Well, now, this is disturbing. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home by Cambridge police after a neighbor called reporting a break-in. (She had seen Gates and his limo driver trying to open the front door, which was stuck.) The officer on the scene, one Sgt. James Crowley, reportedly refused to identify himself or produce a badge as required by Massachusetts state law, and arrested Gates for disorderly conduct even after he produced proof that he was the homeowner.
For anyone who’s ever harbored suspicions of cops, this is perfect. Prof. Gates is African-American, and he’s one of our country’s most distinguished scholars. If you’ve ever read his books (this one is pretty good), you know that he’s the furthest thing from a wild-eyed militant. He’s got a list of academic credentials longer than your arm and mine put together. He had just returned from a trip to China, where he managed to stay out of trouble with the law in that repressive nation. He’s 58 years old and he walks with a cane. For God’s sake, look at his mugshot photo. He’s wearing a striped polo shirt! How could anyone construe him as a threat?
Of course, Sgt. Crowley arrested him not for being a threat but for disorderly conduct. We only have the word of Gates and the officer for what words were exchanged, and their accounts are at odds. It’s certainly possible that Gates may have been rattled by being questioned in his own house. African-Americans have described the paranoia that can overtake an otherwise rational person of color in the presence of the law. The fact that Gates was unquestionably in the right may only have fed into that. Then again, he had just completed a 20-hour airplane trip from China. I’ve made that trip, and I remember that when I got back, all I wanted to do was sleep. Any of us would have been irritable.
The thing is, the disorderly conduct law in Massachusetts is aimed at speech that’s intended to incite a riot. Since Gates was by himself when he was arrested, they could hardly make that stick. This is probably why Cambridge police dropped the charges against Gates like they were hot coals and issued a really weak apology. If the professor was trying to cite rank and privilege to try to get out of an arrest, as the arresting officer claims, that doesn’t speak well of him. Still, Gates was well within his legal rights to protest his innocence and accuse the officer of racial bias.
This whole incident only makes it harder for cops everywhere to do their job, especially in North Texas where we’ve had our own recent experiences with cops and minorities. Once Gates proved that he was in fact the owner of the house, why did Crowley stick around to be abused by an angry homeowner? And what excuse is there for not producing ID? If the arrest was only made because the cop was embarrassed over having gotten it wrong, then we can file this under The Cover-Up Is Always Worse Than the Original Mistake. And we haven’t even discussed the million-dollar question of whether Gates would have been put in handcuffs if he’d been a white middle-aged Harvard professor. We don’t know the answer to that yet, but more information will be coming to light. Given America’s racial history, you can see why people are jumping to that conclusion. Some people are citing this as the death of the idea of post-racial America, but I never put much stock in that idea to begin with. One thing is certain: If I were James Crowley, I’d be seriously considering early retirement right now. Careers don’t recover from screw-ups of this magnitude.
At such a time, I recall Malcolm Gladwell (another prominent intellectual and African-American) and his experiences with racial profiling, which inspired this New Yorker piece and some passages in his books Blink and The Tipping Point. I also recall Charlton Heston’s line from Orson Welles’ 1958 movie Touch of Evil: “A policeman’s job is hard. It should be hard. The only place a policeman’s job is easy is in a police state.” Over at the American Spectator, Adam Serwer wonders about the 911 caller and why Gates’ own neighbor failed to recognize him.