Young Geoffrey (ed_rex) wrote,
Young Geoffrey

Another elephant in the room

To serve and protect?
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and
The real elephant in the corner

I moved to Toronto from Sudbury, Ontario, when I was 14 and, despite the fact Toronto was a city nearly 20 times the size of Sudbury, it took more than two years before anything happened to make me feel unsafe in the metropolis.

And it wasn't an angry drunk or a gang of teen-age boys that frightened me, but a pair of policemen on the muscle.

I was 16 years old when my friend Vern and I decided to form a band — well, a duet, with Vern on guitar while I banged away at a tambourine and croaked out lyrics as best as my pubescent throat would allow. With a week of practising under our belts we made our début in front of the Eaton Centre and were successful enough that we spent many nights that summer playing Neil Young and Dylan and Beatles songs for spare change.

We were white kids, but we were kids and we both had hair flowing past our shoulders. Being stopped by the police while walking home was a regular, and tiresome, occurrence. Still, we were smart enough to be polite and to answer any and all questions, no matter that we muttered "Pigs!" as soon as they were out of ear-shot. To their faces, they were always "officer".

One night we were stopped three times. The third was in the alley just behind Vern's house and that pair were cops with attitude. I am still convinced they would have happily taken us down to Cherry Beach for a private working-over had we uttered even a single disrespectful syllable. Even without it, Vern and I both sensed that these two wanted us to say something — anything — to give them an excuse.

As I said, we were bright boys and we were very polite, but even so, it felt like a touch-and-go situation until another cruiser pulled up and two officers who had stopped us maybe a half-hour before told our hostile pair, "It's okay, we checked them out earlier." After a tense, six-way moment of indecision, officers Cruisin' and Bruisin' brusquely told us to be on our way.

In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Which, in an admittedly roundabout way, brings me to the recent arrest at his own home of the man the New York Times called America's "... pre-eminent black scholar", Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates (along with his driver),

"...had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed, his lawyer said. Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.

"Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing 'two black males with backpacks on the porch,' with one 'wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.'"

(According to The Associated Press, the woman did not actually say the two men were black; as we shall see, this sort of "inaccuracy" is unhappily typical of police reports and is, I believe, the real "elephant in the room" in this story.)

Arrested for "being rude while being black"?

According to the Times,

By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates—the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research—initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.

"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.

Unless someone has taped that event, only the arresting officers and Gates himself can know what exactly was said. But we do know that Professor Gates was arrested, in his own home, basically for being rude. Being black might have been a contributing factor to the arresting officer, but it was the (I believe mistaken) accusation of racism that got the cop really angry — that, and the simple fact that a "civilian" wasn't being sufficiently respectful of the officers' badges and uniforms.

I do believe that Professor Gates really did — for completely understandable reasons — jump to the conclusion that he was being visited by the law only because he was a black man in a well-to-do white neighbourhood. At the same time, this is a man who has a driver, who is a friend of the President of the United States, and who probably has the fragile pride typical of a "self-made man".

In other words, in this case I believe the police report that says Gates became belligerent. He was being treated like a criminal in his own home and he didn't like it, as none of us would. To the police, that is "belligerent" behaviour.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and U.S. President Barack Obama drink beer and talk in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 30, 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and U.S. President Barack Obama drink beer and talk in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 30, 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

When a "civilian" becomes belligerent, police officers typically become defensive — aggressively defensive. Where a white man might have decided to take things down a notch, Gates, emotionally insecure in his position of privilege and politically determined to defend that position, could not bring himself to do so. Being right was more important to him that getting a good night's sleep.

Since that 20th of July, the charges against Gates have been dropped and U.S. President Barack Obama has famously hosted the "Rose Garden beer chat", an event he hoped would be "teachable moment" about racism.

According to the Globe and Mail article,

There was no acrimony —nor apology— from any of the three: black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., white Cambridge, Mass., police Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested him for disorderly conduct, and Mr. Obama, who declared on national TV that the police had "acted stupidly." But neither Mr. Gates nor Sgt. Crowley backtracked either, agreeing they still had differences.


"We agreed to move forward," Sgt. Crowley said Thursday night when asked if anything was solved in the meeting. "I think what you had today was two gentlemen agreeing to disagree on a particular issue. I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future."

I think the two men agreed to disagree because they weren't talking about the same thing.

Gates probably insisted his arrest was related to his race while Sgt. Crowley who, ironically, teaches a course on racial profiling, almost certainly denied it. What explanation he offered for the incident I of course don't know.

But I bet he didn't say, "You yelled at a police officer! You disrespected us!"

Which I think was the real cause for this particular circus. As members of an "occupying army", police officers tend to see rudeness as equivalent to assault, to view any questioning of their right to (say) demand ID from someone at his own home as something not far off insurrection. In other words, the elephant in the corner is police culture in general.

But of course, even in the doubtful case that Sgt. Crowley recognized that police culture was the real author of the incident, he certainly wouldn't have said so. Easier by far to simply deny that he is a racist and (probably) to suggest that Gates over-reacted than to confront the dark underbelly of police culture itself, its view of itself a separate from the "civilian" population rather than as members of that population devoted to its (own) protection.

Just as the murder of Robert Dzienkanski was followed by police lies and attempted cover-ups (starting with the RCMP's attempt to suppress the video taken of the incident, most of the subsequent debate has focussed on the taser and whether or not it is "safe" and not why it is that when police statements are compared to independent evidence, the police usually turn out to be liars.

In polite society, to mention the possibility that police culture is out of control is to be naive at best, an anarchist at worst; in political culture, taking on police wrong-doings is to risk political suicide — no matter what, the broad swath of the comfortable middle class still naively "supports the police" no matter what the actual behaviour of its members.

And so from Barack Obama's "teachable moment" we learned nothing at all, except that "race" allows all three parties involved to avoid talking about an institutional problem that is separate from (though still related to) race and racism.

Training police officers not to use racial profiling is all well and good; but so long as police officers think of the rest of us as "civilians" rather than fellow-citizens, we are all in danger from them (yes, and those with dark skin are in more danger than those of us who are pale, I'm not trying to deny it).

Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.

Tags: obama, police, politics, racism

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