I've been mulling over the Henry Louis Gates imbroglio for the last couple of days and trying to compose a post that does at least minor justice to its racial and class implications, its town-gown subtext, and what it says about our attitudes toward police-civilian relations. I feel like I have some sense of the dynamics involved here -- I grew up in the Boston area, the son of a long-time Massachusetts State cop. Massachusetts is neither the stereotypical liberal utopia of some imaginations (nor the racist distopia advanced by others) -- it's a complicated, deeply rooted, oft-times parochial place laden with a certain chip on the shoulder aggressiveness steeped in issues of class.
I can't, on the other hand, pretend to know at a gut level how someone like Henry Louis Gates would feel upon being challenged in his own home by a police officer. About the best I can do is imagine my own cranky, middle-aged guy reaction to coming home from a long trip, finding I can't open my front door (because it has been damaged in a break-in attempt), finally getting into the goddamned house and then finding myself being confronted by a cop demanding to know why I was in my own house. Even without the racial context (a classic how'd you like the play Mrs. Lincoln caveat), I am pretty sure that I would be really pissed off and ready to explode.
My guess is that Gates may have unloaded on Sgt. Crowley pretty well. It would hardly be shocking. And it sounds like Gates probably resorted to the "don't you know who I am" gambit -- a favorite of cops since time immemorial. (I can attest from my father's experience that every guy in Massachusetts who has a cousin who is a city councilman thinks he is a VIP and thus entitled to speed, double park, or drive drunk.) So not only do we have a confrontation here with all of the immense baggage of a white cop confronting a black man in his home, we also have the class component of a Harvard professor berating a Cambridge cop. Clearly, no good could come of this particular dynamic -- and didn't. [I was amused to see that Crowley was once a security officer at Brandeis, my alma mater -- and a place where I was stopped by security multiple times over the years for looking like a townie.]
I think the onus for the blow up lies with Crowley. Once he had ascertained that Gates was in his own home, Crowley should have gotten the hell out of there. He should have apologized for any inconvenience he had caused Gates and retreated, even in the face of verbal abuse. Gates is a 58 year old man who walks with a cane -- he was not remotely a physical threat to Crowley. Arresting Gates and handcuffing him was an unnecessary escalation of a situation that Crowley could have ended by simply hopping in his patrol car and hitting the road. A police officer's job is to preserve the peace, not wield his authority to arrest and detain someone in order to assuage a wounded sense of pride.
Of course, this was a relatively minor abuse of police authority compared to the shooting of an unarmed man by BART police, the recent pepper spraying of attendees at a Francine Busby fund raiser in San Diego, the tasering of a 72 year old women in Texas, not to mention the seemingly endless series of bad shoots and racial abuses by the NYPD over the last decade, e.g. Sean Bell, Abner Louima, and Amadou Diallo. What I find astonishing is the number of people who seem to take the position that the only appropriate stance when confronted by police is to shut the fuck up. This does not really seem to be an approach befitting a democracy. (Of course some of the right wingers seem to think shooting law enforcement officers in the head is alright, as long as you aren't verbally disrespectful.) The growing tendency of police to escalate in even the most minor confrontations should be a concern to us all.
Having said all this, I winced when Obama weighed in on the case Wednesday night. He should have given the standard "I don't know all of the facts" pablum. Instead, he stepped all over his health care reform message by giving the idiots in the media a tasty racial story to obsess about. It was an uncharacteristically undisciplined moment by the President (one which I think bespeaks his genuine outrage about the case) and it destroyed the entire purpose of having called the press conference in the first place. (And I'm sorry, as someone observed (I think at Eschaton) you deal with the press corps you have not the one you wish you had.) I was glad to see him backing off a bit today -- who knows, if he gets Gates and Crowley to come to the White House, it may turn into a public relations triumph. But for the moment it seems a self-indulgent mistake.