trouble me like this? You're in the wrong and you know it! I've lived here nearly twenty years and this is how I get treated every time! Your momma would be ashamed of you, acting like this to an old man!"

What the cop hears: *buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-your momma-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz*

Or more probably...

What white cop hears: *woofing shit-woofing shit-woofing shit-woofing shit-YOUR MOMMA-(PROGRAM HALT: BEAT DOWN ENGAGED)
(no subject) - kuangning - Jul. 26th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - l33tminion - Jul. 27th, 2009 02:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hick0ry - Aug. 1st, 2009 04:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zodiacal_light - Aug. 1st, 2009 11:22 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
This was my conclusion too. Once identity was established, that cop had no more right to be in that house. No crime was being committed, and anything else he did was to try to falsely create a crime. Unfortunately (for the cop) it's not illegal for someone to be rude to an uninvited guest in their own home, provided they aren't making physical threats.

As soon as Gates handed over his ID - and I can understand wanting both pieces of ID, because the Harvard ID is not as legally identifiable as a driver's license - the officer should have thanked him, apologized for disturbing him, just doing his job following up, you know how it is, and left.
Jul. 27th, 2009 11:40 am (UTC)
Icon love :)
(no subject) - velvetpage - Jul. 27th, 2009 11:42 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anfalicious - Jul. 27th, 2009 11:51 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)
This incident hit all my inner punk's "fuck tha po-lice" triggers so hard that I don't trust my own reactions. Just the same, I agree that this appears to have a lot more to do with police arrogance than with race, as do people's reactions: Either people inherently trust cops, in which case they mostly side with Crowley, or they distrust cops and tend towards the Gates camp. Mind you, African-Americans have generally had enough bad cop experiences to overwhelmingly fall into the second group.
Jul. 27th, 2009 03:40 am (UTC)
There's a small third group - those of us who do generally trust cops, and side with Gates. Because the reason we trust cops is we've known good ones, and we know this ain't it.
(no subject) - bradhicks - Jul. 27th, 2009 11:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - velvetpage - Jul. 27th, 2009 11:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lexica510 - Jul. 29th, 2009 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - theweaselking - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
I see a lot of people putting police-assholishness before racism in this incident; I'm going to hazard a guess that all of those people are white. I'm also going to hazard that none of those people are from the People's Republik of Cambridge, as my city is known around these parts.

I live in the Jefferson Park area, the part of Cambridge where "the shootings happen". It's also the part where there's a noticeable African American population (I'm guessing it hits that 10% number that turns a neighborhood a Black neighborhood). It's also the part of Cambridge with two huge high-rise buildings that are almost entirely Project 8 housing (there are no other high-rise residentials in the entire city). If you don't think all these things are connected in the minds of the locals, despite the uber-liberal intellectual reputation said locals have, you're going to want to run the math again. I can think of only one other part of Cambridge that has a bad rep and that's Central Square, known for the homeless people who are attracted by the social services; it's also the other part of the city with enough African Americans to notice.

So when Gates says that the cops in Cambridge and at Harvard are racist, I'm entirely willing to believe him, even though they're cosmopolitan enough to rider Beemers rather than Harleys.
Jul. 26th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
The only reason I'm giving the cop the benefit of the doubt on that is that, over the last couple of days, both city officials and civilians have come forward and said that, if anything, this particular cop has a reputation for being fairly sensitive to racial issues, enough such people that I'm inclined to take their word for it.

Crowley and his backup said, after the fit hit the shan, that they "followed procedure" so there shouldn't be any complaints. On some level, I'm sure that it is, indeed, standard procedure in a suspected break-in to ask someone you find inside the house to prove they belong at that address by showing a good photo ID with that address on it. But by the time you get promoted to sergeant, you should have enough common sense to know when that part of the procedure can be skipped. It frankly makes more sense, in light of the other things people have said about Sgt. Crowley, that he asked for photo ID with address out of habit, out of reflex, before it sunk in to him what the ID he had in his hand really meant about the guy he was talking to, than to assume that Gates' guess that the cop couldn't imagine a black guy living in this house was correct.

Mind you, I wouldn't give him that benefit of the doubt without other people, including non-cops, speaking up for him on this matter. And I'm prepared to be wrong. Notice that in the second-to-last paragraph, I didn't say that Jim Crowley isn't a racist, I said that if he isn't a racist bully, he's still an idiot bully. Both explanations are possible. Neither is flattering to Sgt. Crowley; if he doesn't learn from this, including learning to apologize and back down once he's screwed up, his career should be over.
(no subject) - benndragon - Jul. 26th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacky_tramp - Jul. 27th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kimchalister - Jul. 27th, 2009 03:00 am (UTC) - Expand
rented house - tangurena - Jul. 27th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: rented house - zodiacal_light - Aug. 1st, 2009 11:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
I was really proud of the president for his original press-conference marks, and then for the way he defended them the next day, "I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement because I think it was a pretty straight forward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home."

It's too bad that he softened them Friday, I was pretty disappointed. I wish he had stuck with "to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate," and stayed there..
Jul. 26th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I liked his reaction better the first time around myself.
I'm disappointed - tangurena - Jul. 27th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I'm disappointed - zodiacal_light - Aug. 1st, 2009 11:33 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
I'm not familiar with Prof. Gates; I don't watch TV, for one thing. So I find it completely credible that the officer would have no idea who he was. I also hadn't previously heard any reference to his being crippled or using a cane, despite hearing many minutes of coverage on NPR, so that's a good extra bit to know.

I'm not familiar with Harvard ID cards; do they show your job description? The university ID cards I've seen do not, they just show that you're an employee. If that's true of Harvard, Jim Crowley could just has well have been confronting a janitor as a distinguished professor. Since your position seems to depend very heavily on the officer realizing Gates was a distinguished professor, I think this is very relevant. Even if the card shows he's a professor, I'll bet money they don't indicate "distinguished" :-).
Jul. 27th, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
The cards used to be pretty specific, but assuming he had a new one (and everyone was supposed to, after March) it wouldn't have anything obviously visible except his name and picture and the fact that he has some kind of connection with Harvard.
(no subject) - dd_b - Jul. 27th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
I think the cops acted badly, (as they often do.)

I also think that Dr. Gates acted like an asshole as well.

There's plenty of blame to go around, and I think Dr. Gates needs an anger management class.
Jul. 26th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC)
An anger management class? Remember, he was coming home from a flight from *China*; how many of us are at our best in that situation? My guess he was tired, jetlagged, and in pain, and to be confronted by a cop who demanded to know what he was doing in his own home was just the last straw.
(no subject) - phillipalden - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hick0ry - Aug. 1st, 2009 04:32 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kathrynt - Aug. 1st, 2009 05:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zodiacal_light - Aug. 1st, 2009 11:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nationelectric - Jul. 26th, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - phillipalden - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nationelectric - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wyld_b_wolfy - Jul. 28th, 2009 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dd_b - Jul. 26th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - phillipalden - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dd_b - Jul. 27th, 2009 09:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - popelizbet - Jul. 27th, 2009 07:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - phillipalden - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - popelizbet - Jul. 27th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 26th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
It matters a great deal if it was an order, or a request. Once the cop gives you an order, the situation changes.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jul. 26th, 2009 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pyrephox - Jul. 27th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dd_b - Jul. 27th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
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