Thursday, July 23, 2009

Walk a Mile in His Shoes

Skip Gates, a.k.a. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a distinguished professor and historian who happens to be African-American. When I first read about his arrest on his own front porch I was outraged as most everyone else was. How could this happen to a respected, famous man even when he showed TWO forms of identification to the police?! But then I started considering the police officer's position. An adrenaline-surge is one effect experienced by a cop when he receives a radio call about a crime in progress. Doesn't matter whether it's day or night -- something bad is going down and he/she needs to gear-up for whatever they are about to face. Whether the suspected perp is male or female, or of a race different from the cop's isn't the first thing they think about. Their first reaction is that someone is doing something illegal or dangerous and the cop must stop it. Now being confronted by several uniformed police officers in one's own home when one has done nothing wrong is disconcerting to say the least. It happened to me a couple of years ago when I was falsely accused of vandalism. Police are not stupid, so it wasn't hard to convince them they were barking up the wrong tree. The fact that Dr. Gates is a middle-aged black man plays a huge role in this incident. He grew up choking on the bile of segregation and had to fight mightily to move beyond that. His ability to carve out a spot at the highest levels of academia deserves to be admired and respected, as I'm sure it usually is. In the end we have two men, both adrenaline-driven, trying to justify their positions to each other -- neither one of them hearing the other. They both feel indignant and insulted so it becomes a stand-off. The wiser choices for both men would have been for Dr. Gates to show the police his identification, recognizing that the cop was responding to what he was told was a break-in. At that point the cop could have apologized for upsetting Dr. Gates and wished him a good evening -- the end. Not that simple, however. I wasn't there, but I do believe the situation exploded due to fatigue, confusion and the influence of personal history. Neither is to blame -- both are.


Mark said...

At first I thought you were defending the cop, only, but I agree if we walked in either mans shoes for just a half mile, we could see how each one felt and how each thought they were right.
A strange situation for sure, but understandable viewing it from each side.
Great post

dcpeg said...

Thanks, Mark. There are always two sides to a story. I do think both over-reacted, however Dr. Gate's outrage is a little easier to understand. He was in his own home. They are both responsible for their own actions.

nutmeg96 said...

I agree -- either man could have ended this incident by just stepping back and pausing.

I don't think the cops were out of line asking for ID -- I mean, Gates *did* break in to his own house and it's only natural that the cops would want to ensure he lived there and wasn't just a brazen criminal with some acting skills. And Gates seems to have spazzed the heck out from the get-go. But there was no reason to arrest the guy. I think it was a power trip on the cop's part. He could have just walked away and said, "ok, next time someone reports a burglary at your house, we promise we won't come." :P

I do also wonder why people don't seem to know their neighbors in that 'hood, though.

It's just a shame it had to come to this.

serenasensei said...

Prof. Gates was as much as fault as the police officer for this whole fiasco. The officer just came to do his job and Prof. Gates lost all sense of cool and couldn't behave himself in the presence of a police officer. "Cooler heads" should have prevailed on both sides, but I think the officer was well within his rights to do what he did. He was accompanied by other minority officers who obviously did not protest to Sgt. Crawley's actions. I would think that a man of Prof. Gates stature would appreciate someone looking into what seemed to be a break-in in his neighborhood. Instead he went out of control. The arrest wasn't for breaking and entering; it was for his belligerent behavior. Your post was fair to both sides. Thank you for posting.

Alex said...

I agree that both men should have controlled themselves better, but there was no excuse for arresting Gates. The Cambridge police department admitted as much in dropping the charge.

"Acting belligerently" in one's own home is not a crime -- perhaps in North Korea but not in the US. If he posed a threat, then yes, but nobody has claimed that, and cops are not allowed to arrest people just because of a lost temper or bruised ego. Crowley should've been the bigger man in the situation, as his badge obligates him to do, and walked away once he recognized that no crime had occurred.

Unfortunately this type of abuse of power happens all the time, and not just in white-black situations. Also unfortunately, if Gates had been not been a prominent figure the charge probably would've stuck. I think that's what bugs me most about this.

dcpeg said...

Alex: You make good points. Both of them were a little too big for their britches and overdid it. Watching (from a distance) the "beer summit" at the WH, it looked as if both were just barely tolerating each other's company. Lots of "attitude" in that little get-together.

Both men let their guts rather than their brains decide how to proceed during the actual event. The cop, as you correctly stated, should have backed-off Gate's porch and ended it without losing his cool.

Like many ivy league proffs, Gates has an imperiousness about him that probably bugs more people than just Crowley. Nevertheless, there was no crime so Crowley should have restrained himself and left.

Thanks you all for your comments. This is a discussion that needs to continue so that, perhaps, we can put an end to racial profiling once and for all. [I can dream, can't I?]