Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Skip" Gates vs. healthcare reform

My hometown newspaper (the Boston Globe) had, as today's big headline: "Obama scolds Cambridge police." Below the fold, in smaller type, was an article about healthcare.

Obama was, as usual, very good on healthcare. It is a pleasure listing to a president who has a good sense of priorities and facts, and can explain them so effectively. Unfortunately, he answered one question too many when he was asked to comment on the incident at the home of Henry Louis Gates, professor and director of an African American institute at Harvard.

I assume everyone knows the outline of this case and has heard all the accusations of racism and racial profiling. Like the President, I have absolutely no idea of what actually happened after the police, responding to a call from a neighbor, found Prof. Gates and a cab driver (at least I think it was a cab) trying to force open the front door of the house in which he was living -- a comfortable residence provided by Harvard.

By the usual definition of the term, the police officer was not guilty of racial profiling since he was directed to the scene on the basis of a phoned-in report of a break-in. Certainly police departments are entitled -- in fact required -- to take such reports seriously.

The rest of what took place is murky. Did Professor Gates provide an ID when asked? We don't know for sure at this time. Was Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police polite or abusive and bullying? We don't know for sure. Did Prof. Gates actually do anything that would justify arresting him in his own home? That seems unlikely, since no one seems to have claimed that he broke any particular law, and the original disorderly conduct charges were withdrawn. (Some witnesses say he followed Crowley outside the residence.) Did Prof. Gates treat Sgt Crowley provocatively, call him a racist or otherwise insult him publicly and in front of other officers? Possibly. Although it is shocking (shocking!), professors at rich and famous schools have been known to do such things. Still, I don't see reasonable grounds for arresting him.

Certainly cheering Prof. Gates of Harvard for "speaking truth to power" is a bit over the top. What is the truth, when and how was it said, and who has the power? Does a well-known and wealthy professor have less power than a sergeant in a city police department? Not clear at all.

Today's Boston Globe had a several column profile of Sgt. James Crowley, the officer involved. He seems to be a very respected police officer with no record of racial or other abuse. He appears to have been active in police sensitivity training and to take it seriously.

While it is unclear why Crowley would arrest Gates and handcuff him, it is also unclear why Gates would almost immediately feel the need to call the president of Harvard, or announce that he might make a documentary inspired by this incident. Pretty quick, but I guess when you're a hammer, as the saying goes, the whole world looks like a nail...

What we need is a little cooling off here, and maybe, just maybe, mutual apologies.

It is very unfortunate that President Obama, after speaking with his friend "Skip" Gates, called the action of the Cambridge Police department "stupid." Did Obama also speak with Sgt. Crowley? If he did, I'd be impressed; if not, he should not have commented on the incident. In terms of American class and power structure, Obama has far more in common with Gates than he does with Crowley.

Unfortunately, I'd have to say that it was stupid for Obama to have made a premature and probably biased judgment that had the effect of upstaging his comments on the important issue of healthcare. Even the political masters sometimes blow it, and he did.

One final thought: what no one seems to be talking about is the arrogance or perceived arrogance of many college professors. As my wife points out, the "town-gown" tension is evident everywhere there is a college near or within a non-academic community. The more "elite" the college, the stronger the tensions. (For example, Northeastern University has better relations with surrounding Boston than Harvard does with Cambridge.) While I try my best to avoid racism or sexism, it has been impossible for me to give up collegeprofessorism. I guess I should know: I used to be one, and some of my best friends still are.

In case you are interested, here is a copy of the police report on the incident:
I have been told that the Boston Globe initially posted this, but later removed it from the their website; I don't know it that is true or not, but I wasn't able to find it on their site recently.

Please see the comment just below for clarification of the legal meaning of "disturbing the peace." (Thanks to Sarah for finding this.)

1 comment:

  1. Here is some clarification of the definition of "disorderly conduct" and "tumultuous" behavior, acc. to MA law.