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.