By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama, Gates and racism

President Obama stepped on his health-care message last night when he said more about the Henry Louis Gates arrest than he should have — especially since, as he himself admitted, he didn’t know the facts.

But critics who tut-tut whenever Obama reminds us that he is indeed an African-American who has experienced his share of racism might want to consider the debilitating effects of crap like this and this.

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56 Comments

  1. Bill Baar

    Obama's been silent for many years on Chicago Police brutality. He's been silent on call to the CPD to make public officer compliant statistics. (His Wife's cousin was a high ranking CPD officer.)The Prez has kept out of Chicago PD business for years. I was flummoxxed to see him easily step into this mess. The guy's had plenty of experience and the one time he should have waited, he didn't.Now, can he call Dick Daley and Jody Weis and tell them to lift the embargo on CPD's many complaints?

  2. Michael Pahre

    Obama stuck his foot in his mouth.He should not have commented on anything related to the facts in the case, since so many of them are in dispute between the police report and Gates' statement.Instead, he should have made broad, general statements about race, profiling, etc., without tying himself to any particular reading of the facts.

  3. mike_b1

    I think the media is screwing this story up royally by hyper-editing Obama's actual quote in their ledes.Obama's statement taken in full context — "Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home" — is absolutely true, and is why the city has already issued an apology.DK, you should go back to Walter Pincus' piece in CJR a couple issues ago. There he does a number on this concept of "staying on message."

  4. Treg

    I didn't know Pres. Obama was ever mayor or police chief in Chicago. I do suspect he knows what he's talking about firsthand when it comes to the Cambridge police.And he's right – it was stupid to arrest Gates. Actually, worse than stupid.

  5. Bill Baar

    Obama was a soldier in Emil Jones 8th ward organization in Chicago. Not Mayor, but sort of God's right hand. Chicago Cops don't cross Jones lightly.Remember Chicago is a city where a Congressman quits to run for Cook County Prez and it's considered a huge step up if he gets the job.

  6. Treg

    Still.

  7. Bill Baar

    Treg, point taken, but Chicago has had such horrible experiences with abusive Police, and Obama's silence about it all has been tragic. After Obama became a US Senator he had a powerful opportunity to be a reform driver in Illinois and he failed completely. He just wasn't interested. If the argument was he had no business getting involved in Police Business in his district and state as a State, and then US Senator, than it is all the more remarkable he waded into Cambridge Mass Police business so easily last night.I was very surprized by it. Obama's very familiar with Police issues from his work and family. I can only guess the moment gave him a chance to speak again of himself and I think that's the Prez's real weakness. He loves to do that. Lynn Sweet (and I think deliberately) saw the chance to get him on that tack, and he bit…when he should have been keeping the focus on health care.Savvy guys like Rahm and David A. must have been having fits.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    mike_b1: The Obama quote you cite is right on target. The problem is that he should have stopped there and didn't.

  9. Revival

    This was a big win for the enemies of health care reform. What will do the most good for poor minorities? Having a president fire off a one-liner about a Cambridge pissing contest, or having him stick to message and make universal health care a reality? The fact is: now health reform is not the headline. Two Cambridge idiots are. It's disheartening to see such a lack of discipline. Winning in Washington is all about perseverance and discipline. Stepping into this type of mess is exactly what I feared about Obama when he was elected, that he's simply too green to deliver the change he talked about. With that one liner he squandered countless hours of effort to put the focus on healthcare reform. And if he did it out of frustration over some idiot racists forwarding offensive jokes, then that would make it even worse. Because he handed a victory to those clowns.

  10. Steve

    What Revival said. It's very disappointing.

  11. Bill Baar

    @Revival,Now you know why I was flummoxed. The stimmulus bill was mistake number one. It tied the administration up on something that would do nothing for the immediate problem.This is huge mistake two.There are a bunch of others in between, and plenty more to come.Obama has a heads up on these questions. Especially from an old friend like Lynn Sweet.At first I thought she couldn't resist a big story, but considering this was planned, it's an historic blunder.God help America if he fouls up Foreign Affairs like this…

  12. Al

    the last two posts "stole my thunder"… this unfortunately deflects the discussion away from the health care issue, which was supposed to be the main topic of discussion. Who is Lynn Sweet and does she have an agenda? I know she's a columnist with the Sun-Times but haven't gone back and read her columns.

  13. Bill Baar

    Lynn Sweet is a long time Chicago columnist. http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/If this question had been pre arranged it really raises questions about the judgement of all involved. As a footnote, I first started following Obama when he ran for Congress against Bobby Rush. The only precincts Obama could carry were in the Irish 19th Ward. An area filled with Cops and Firemen and guys who look a lot like Sgt Crowly. He got their votes by avoiding guys like Skip Gates. Obama knows this world very well.All I can think is Obama is trying to shore up support on the left and thought a strong response would help. He certainly knows how this would go over with big city Cops and Firemen (of all ethnicities: his Wife's Cousin is a high ranking Chicago Cop) because Obama was their candidate in the past. This has to have been a calculated move that really backfired.

  14. Bill Baar

    Sweet's reply on the plant question,LYNN SWEET REPLYthe question was not a plant.president obama had no idea what i would askThe first comment on her blog sums it up well,It was unfortunate for Lynn to ask this question when we are trying to address such an important issue – if healthcare reform does not pass she will share a small part of the blame for this distraction.Well, Obama didn't have to bite here either.

  15. mike_b1

    A lack of discipline? He has, in no particular order:- A war in Iraq- A war in Afghanistan- A massive financial meltdown- Missiles coming out of N. Korea- A currency knockdown with China- Drugs pouring in from every direction- Health care reform – A Supreme Court nominationAnd you're worried about him staying on message? Forest for the trees, guys. With all that to cover, it's amazing he can get out of bed in the morning.

  16. O-FISH-L

    Dan, thanks for pointing out that Obama didn't know the facts and shouldn't have spoken, but why the two examples of racism you point out under this heading? Please! I guess now that Gates is dragging Obama down with him, it's time to get away from Gates and Obama's indefensible actions in the Cambridge incident, and bring up fresh new, if ridiculously irrelevant examples of true racism. Did you forget that you told someone yesterday that argument by analogy is the last refuge of a scoundrel? Aren't you doing the same thing by introducing wholly unrelated examples of racism into a story where the racism of the officer is very much in doubt?

  17. Steve

    Mike – all the more reason for him to have given this question a "pass" in the first place.

  18. Treg

    Tbis isn't going to derail health care, or anything else. One spin through the news cycle, then we move on.

  19. O-FISH-L

    BREAKING: Michele McPhee on 96.9 WTKK is reporting that the ceremonial Mayor of Cambridge is fighting hard to prevent the release of the police radio tapes containing Prof. Gates "sounding like a maniac" (so much for the bronchial infection) at the scene while Sgt. Crowley is completely calm. Cue up Johnny Most: "It's all over! It's all over!"DEVELOPING:::

  20. Bill Baar

    @mike_b1,What's bad is the failure of the Press to ask questions about much on your list. Especially Afghanistan where America and our Allies are putting lives of our troops on the line.That's failure on the Press's part.

  21. Robin Edgar

    Hopefully any and all police recordings of pertinent phone calls etc. will not get erased or otherwise "disappeared". Maybe cops should carry digital recording devices and activate them before responding to calls. Not only would this protect them from false accusations about their conduct etc. but it might keep them in line as well. Let's hear those police tapes and all eyewitness testimony about what really happened. Gates is on record as claiming that he did not yell and was even physically incapable of yelling. If recordings exist of him yelling and screaming or otherwise being unreasonable they should be made public AFAIAC.

  22. NewsHound

    The president made a good point. Oppression is a serious threat to our society. The police officer was angry because of the way he was being treated. He should not have been treated that way. Had he been going door-to-door selling life insurance for example, he would have had little choice but to say he was sorry for the interruption and walk away.Instead, due to the policeman's perhaps rightful anger, he abused his authority by applying punitive measures towards the professor.Disorderly conduct must have a victim. Repeatedly asking for the police officer's name so that he can make a complaint against a specific person, and thus being angered because a response is not being presented in a tone and manner that is clear to hear and understand, hardly infringes on the police officer's right to be undisturbed.This situation is close if not crossing the line of violating several Constitutional protections including the Fourteenth Amendment.The president was a teacher of the U. S. Constitution – but regardless, any of our presidents should speak up when it is in the news of anyone's civil rights potentially being violated.Police are deliberately provided with strong powers, but abuse of those powers, even on occasion, is horrible and if overlooked, a horrible threat to the inner core and fiber of this country.

  23. mike_b1

    If anyone actually read what Obama said, I think he nailed the situation exactly right.The rest of you should be ashamed. Shouldn't even call yourself American. Go do something productive and find Whitey Bulger, a white, conservative mass murderer who the police deliberately let slip away.

  24. O-FISH-L

    "Disorderly conduct must have a victim."A police officer never ceases to be a citizen. About 150 officers in this country become the ultimate victims every year. Not to mention passing pedestrians and the named, Harvard employed 911 caller who was still present.The clerk magistrate (judicial branch) found probable cause and the Cambridge Chief today said everything was done by the numbers. If you don't like the fact that a police officer, deputy sheriff or even constable can arrest you for yelling and causing a disturbance from your front porch, contact your state legislators and change the law. Until then, this type of arrest is rock solid.

  25. mike_b1

    So rock solid that the charges were dropped.*GUFFAW!*

  26. Robin Edgar

    Can a "Citizens' Police Officer" conduct a citizen's arrest for yelling and causing a disturbance from your front porch too O-FISH-L? Just asking. . . 🙂

  27. NewsHound

    The case is hardly rock solid. There would be no conviction. Even if by small chance there was a conviction, it would not hold up. It would be ruled unconstitutional.State law requires the police officer to properly identify himself.Disorderly conduct law is aimed at preventing behavior likely to set off wider unrest. Merely asking for the officer's name in a loud voice is hardly disorderly. The scene of spectators was caused because of all the police that had gathered.It must take place in public or on private property where people are likely to gather which is not Professor Gates' front porch.I don't like it when anyone breaks the law to violate someone's civil rights. Civil rights and protection under the Constitution are basic and important rights to be respected rather than violated by over enthusiastic police who vent their anger by using punitive actions towards their victims.

  28. lkcape

    If it was such an appropriate comment, why are Obama and his acolytes walking back his statement?Seems as though Our Esteemed Leader is doing a lot of "walking back" on statements that he has made.Becoming a real problem.

  29. NewsHound

    All I've heard is the clarification to ensure that his comment is not taken out of context – and that is that the incident was stupid. He was not labeling the police as stupid. I take this to mean that a smart police officer did a stupid thing. That is what I hear. And, I agree.

  30. O-FISH-L

    Robin, not sure of the law in Montreal but in MA a citizen can only arrest on a FELONY (never on a misdemeanor) if he knows the suspect has "in fact committed" the crime. That's a very high standard, designed to discourage citizens from running around doing police work. A police officer only needs to have "probable cause" to arrest. All felonies are arrestable by police and certain misdemeanors are. The rest are summonsed.—News Hound: The arresting officer should have no concern about the disposition of the case, that's not his job, that's for the DA and other politicians. Probable cause (more than mere suspicion, but less than the standard for conviction) is what the officer needs for a lawful arrest. Probable cause was found by the magistrate and Gates' arraignment was set for August. What the politicians did after that is not the officers problem. Again, if you don't like it, criticize the legislators and Governor who passed the law.Also, under Commonwealth v. Tobin and Commonwealth v. Mullins, a police officer can go anywhere without a warrant to quell a disturbance of the peace. Otherwise Brighton District Court would be awfully busy around 3 AM Saturday morning as officers sought warrants to enter college parties and make arrests

  31. Amused

    Fish continues to spread his inane and uninformed nonsense that the clerk-magistrate "found probable cause."The clerk will sign just about any application for criminal complaint produced after an arrest. The person arrested has no opportunity to present his side of things before it is issued. More instructive is the fact that the Cambridge P.D. agreed withthe DA to dump the case prior to arraignment — the point in the process where a criminal records entry is made. Cambridge PD brass agreed to dump the case because they knew that Gates would prevail, either after a motion to remand to the clerk-magistrate for a show-cause hearing at which Gates would actually be heard, or at a hearing pursuant to Commonwealth v DeBenedetto at which the accused is given the right to formal hearing on the issuance of a criminal complaint.As for police tapes from the actual arrest, I'd hardly call a recording made from a remote site, during which the cop would know he was being recorded, is dispositive of anything.What do we learn from all this? We learn that right-wing wackos have found a new code phrase to justify racism. To complain of inequality or disparate treatment is now "playing the race card." Much easier to use shorthand, knee-jerk justification than to deal with the issue at hand.

  32. Dan Kennedy

    Crowley comes across in interviews, and from what we know of his background, as a good guy who had a bad day.Yet I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that he decided to give an interview to a radio show whose hosts were both suspended for engaging in racist humor.Did he not know? How many excuses are we supposed to make for him?

  33. NewsHound

    Officer Crowley appears to me to be someone committed strictly to procedure. He seems to make no attempt to intuitively perceive the particular circumstance at hand and apply common sense. This was well within his discretion. He used the strictest application of the law, going over appropriate bounds, to be punitive towards the less-than-polite professor. The professor has a First Amendment right to verbally express his opinion from his front porch to an assembled audience. Not every country has a similar Amendment. We do, and it should be preserved and protected. Removing him from his front porch violated his protection under the 14th Amendment, among other protections.There are sufficient places on the planet that don't have such freedom, and those who choose to live otherwise can also choose to live elsewhere. Officer Crowley did not make a contribution to the civility of his city or our country, the inverse of his fundamental purpose and expense to taxpayers.

  34. mike_b1

    lckape wrote Seems as though Our Esteemed Leader is doing a lot of "walking back" on statements that he has made.Becoming a real problem.Only for those for whom anything a black president says is a problem.

  35. matteomht

    I'd just like to note that if Gates actually did have a bronchial infection that kept him from yelling– there's no way China would let him into, or out of, the country. They have ample experience with SARS and swine flu, and those dudes do not screw around with foreigners who have respiratory infections. You're quarantined. Period.Just something to ponder. I think Gates is a flat-out liar here, who was rambling and incoherent, and the police just assumed he was another MDP (mentally disturbed person) who should be hauled in. I'd have probably done the same, because like Crowley and 99 percent of the rest of us, I wouldn't know Henry Gates from a hole in the wall if I met him on the street. He's just pissed society didn't give him the respect he believes he deserved, and he's playing the race card to get it.

  36. NewsHound

    Instinctively, the president made comments that support a free and open society that chooses to uphold the Constitution. Unfortunately with everything going on in the kitchen, I don't blame him for turning down the heat on this burner.You can't win them all, all the time, and apparently he has to make choices. It's sad though, because he was merely enjoining himself in a healthy discussion to preserve our most precious freedoms – not only freedoms we are suppose to enjoy in this country, but freedoms that he, and his predecessor are trying and have tried to promote around the world, for our good and theirs.The police officer could have, and should have, defused this in two minutes or less by walking away without an arrest. The officer may deserve an A+ for his overall performance through the years, but in this instance it is exactly as the president describes: "stupid."And, that's putting it mildly.

  37. O-FISH-L

    Face it, Sergeant Crowley is the left wing's worst nightmare. My fear before seeing him was that he might sport a tight military haircut (enter "skinhead" label), or be inarticulate ("dumb" label), be overweight ("donut" jokes), or have a record of racial problems ("bigot" label). Instead Crowley is the antithesis of the big, bad, ignorant cop. A real problem for the liberal spin machine and for Gates' false claims. In fact, by most accounts Gates appears to be the ignorant racist in this case. It's poetic justice! —Amused writes: "The clerk will sign just about any application for criminal complaint produced after an arrest."—Key words, "just about any." In other words, the clerk won't sign them all, but he signed the complaint against Gates. A finding of probable cause is an absolute defense to false arrest. Perhaps the clerk magistrate has heard the tapes of Gates "acting like a maniac" that the ceremonial Mayor of Cambridge is fighting to conceal.Dan, you're all about public access to government records, could we have a FOIA or whatever it's called here, so we can hear the tapes?

  38. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: The tapes have to be released, obviously. Add it to the bill of particulars against the City of Cambridge.Here's something I'd like to know. The Cambridge Police Department had to report Gates' arrest and the charges against him on its public log pretty much immediately, regardless of whether it was holding back on the more detailed report.Did anyone from the Cambridge Chronicle ask to see the log on Friday? Maybe not, since it's a weekly. A reasonable question, though.I no longer allow my students to go to Boston Police headquarters to get public records, because the BPD is too professional — they make it easy. Cambridge, on the other hand, has quickly built a reputation for giving my students an excellent workout.

  39. O-FISH-L

    I'm hearing this morning of a growing effort by active and retired Massachusetts police officers to establish the Sergeant James Michael Crowley Award to be bestowed annually on a MA police officer who, against all odds, has held his ground in pursuit of justice, despite immense political and other external pressures. It would be something like the Trooper George Hanna and MDC Officer Robert Dana Awards, presented at the State House on Law Day, although unlike those two, Crowley only gave a piece of his reputation and not his life, in service to us.The Lieutenant who called to ask me to get behind this effort is right. In an era of "just say sorry and get it over with," too often a police officer is forced to apologize when he has done nothing wrong in order to save his career that will then be tarnished by the apology. In the case of Sergeant Crowley, he steadfastly refused to make that devil's deal."Between two evils, choose neither, between two goods, choose both." — Tryon Edwards

  40. lkcape

    Poor, Mr. B_1. His view is always black, incessantly black, exclusively black, eternally black.And that is the same problem that Mr. Gates found himself with on his porch with his mouth flapping and his brain on vacation.Gates is still a characture.

  41. Nial Liszt

    I believe that there is a major error in the police report. For Gates, it lists Occupation: Professor. It should be Occupation: Race.

  42. Treg

    And the vapid one-liners just keep coming.Ok, here's mine: I know we're all shocked to learn the police unions back their guy. (But shouldn't Gates have been tased???)

  43. NewsHound

    The magistrate agreeing there is probable cause isn't worth a hoot in this case. More importantly: was the arrest necessary?By the time the arrest was made the threat that this was a possible crime scene had diminished.When the officer arrived Professor Gates should have realized that the policeman's job is not easy and that his cooperation would be needed to facilitate ensuring that the house was clear of any intruder and that any rightful occupant was safe. This apparently was accomplished, but with difficulty, and perhaps with Officer Crowley being too over bearing from the start.For some reason, the professor felt traumatized as evidenced by Officer Crowley and it was the officer's professional responsibility to attempt to subdue that with courtesy and respect. Instead, he allowed it to accelerate, exactly the inverse of what should have happened. The subsequent arrest caused undue trauma to the professor.Ironically, both Professor Gates and Officer Crowley have been committed to contributing to the improved orderliness of our civilization. Both have made a horribly poor example.

  44. lkcape

    The President is walking backwards again.http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0709/25381.html

  45. O-FISH-L

    Amazingly, Obama failed to put the issue to rest, AGAIN! He'll need to come out a 3rd time.All he needed to say was, "I'm sorry" but he doesn't have the humility to do it.Then to again mischaracterize the situation by saying, "Gates was pulled out of his house." What? After several warnings, Gates was taken off a porch where he was attracting a crowd with his venom. Get it straight, Obama.I didn't vote for Obama, but I feel sorry for the poor advice he is getting.Dan, do you want to rescind your initial comment from earlier in the week, about Cambridge PD having a public relations nightmare on their hands? Like I said then it's Gates who has the problem, and amazingly Obama is now spinning like a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. Awesome to watch!

  46. Tunder

    So, Obama makes a statement that very likely came from a place of real experience as a black man. Then, has the decency to call the police officer and acknowledge that his words might have been a little strong, and praises the policeman as "an outstanding police officer.""Seems as though Our Esteemed Leader is doing a lot of "walking back" on statements that he has made.Becoming a real problem."Maybe for you, O-Fish, Gerry Callahan, et al.

  47. Amused

    Sigh. Sorry, Fish, a clerk signing an application for a criminal complaint based on a police offices statements is not an absolute defense to a suit for false arrest. Not here, not anywhere. Someone arrested has the right to put a clerk's decision to the test through a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause as provided by Commonwealth v. DeBenedettoFrom the jury instructions book comes this instruction: "For the defendant to be found guilty, his (her) actions must have been reasonably likely to affect the public, that is, persons in a place to which the public or a substantial group has access." Moreover, the law "cannot constitutionally be applied to language and expressive conduct, even if it is offensive and abusive, unless it falls outside the scope of First Amendment protections, i.e. it constitutes 'fighting words which by their very utterance tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.'"The officer, in his report, states that in order to arrest Gates, it was necessary that he "stepped up the stairs onto the porch." The officer cannot claim that Gates' porch was a place to which the public has access.The cop acted like a hothead and all the babble about protocols, procedure and teaching courses cannot erase the fact that one of the essential elements of the "crime" with which Gates was charged flat out did not exist. The cop was on the sidewalk, according to his own report, while Gates was on the porch, hardly a place to which the public has substantial right of access. If members of the public were in danger of hearing Gates while walking on the sidewalk, then Gates would have needed to speak words that might "incite an immediate breach of the peace," and the officer makes no such allegation. The streets of Cambridge were not on the verge of riot due to Gates commentary.The arrest was abusive and unjustifiable under the law.

  48. O-FISH-L

    Tunder, I don't think Obama was responding to the O-FISH-L and Gerry Callahan demographic, I'm sure the daily White House polls showed how much he damaged himself with even many liberals.I think that's why you see Gates suddenly holed up at the Vineyard Mansion, telling Byron Barnett of ch. 7, "the story's over, brother." Some attorney, or perhaps Rahm Emanuel, finally told Gates he was digging his own grave as a defendant in Crowley's likely defamation suit (ABC News) and that he was causing permnant damage to the president. Wait until the ceremonial Mayor of Cambridge is forced to release the tapes, they will be highly effective Republican campaign ads in 2012– Gates screaming like a maniac and Obama then blaming the police stupid. I can see the Boston and Cambridge Police endorsing the Republican nominee, now. Even more damaging to the Dems than when we endorsed Bush over Dukakis. Priceless!

  49. Amused

    If the mayor of Cambridge is "ceremonial," how can he have the responsibility to release turret tapes?

  50. meamoeba

    so you see this as total capitulation, o-fish? a sign of weakness that someone, the president of the united states no less, can be honest and forthright by admitting he made an intemperate snap judgment, something you and your brother blues appear to be incapable of admitting? you see that as vulnerability?in my eyes, his stock went up. he was intially responding as a friend of gates, much like you and every other cop are about crowley, and then while still supporting his friend, reached out to the man he believed he offended and offered an apology and came away with a different view of the person. i see that as strength of character and openmindedness, neither of which i'd associate with you at this point. i haven't heard crowley's reaction yet so i'd be interested in that and will withhold further judgment on him, although i still believe he abused his authority and power, albeit without racism as a motive.and my guess is the police unions decided last nov. 5 to endorse obama's unnamed opponent. no big loss there.

  51. NewsHound

    To Amused – your post about how the arrest was abusive and unjustifiable under the law was excellent.And to meamoeba: Your last post about how the president has called Officer Crowley on the telephone is excellent, too. Thanks.

  52. Treg

    Meamoeba – well said.But – it WAS stupid to arrest gates.

  53. mike_b1

    matteomht, having been to China 9 times in the past 8 years, I can say with authority you can most certainly enter the country with any kind of respiratory illness. As for the Crowley apologists, what's clear is that this is one the courts will decide, and I'll bet dollars to donuts Gates wins and whitey loses. Remember — you're the clowns who keep bringing up race. Gates is a 60 year old man who walks with a cane and was in the presence of the limo driver who had just driven him home. Crowley by all accounts denied him his civil rights. With a good lawyer, race won't even matter.

  54. lkcape

    And Gates was stupid to mouth off!And Obama was stupid to inject himself in into the situation! As we survey the battlefield, there are three losers in the exchange: Gates, Obama, and race relations.

  55. lkcape

    One really doesn't help one's cause with the statement "whitey loses."It may leave an impression of one's own ….. well, I'll just let that speak for itself.

  56. mike_b1

    Is there a problem with the term "whitey?"

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