Washington Matters


The Gates Arrest: A Personal Reflection


I don't know what will happen when President Obama sits down Thursday for a beer at the White House with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley, to get the two men to talk things out.

 

But in any event, I have a personal experience that sheds some very relevant light on the Gates affair, and what -- if anything -- it has to do with race in America.

 

I've been in the situation that Gates faced on his own front porch in Cambridge, Mass. last week. But unlike Gates, I didn't suspect -- or angrily charge -- that I was a victim of racial discrimination.  Why? Because, unlike the professor, I am white.

 

I, too, was told by a policeman to show identification that proved I lived in my own home, after he had been summoned by a neighbor who suspected, incorrectly, there had been a break-in there.

 

Like Gates, I was incredulous that I was being told to do this because I knew it was my house and assumed the cop would believe me. But the policeman insisted on my showing him some proof that I belonged there.

 

I complied with politeness. Gates, a distinguished African-American historian at Harvard, apparently became rude and obstreperous, which led to his arrest for disorderly conduct. This leads me to conclude that the outcome had more to do with Gates' conduct than his race.

 

The Cambridge policeman, Sgt. Crowley, did not "act stupidly," as President Obama first opined, ill-advisedly, last week.

 

Crowley was just doing what he and police officers everywhere have been trained to do: Verify the identity of anyone and everyone -- regardless of race or other characteristics --who is inside a building where seemingly suspicious activity has just been observed and reported.

 

In this case, a neighbor had just seen two men appearing to force their way through the front door. The neighbor probably had no way of knowing that one of the two men was Gates, the homeowner. And the responding policeman had no way of knowing this either -- that is, until he properly verified Gates' identity.

 

On National Public Radio this weekend, correspondent Juan Williams, an African-American who has written extensively on the history of the civil rights movement, offered a relevant personal experience. He said that he has been told, at his own front door, to show an ID to a policeman who had come to his house to investigate the triggering of a security system alarm. Williams said he readily complied, apparently taking no offense. Many urban dwellers of all races have probably been in the similar situation.    

 

Gates could have avoided the whole mess by simply complying with the officer's demand, whether or not he thought it was justified. That was his obligation as a citizen.

 

And, arguably, Sgt. Crowley might have defused the tense situation -- after appropriately verifying Gates' identify -- by simply walking away from the irate professor and letting him calm down on his own. Sure, the officer had every right to arrest Gates for disorderly conduct, but, in retrospect, forbearance would have been better, if only to deny Gates a platform for unfounded accusations of racism. But Crowley had no idea who Gates is, and to him, it really didn't matter.

 

My similar situation occurred about 30 years ago, in a quiet neighborhood of Washington, D.C., at a house I owned where I knew all my neighbors. I was a 30-year-old newspaper reporter at the time.

 

It was about 11 p.m., I had just gone to bed, and the house was dark. Before I got to sleep, I heard the loud shattering of glass downstairs. I jumped out of bed and found that someone had thrown a brick through my kitchen window. It was now quiet outside, and the window frame was intact and locked, so I decided to deal with it in the morning. I went back to bed.

 

But within minutes, there came a knock at my front door. I looked outside and saw a police cruiser at my curb, with its lights flashing. I threw on a bathrobe, hurried downstairs, turned on the front-porch light and opened the front door. There were two D.C. cops standing there, with their hands on their revolvers, shining a flashlight in my face.

 

"A neighbor just called us with a report of a possible break-in at this address," one of them said. I started to explain when he interrupted me. "Get your identification and step outside," he said -- telling, not asking, me.

 

"My identification?" I said, puzzled. "But I live here."

 

Then it dawned on me that he suspected I might be a clever, very composed burglar who broke into dark houses and, if the police came by, answered the door and calmly pretended to be the homeowner. An unlikely scenario, even for a suspicious cop in D.C., but he was trained not to take chances.

 

It took me a while, but I did produce identification that linked me to that address. I thanked the officer for responding to the neighbor's call, I went back into my house, and that was the end of it.

 

I can only guess that Gates responded angrily to the Cambridge officer's demand for identification because of Gates' knowledge of the long history of discriminatory conduct by policemen towards black males in many part of America, in all eras, including today.

 

Or perhaps, like many black men in America, he has personally experienced the real or perceived disrespect of police, so he had a chip on his shoulder the moment he was questioned by Sgt. Crowley. As a white person, I cannot know what that might feel like.   

 

But I also wonder if Gates, who is a celebrity in his world of academe, might be too accustomed to being treated with special deference.

 

I recall numerous instances in recent years in which other celebrities with big egos -- politicians, athletes, movie stars, regardless of race and age -- became unruly in public places when asked (by flight attendants, night club bouncers, police, etc.) to comply with the same rules as other people. That's all that this policeman demanded of Gates.

 

Inappropriate racial profiling surely exists, but this doesn't seem to be an example of it. Gates was treated no differently than I, a white man in a similar situation, was treated three decades earlier.

 




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