By now, you’ve all heard about the Henry Louis Gates incident: a neighbor reported a possible break-in; cops came; they discovered that it was Gates trying to get in after being locked out; and, when things got heated, the cops arrested Gates. Gates has cried racism; the cops claim a righteous arrest. Since it was a “he said/he said” story, I pretty much ignored it, waiting for more information. On the known facts, it was possible that Gates became obstreperous with those who are on the front line of American crime. Alternatively, it was possible that some white officer, poorly paid, had it with a black man living “above his station.” I didn’t know, and neither did you. Barack Obama, however, was less wise than we are and, in a nationally televised presser, decided to weigh in, strongly criticizing a member of America’s police forces.
The result of Obama’s immature, hasty, impolitic foray is an overwhelming onslaught of newspaper stories and blog links. I think the whole thing is sufficiently interesting — since it combines race, domestic security, Hah-vahd elitism, and Barack Obama — that I’ve got a fairly comprehensive round-up of links on the subject. As always, I’m very interested in any comments and insights you might have.
The arrest itself
The arrest report which tells of a very uncooperative Prof. Gates. He refused to step out onto the porch to identify himself or speak with the police officer (something that would have made the police feel safer); he instantly and repeatedly played the race card (are you investigating this “because I’m a black man in America?”); and then he threatened the offer. All in all, stupid behavior, regardless of your color. (The Boston Globe, incidentally, found the report too damning, and scrubbed it.)
Mary Katharine Ham has a good summary of the arrest itself. As others have noticed, the pattern is this: officers got a report of a crime in progress; they find a man in the house who refused to identify himself, who refused to come to the safety of the porch, and who then hurled insults and threats at them. The officers took the bait and arrested him. Racism? No. Human nature? Yes.
James Taranto’s comment on the whole affair, which he wrote long before Obama weighed in. It’s especially interesting, because Taranto found himself in the same position once, when he was a guest in a friend’s house, but was mistaken for an intruder. We’ll pick up as the police are trying to enter the house to apprehend a potential burglar:
Apparently a neighbor had seen us in the yard, mistaken us for a strange man, and summoned the police. As we recall, there were two cops. They were not friendly. We remember vividly that one of them had his gun drawn, albeit defensively (that is, it was still pointed into the holster).
We were shocked and offended by the intrusion, but we had the presence of mind not to give voice to those feelings. We explained the situation, showed our identification, and demonstrated that the key in our pocket unlocked the front door. Satisfied that we were not a trespasser or burglar, the policemen left. They did not apologize. The experience left us a bit rattled. But on reflection we realized that although perhaps the policemen’s manner could have used some improvement, they were merely doing their job. It wasn’t their fault the information on which they acted was bad.
Having been through a similar experience, we feel qualified to say that Gates handled the situation poorly. Becoming belligerent with a police officer is almost never a good idea. Not only can it get you arrested, but it can cause a merely uncomfortable situation to escalate into a deadly one. If Gates thought the officer behaved improperly, he should have held his peace, defused the situation, and later taken the matter up with local officials. In addition, if Gates did tell the officer he had “no idea who he was messing with,” he showed a distinct lack of grace.
This is not to say that the police are always right, and it seems to us that arresting Gates was an unwise use of the officer’s authority. Having ascertained that the burglary report was false, the cop had no reason to remain on the scene. This appears to have been a misunderstanding between two stubborn men, both of whom would be better off had one of them exercised some maturity and forbearance.
To be sure, we are a person of pallor, so that our encounter with the cops lacked the racial overtones of Gates’s. We did not enjoy being obsequious to men who were not even polite to us, but to do so was not a racial humiliation, as it evidently would have been to Gates.
Whether or not it is true in 2009 that “this is what happens to black men in America,” it must be an awful burden to be a black man in America and believe that it is true. Gates and his supporters might consider whether their actions in this matter help ease or compound this burden for younger black males who are still forming their ideas of what it is to be a black man in America.
Larry Elder (who is black) also had a similar experience, and discovered that a soft answer turneth away wrath:
OK, the cops overreacted. Cops’ training involves dealing with verbally abusive citizens. They could have walked away, written a report and allowed the prosecutor to determine whether to file charges. But Gates overreacted, too.
Last week, about 2 p.m., while driving a nice car, I got stopped by a police officer about a block from my home in Los Angeles. The officer asked for license and registration. “Yes, sir,” I said, handing him my license. Before I could retrieve the registration, he said, “Mr. Elder, do you still live at this address?” I said I did. He said: “OK. I stopped you because you rolled through a stop sign. Two pedestrians saw you, and they gestured to me, as if saying, ‘Are you going to do something about that?’ So I felt I had to stop you. I’m not looking for area residents. I’m looking for people who don’t live here who might be committing crimes. You’re fine.”
I did roll through the stop sign. He could have ticketed me. Rather, he responded to my politeness with politeness. Besides, don’t we want a proactive police department that, within the law, doesn’t just react to crime but also tries to prevent it?
Cops routinely deal with conflict, angry citizens and quite often the worst of the worst — while going to work every day willing to take a bullet for someone they don’t even know.
Even Henry You-Don’t-Know-Who-You’re-Messing-With Gates should understand that.
Cops are human beings, too.
Chris Rock has practical advice about how a black man (indeed, how any man) should act when the cops approach.
Dr. Boyce Watkins, a black man and the son of a police officer:
I might be kicked out of “The Black scholars club” for saying this, but the truth is that I don’t feel sorry for Henry Louis Gates. America is far more capitalist than it is racist, so a distinguished Harvard University Professor like Gates is likely to get more respect than the average White American. The idea that he is somehow the victim of the same racism that sends poor Black men to prison simply doesn’t fly with me, and Gates should be careful about appearing to exploit the plight of Black men across America to win his battle of egos with the Cambridge Police Department. At worst, Gates has been a victim of racial profiling by the woman who called the police, as well as the officer who may have interpreted his protests as being more belligerent than they actually were. The same thing happens to Black boys in the school system, who are suspended at astronomical rates for bad behavior. The fact that the charges have now been dropped against Gates shows that a mistake has clearly been made.
One can reasonably argue that Professor Gates would not have had this experience if he were a White woman who seemed to “belong” in the neighborhood. I’ve heard officers refer to the “invisible” line in our city, where the rich are protected from the poor, and those who don’t seem to belong are arrested. By being Black, Gates surely crossed the invisible line in his community. However, once Gates proved to the officer that he was the owner of the home, the officer should have simply said “thank you” and left the premises.
One question that can’t be answered is whether or not the officer was being verbally abused by the stereotypical Harvard arrogance of a man who felt that he was above being questioned. Dr. Gates, in all of his frustration, might have been served well to remember that the officer has a gun and that this situation could have been dealt with at a later date. Perhaps telling the officer that he “doesn’t know who he’s messing with” (as the officer alleges) was one way of making sure that the officer knew his place in the “Haaa-vad” (Harvard) pecking order. If that is the case, then I cannot sign off on Dr. Gates’ reaction to the officer who may have been simply trying to do his job.
But people who know Crowley were skeptical or outright dismissive of allegations of racism. A prominent defense lawyer, a neighbor of Crowley’s, his union, and fellow officers described him yesterday as a respected, and respectful, officer who performs his job well and has led his colleagues in diversity training.
“He’s evenhanded and, in the cases I’ve had with him, he’s been very much in control and very professional,’’ said Joseph W. Monahan III, a criminal defense lawyer in Cambridge and former Middlesex County prosecutor. Monahan has represented several defendants arrested by Crowley for domestic assaults and for drunken driving.
Crowley himself, speaking to the Globe yesterday and again last night in Natick, said he will not apologize and asserted, “I am not a racist.’’
Crowley’s police union issued a statement saying it had reviewed the arrest of Gates and expressed “full and unqualified support’’ for his actions.
Barack Obama, weighing in against the police, despite freely admitting his ignorance, and including a joke that, if it was about a bomb at an airport, would get him arrested. (And as to that joke, it’s in exceptionally bad taste and is an insult to every security person working at the White House.):
Though some facts of the case are still in dispute, Obama showed little doubt about who had been wronged.
“I don’t know – not having been there and not seeing all the facts – what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” Obama said in response to a question from the Chicago Sun-Times’s Lynn Sweet.
Gates, Obama allowed, “is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts.”
However Gates, he continued, “jimmied his way to get into [his own] house.”
“There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place – so far so good,” Obama said, reflecting that he’d hope the police were called if he were seen breaking into his own house, then pausing.
“I guess this is my house now,” he remarked of the White House. “Here I’d get shot.”
Yuval Levin on how peculiar it was for Obama to opine on a police matter (although Brutally Honest thinks that this was par for the course for Obama):
There is much to be said about the astonishing dishonesty of President Obama’s health-care rhetoric tonight, and much (no doubt) will be said. But I have to admit I was actually most struck by his answer to the last question, about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. It’s the kind of question to which a president would normally reply with something like: “That’s a local police matter, I don’t know the details and I know it will be worked out responsibly,” and move along. Obama gave a lengthy review of the facts, called the police officers involved stupid, and implied they are also liars. Very odd behavior for a president.
Levin wasn’t the only one who realized how improper it was for Obama to opine on an issue about which he knows nothing:
“I support the president of the United States 110 percent. I think he was way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts as he himself stated before he made that comment,” [Sgt. James] Crowley told WBZ-AM. “I guess a friend of mine would support my position, too.”
Michelle Malkin on the reflexive hostility the left has to the police:
Who’s surprised that President Obama trashed police officers as “stupid” on national TV and implied they were racist despite “not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that?”
This is Barack Obama, friend of cop-targeting domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose door sports a picture of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
This is Barack Obama, leader of the Democrat Party, which still embraces police-hater Al Sharpton.
“I might be a little biased,” Obama admitted before unleashing on the police.
We know. We know.
Dan Riehl opines about the way in which Obama completely destroyed his post-racial image:
As the occupant of the WH, Obama has a responsibility to speak for all . He appears to be showing a pattern of not doing that, but seeing everything through a lens of racial politics, first. It is as unfortunate as it is dumb.
Not having all
the facts, he should have withheld judgment, perhaps pronouncing the incident as unfortunate. He didn’t term Professor Gates’ alleged reaction to questioning, after apparently breaking into his own home, as ill-considered, let alone stupid, or otherwise dumb. And
the Cambridge police are not the neighbor who summoned them to the scene. We have no way of knowing if they acted “stupidly,” or not. However, that was a conclusion was prepared to jump to based solely upon Race, while admitting not knowing
He also displayed a willingness to abandon American police officers in the line of duty without a full hearing of
the facts. It’s impossible to recall any former president doing such a thing, at least before some objective fact finding was done. This may not be a wound he recovers from, and certainly not easily, in terms of his political career.
Meanwhile, any notion of a post-racial era in America due to Obama is likely doomed. That, perhaps, is the biggest shame of all.
Jules Crittendon thinks Obama needs some sensitivity training:
Gates has been demanding sensitivity training, and I’m beginning to think he’s right. Some sensitivity training might be called for in this situation. For the Harvard professors, 24-hour news network ministers and apparently presidents of the United States as well, on how destructive it is to individuals, to race relations and to society in general to level inflammatory accusations of racism or to call people “stupid” and “rogues” without knowing who they are, what they are about, or even what exactly happened.
Thomas Lifson nicely summarizes the facts, and the probable political damage Obama incurred by wading into this.
UPDATE: Thinking about this, Obama was quick to opine about police stupidity, despite a complete absence of facts, but tried to protect himself by saying, “”I don’t know – not having been there and not seeing all the facts – what role race played in that….” That was just cover talk, as his indicated by his execrable and offensive joke about White House security. He does believe this was about race — AND HE’S RIGHT.
Why is Obama right? Because the police report (which is the only near contemporaneous evidence we have right now) shows that Gates immediately escalated the situation by making it about race. His first words, after refusing to cooperate, were “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” He then accused the officer of racism. He then told unknown third parties that the officer was racist. And since then, Gates has made it about race. So yes, this was definitely about race.
Also, I have some more insights about Obama’s involvement in all this. At Maggie’s Farm, Bruce Kesler weighs in on the whole thing. He sees this, not as a race fight, even those it’s phrased in those terms, but as yet more class warfare:
In our democracy, the elites are not supposed to be anointed by God or hereditary, nor allowed any special governmental privileges, rights or exceptions from the laws that govern everyone else. Elites in America should earn respect for their character, accomplishments and contributions alone.
Consider how far we’ve gone in another direction, toward self-selected groups flaunting their disregard of common morality and sense, and even the law, as if immune or above the obligations and restrictions necessary to maintaining a society and government of free peoples working in comity and decency toward individual and national advancements above personal benefits and pelf.
And Andy McCarthy, of course, has Obama’s number:
[T]he Gates question smelled like a set-up to me. Obama went out of his way to call on that reporter as the last questioner of the night — even when some confusion about whether he’d called on someone else resulted in his having to go back to her after taking another question.
For a wartime president managing a slew of manufactured “crises” in a reeling economy, he was sure armed with an astonishing level of detail about the arrestee’s side of the story in a local breaking-and-entering case that had resulted in no charges being filed. Obama even had a “spontaneous” joke at the ready about how he himself would probably get “shot” if he ever tried to break into the White House. The joke, of course, fell flat. Trust me on this one (I used to be the guy who decided whether to file federal charges in Westchester County in the first few years after the Clintons moved there): Outside the courtiers of the White House press corps, no one — especially the Secret Service — likes jokes about American presidents getting shot.
And it is just shameful for an American president to describe the police as “stupid” and feed into the racializing of the Gates case.
Taranto, by the way, has now decided that Obama and Gates were in the right, and Crowley was wrong. He has a point, which is that, although Gates was unbelievably offensive in the beginning, once Gates proved he was the homeowner, Crowley should have backed off. The problem is, that’s not so easy, once someone has been hurling threats and imprecations at you (and at unknown third parties, over the telephone).
I vividly recall that, after Mel Gibson was arrested, the news was filled with stories of his antisemitic outburst. One caller to a talk show was a highway patrolman, and he said that drunks, because they lack judgment, frequently try to inflame, rather than conciliate officers, with the inevitable results. I’m not saying Gates was drunk, but his response to the officers was certainly inflammatory. Should we then be surprised that the officers, whose lives are at risk every time they report to such a situation, got inflamed?
UPDATE II: Bill Cosby too states that Obama’s remarks, given the informational vacuum in which he operated, were completely inappropriate. This is not about race. It’s about a President not taking sides in this kind of dog fight. It’s wrong when the same president who deals in airy-fairy, “I’m always the good guy in the middle” generalities, suddenly takes sides and calls an American police officer stupid.
UPDATE III: Hube also wonders whethering being a complete jerk who practically invites arrest shows that the arresting cops were racists (as opposed to just really, really angry).