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.