What the Gates story says about race and culture

One thing that has struck me in the endless discussion over Henry Louis Gates’ arrest is the difference in cultural attitudes between those who are defending Gates versus those siding with the Cambridge police.

Specifically, I’m startled by the notion put forth by some that Gates was in the wrong by not showing extreme deference toward the police. If you put race aside for a moment (but only for a moment), I think that, more than anything, accounts for the split. We’re talking about a clash of worldviews that we’re not going to resolve here.

I’ve been sitting on the fence but leaning toward Gates. I now think we know enough that I can come out firmly on Gates’ side. We may never know exactly what happened. But the only important difference between the police report and Gates’ own account is the question of whether Gates pulled a nutty. I don’t care if he did or not.

I’m going link-free; I’ve linked to everything relevant over the past few days, so just click here.

Here are some facts that we know beyond any doubt:

  • A woman who works but does not live in the neighborhood called police to report that two black men appeared to be breaking into a home. Perhaps she would have called even if Gates and his driver had been white. I don’t know what she was thinking. But if their race played a role in her decision to dial “911,” that would hardly be the first time police have been summoned because black people had been seen in a place they weren’t supposed to be.
  • The police responded and questioned Gates, as they should have, given the woman’s call and her report that the two men were trying to force their way in.
  • A short time later, Sgt. James Crowley and his fellow officers knew for a fact that Gates, in fact, lived in the home to which they had responded. Gates — 58 years old and disabled — may or may not have been ranting and raving at them. But surely the officers knew that, through no fault of their own, they had stumbled into a racially explosive situation.
  • Rather than find a way to extricate themselves and let everyone cool off, the police decided to arrest Gates at his own home and charge him with disturbing the peace. Even if you rely solely on the police report, it’s clear that Gates’ offense was mouthing off to the officers, who were on his property and who no longer had any reason to be there.
  • The arrest took place last Thursday. No one knew about it until Monday, when the police report leaked out. (It appears that the Boston Globe broke the story.) Even though the report was a public record that the police were withholding on flimsy grounds (The investigation was continuing? Really?), a police spokesman said as recently as yesterday that the department was trying to ferret out the leaker.
  • As soon as Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone got involved, the charges were dropped and the Cambridge Police Department issued a conciliatory statement. It is telling, I think, that it took an outsider to see the arrest for the fiasco it was.

Am I missing anything? I don’t think so. I also don’t think anyone can dispute the facts as I’ve laid them out. Given that, we come back to our competing mindsets.

Could Gates have handled this differently? Well, sure. He could — as many have suggested — have thanked the officers for keeping such a close eye on his house and sent them on their way with a smile and a handshake. Maybe that would have even been a better response.

And you know what? It’s definitely how I would have responded. But I’m white, and that fact predisposes me to have a very different attitude toward police officers. At a minimum, I would never suspect I was being hassled because I didn’t look like I belonged in my own home or in a particular neighborhood.

Gates responded as someone whose dignity had been assaulted because of his race. And whether that was literally true or not, the officers should have understood immediately that that was a perfectly understandable, reasonable response on Gates’ part.

Either the police didn’t recognize the situation for what it was, or they did and made a macho decision to show Gates who was in charge. Either way, it was a mistake, and one we’ll be hearing about for some time to come.


103 thoughts on “What the Gates story says about race and culture

  1. Aaron Read

    Until Gates identified himself he could have been an armed criminal who might have gunned Sgt. Crowley down to make an escape. Why do you think Crowley asked him to step out on the porch?Because police officers are well-trained that they cannot enter a home without probable cause? Unlike "cultural sensitivity", which I seriously question can EVER be taught, much less to a division of society so ingrained with a superiority complex like police…the rule that you don't ever go into someone's house without a good reason is pretty cut-n-dried. It's a major Constitutional issue.More than one court case has been won by a sharp defense attorney who picked apart a weak "probably cause" claim by overzealous police who enter a house or car on thin justification.But if you manage to get someone OUT of their house under their own volition…they're suddenly fair game for a variety of tactics.However, I don't think Crowley's thought process was as calculating as that. It think it was more just instinct that "you don't go into the house unless you've got a damn good reason". With that in place, it rather strongly appears that Crowley instinctively reacted to Gates' belligerence with an "I'll show you" pissing contest and one tactic that instinctive comes to mind is to goad Gates to come out the house (where he's more vulnerable philosophically) and come closer to Crowley (where he's more vulnerable physically).If I'm not clear, and I apologize for it because I know I'm not being as clear as I could be, then imagine this partial analogy: you never fight an enemy on his home turf if you can avoid it. That instinct is partly what led Crowley to demand Gates come out of his house.———-By the way, does the police report mention how much time passed between when the woman phoned in the report and when the police arrived on-scene? Anecdotally you hear a lot of stories about calling the cops and waiting hours for them to arrive; it's a common compliant in Roxbury and Dorchester, although I have no factual evidence to confirm or deny it. I wonder how the response time of the Cambridge Police compares in this case vs. other "home invasion" calls under similar circumstances. If there's a notable difference, it would probably speak to the officer's frame of mind.And for what it's worth, I still think the bottom line here is that this story would never have happened if Gates were white. A lot of people in oh-so-progressive Cambridge don't like to think that they're racist so they just assume that they're not. So they become racist-by-ignorance and are shocked, yes shocked!, when the ugly truth is revealed.

  2. meamoeba

    aaron, i disagree. i think the exact same thing would have happened if a 58-year-old white harvard professor of irish-american studies with bronchitis who just returned from a trip to china exhibited the same kind of reactions to sgt. crowley. i did not and do not believe this was racial and emerging picture of crowley is evidence of that. but what i think it does show is a cop who did not get the deference he thinks his position deserves and decided to use the power he has to show a lesson to the disrespecting perp, and he did it colorblind. gates' attitude and skin color are both irrelevant. they are both being used to cover up what the real issue here is and what is becoming an increasing problem around the state, cops brandishing the growing chips on their shoulders because of what they perceive as diminishing public support. check out masscops.com and especially go to the thread about this. that is the issue and the sooner that gets discussed and race is dropped, the quicker we can see gates was well within his rights to be loud and obnoxious IN HIS OWN HOME AND ON HIS PROPERTY. i said it before in another post about the fourth amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. . ." that is what crowley violated.

  3. O-FISH-L

    Aaron, Sergeant Crowley's report said he was near Ware Street when he heard the call and he was the first on-scene. I'd say the response was immediate, after all, the named, Harvard employed reporting party was waiting for him.As for probable cause to enter the home, Crowley had plenty. Named, credible witness on-scene who saw someone forcing the door, damage to same door, uncooperative person inside who answers the suspect's description. That's a ground ball. No court would find a problem with Crowley entering, in fact it would have a chilling effect on public safety and law enforcement if the court ruled Crowley should have done anything else.But probable cause isn't the only legal precedent that Crowley had at his disposal. "Exigent circumstances," in which the courts have consistently ruled that an officer needn't take the time to pursue a warrant if a life could be in danger or the destruction of evidence could be happening, allows the officer to break down the door, if necessary. Again, the sergeant had a credible report of two black men breaking in. He only could see one, and that one was uncooperative. If I were his Supervisor and Gates wouldn't answer the door or identify himself, it would be "Start the fire department" to break down the door. We're going in. I've done it many times and no court has or would have a problem with it. **Usually the uncooperative party has a change of heart when he sees the FD with axes and halogen tools running toward the door!

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