As a society, we suck

Many years ago, my parents returned late at night from a week-long get-away in Las Vegas. The old Admiral TV they’d had in the living room had died before they left and they didn’t have time to call the repairman (people repaired TVs in those days; the TVs also came in big wooden cabinets, but I digress). Mom and Dad wanted to unwind with a drink in the living room while watching Johnny Carson, so Dad went upstairs and took the smaller TV out of the bedroom.

About 10 minutes later, there was a pounding on the front door. Dad struggled to open the door, as we never used that entrance to the house and suddenly the people on the other end were yelling.

“OPEN IT NOW, SIR!” the voice boomed.

Clad only in his boxers and ratty T-shirt, Dad got the door open and stood face-to-face with two cops.

The cops demanded proof that Dad lived there.

“Can I get my pants?” he asked, feebly. “My license is in there…”

The cop escorted him into the dining room and Dad got his wallet out of his pants. The cops then asked him a bunch of questions: What was he doing up? Where had he been? Was he moving furniture?

Finally, when they were satisfied he was legit, they packed up and left.

The next day, the elderly lady who lived across the street came over. She explained she knew my folks were out of town and she had seen someone through our bay windows in the dining room carrying a TV, so she called the cops.

Dad told her he was fine and grateful that she had been so vigilant. He never lost it on the cops and while they weren’t friendly, the cops were professional.

I thought about this whole exchange while readingthe live blogging on the “beergate” phenomenon, which has blossomed from a local law enforcement issue to a societal drama and morality play.

The question that has been asked a great deal about this is the simple one: If Henry Louis Gates weren’t a black man in America, would the cop have been as aggressive in his approach to the situation?

It’s the easy question because that’s the question we’ve been trained to ask as the pendulum has swung from the racism of our country’s past to the guilt of our country’s present.

The harder question to ask is the bigger one: If Henry Louis Gates weren’t a black man, would this situation even merit a mention in the Beaver County Tidbit or whatever weekly covers Cambridge?

It’s harder because it forces us to look at issues from a less popular perspective. It’s the same reason we have difficulty asking if a rape really happened or if someone is really deathly ill. And because of this, we all buy the narrative and on occasion are taken advantage of by those who woulduse our squeamishness totheir own advantage.

It’s a horrible thing to ask and for years, we had a “blame the victim” mentality for everything, so to try to ask those questions picks at a less-than-fully healed scab. The wound might never heal, but it’s at least stopped bleeding. When we question someone who has been put on the wrong side of a bad situation, others come pouring out of the woodwork, questioning our motives.

We’re told to let sleeping dogs lie. Let’s not mess with the narrative.

Unfortunately for Gates, the narrative didn’t hold.

Media reports had Gates yelling at Sgt. James Crowley that Crowley had no idea who he was “messing with.” And yet it was really Gates who had no idea.

Had this been the typical cop, the kind of guy who was like my grandfather and those of his age who used the N-word as a common form of vernacular, this would have been a far different scenario.

What we really needed here was for Crowley to have been the guy who told racist jokes in the locker room, had at least one complaint in his jacket for excessive force and been known to get rough with local hookers and pimps. We needed the bribe-driven, dick-headed, ego cop to be at Gates’ door. Then we wouldn’t have to look any deeper. Essentially we needed the East Coast Mark Furhman.

However, this was the guy who was clean. He taught classes on racial profiling and the ills it evokes. As much as Gates wasn’t the “black” stereotype, Crowley wasn’t the “cop” stereotype.

The fact we can’t discuss this without getting rained on is just one of the many reasons why we, as a society, suck.

Others include what people have done toLucia Whalen, the woman who called 9-1-1 to alert the police. She called in as a concerned citizen and immediately became labeled as a racist.In the transcript of the call, she didn’t mention race until prompted by the dispatcher and even then she didn’t say, “Two big ol’ black ‘uns!” Of course, since both men turned out to be black, we’ve now folded that into the narrative as well.

We also suck because we’re not allowed to discuss that black, white, Hispanic, Asian or Martian has almost nothing to do with Gates’ constant pushing for an apology.

Gates needs to be right.

Trust me, I’ve had many a-colleague at the university level who are exactly like Gates and if they were any less black, they’d be translucent.

They are overbearing, maladjusted and have grown self-important on the backs of lesser colleagues. It’s not that they enjoy scholarly debate (one of the reasons we have a tenure process, although that’s been bastardized), they enjoy using whatever cognitive and hierarchical tools are at their disposal to browbeat someone into agreeing with them.

I don’t know him personally, but something tells me Henry Louis Gates hasn’t played a social game of cards in a long time where he didn’t have the best hand. This time, he had pocket kings while Crowley had pocket aces and despite his bluster, Gates can’t get Crowley to fold.

Race has become for us what communism was for the 1950s. You can’t talk about it logically, lest you be cast among the undesirables and labeled as so for life. Even starting this post, I wondered, “Will the FD crew read me differently now that I’m ‘going there?'”

We step more carefully because of it and that only continues to perpetuate the notion that race DOES make people different and they must be treated as so.

Had my father reacted the way Gates did on that night many years ago, he, too, probably would have had his ass hauled to jail. While the five guys he drinks beer with probably would have said, “Yeah, fucking bastards” anyone else would have asked him, “What the hell was wrong with you?”

He certainly wouldn’t have a beer with the cop, nor would he be in the Rose Garden doing it.

21 thoughts on “As a society, we suck

  1. It’s nice to see that you’re Ok with sucking up to an asshole cop who had no business making that arrest. Gates most surely deserves an apology, since the case was tossed. Unfortunately for you, Gates is right, whether he’s holding pocket kings or not.

  2. I don’t think he was an asshole cop. I think two men lost their tempers, and both behaved poorly.
    However, one of those men had a badge, a gun, and was on duty. This gave him the power to enforce his temper by arresting a man out of sheer spite.
    Not the end of the world, but worthy of a letter of reprimand.
    Questions for Doc, though: After your father identified himself as the homeowner, how/why was it appropriate for the cops to continue asking him questions? How was it the officers business or concern whether your father was moving furniture? Why would they ask him what he was doing up? In what way did that help them?
    And why do we feel like these intrusions into our privacy are acceptable? Would he have had the same reaction to any other random stranger showing up at his door to ask him why he was still awake and if he was moving furniture?

  3. Yes, this was an issue because he was black. Just like only missing white woman seem to deserve news coverage.

  4. I’ve got to admit that I’m deeply disapppointed that neither the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or the Gates affairs have led us into a deeper dialogue of race in America. For a purpose of legality, the actual verified actions are important. For the purpose of dialoge, the impressions and presuppositions take center stage.
    As for what happened inside the Gates house. No one really knows so it is an area ripe for gossip; hearsay becomes reported fact. Additionally, as you noted, there are facts that will never be known (were you given a speeding ticket as a man where a lady would have been let off by the same cop under the same circumstances?)
    A few weeks ago, a cop came knocking on my door wanting to ask about my neighbors. He had more than a reasonable cause to be asking. He was professional, but that wall of professionalism did come across as rudeness to me (I wasn’t the person he was looking to arrest, it was my neighbor – so why can’t you at least smile when you’re talking to me?); but admittedly, you open your door to a cop asking questions in a deadpan and forceful manner, it just doesn’t set the stage for an amiable relationship.
    Add to that a lifetime of worrying about Driving While Black and you’ve got a fuse already lit. And the police are supposed to have training on how to de-fuse a situation.

  5. justbecause gates uses a cane he called him elderly? that’s what got me.
    but crowley has to work harder. because he should have calmed the situation. it was gates house. it was gates castle. fuck ‘respect mah authoritah.’

  6. If a cop didn’t leave my home the second I proved who I was and asked him to, he’d have a lot more to worry about than an insult to his ‘momma’.
    There’s a big difference between the way you talk to police out on the street and how you talk to them when they are in your home without a warrant.
    Of course, this is all a smokescreen issue meant to distract us from the eventual death of health care reform thanks to Rahm, his blue dogs and the repigs.

  7. Well, but as I understand it, Gates got all huffity and puffity from the get-go and did not happily show his ID right off the bat. Instead, he got belligerent. Well, okay. So I’m a cop. I’ve been called to a possible break-in. I find individuals in the house and when I ask one of them who he is and does he live there, he gives me a whole lot of lip. Now, I am thinking, well, is this cat actually the homeowner, or a burglar? Because the actual homeowner would just show me his ID, right? Granted, Mr. Gates should not have been arrested at all, but you can’t blame the cop for being thrown off balance a little bit. Was it because Gates was black? I don’t know. None of us will ever know, but Gates assumed it was and trumpted that for the world.
    Basically, both parties acted poorly. And thanks, Doc, for standing up for Ms. Whalen. Poor lady was trying to help and see what she gets.

  8. Race has become for us what communism was for the 1950s. You can’t talk about it logically, lest you be cast among the undesirables and labeled as so for life.
    I will agree that race is an incredibly contentious and difficult issue for Americans, but whenever I hear someone say this, it’s usually couched in terms of people meaning to say, “I can’t say incredibly offensive shit and get away with it because we’re all too PC.” You are, in fact, free to talk about something in any way it pleases you, the same way I’m free to call you a racist or an asshole or a Martian in response if I want to. Unfortunately, you OR me making no damn sense at all is not and never will be against the law.
    I know that isn’t what you’re saying, because I know you, but it is the preferred terminology of the wingnut entitlement set when feeling put-upon that nobody laughs at their n—er jokes anymore. What you’re really talking about is a kind of societal sanction, and under what circumstances you presume to have automatic peer approval. You don’t perceive that your words will reach friendly ears here, you fear reprisal.
    In some quarters, in some peer groups, calling Gates a “jungle monkey” is perfectly acceptable discourse. That asshole’s only mistake was in sending his e-mails to the press; if he’d kept them within the confines of the Boston PD I’m sure he’d have been just fine. I’m quite sure at certain parties I could get invited to if I really wanted to be, this kind of statement wouldn’t be at all out of place and WOULD win automatic approval.
    I don’t think any peer pressure to give members of a group usually on the receiving end of cops’ batons the benefit of the doubt is the worst thing in the world. Peer pressure to be a racist, to go on a power trip, to harass and belittle those with less societal power than yourself, has done far more harm in our history than the supposed tyranny of political correctness.
    False accusations happen. Should they make us question every single victim to make sure we’re not getting taken? I don’t think so, but I’m hardcore about that kind of thing. Should we unquestioningly believe everybody who comes along with a hard-luck story? Probably not, either. Is Gates the perfect representation of police overbearance against a helpless innocent? I don’t think that, either, but perfect examples rarely occur in nature. I’ve found myself wondering this week how many subjects of police brutality would be invited to the White House and asked to chat with the cops who roughed them up, because certainly Gates was not the first black man to be presumed guilty, nor will he be the last, no matter how nice and quiet and cooperative the next supposed burglar tries to be.
    And by the by, raising these questions and arguing them out is how I learned my best lessons, so I’m all for this discussion happening here so long as everybody feels free to speak their minds.

  9. At some point during the OJ trial (I was living in Los Angeles at the time, where it was even less avoidable than in the rest of the country), I decided that black people often see racism that isn’t actually there, and white people often fail to see racism that is actually there. This whole episode fits in there somewhere.

  10. 1) When I first heard about this, I instantly thought: “No way in hell can you yell at the police.” If I’d greeted a cop at my door with a tirade concerning what a sexist pig he was for confirming that I lived in my own house and that I was not a burglar, I’d probably be hauled in, too.
    2) Once the police got the proof that Gates was the resident in his own house, they should have vamoosed. Bringing the man into the station after they got that straight says “intimidation tactic” no matter how you look at it.
    The truth lies somewhere in between those two things, I think. And the way our culture is these days, it seems that both the police and African-Americans must constantly watch their backs. None of it is fair.

  11. There are times when a compromise isn’t called for. This is one of those times. How do you compromise from the position that a man, in his house, is fully justified in reacting however he wishes, so long as he doesn’t use deadly force, to someone who barges in uninvited, and then shows him nothing but disrespect? No one, police or not police, is entitled to be in someones house uninvited without a warrant. The cop was wrong. That is a truth that cannot be compromised away.
    The only rational way for the cops to have addressed that situation was to remain outside of the house, knock on the door, when someone answers the door, ask if there is a problem there, and if the person is the resident of the house. If that person says yes, he is the resident, and there is no problem, the cop tells him someone reported seeing two men forcing the door of the house. The resident says, yes that was me and the cab driver, because the door was jammed. The cop says I will wait outside for awhile just in case you need help, then walk back to his car, and wait at least a half hour to see what happens. If nothing happens, the cop leaves. Meanwhile, he uses his computer to determine who lives there and what their phone number is. If the information is consistent with what he saw, he just leaves.
    No one is required to be polite to a cop, or anyone else. When we are polite it is our choice, not a law that governs our actions.
    The cop was dead wrong. Beers don’t change that. Race isn’t the issue either, overbearing police is the issue.

  12. I agree with Hoppy entirely. Ultimately, the issue is about socially approved authority and its role in a free and open society. The police do not legally have powers or authority beyond those granted by law and legally no one is required to grant them any more authority than the law. In other words, once Gates demonstrated that he was the homeowner, the “situation” was over and nothing should have happened.
    Of course, that is not the society in which we live and police obviously have much greater authority, socially approved even, than granted by law.
    The overt racial aspect of this (white cop, black homeowner) is certainly important and at the forefront of this. But in the end, abuse of police authority is about abuse of socially approved authority. That abuse can be conditioned on class when police target working class political movements, on ideology when police target peace movements, or on race when police, individually or institutionally, target and abuse individuals or institutions based on racial differences. But those examples are only of the abuse of authority vested by society in the police as agents of the state.
    We come to accept the abuse of authority in any context only at the risk of our freedom and openeness.

  13. That was a lovely post. Thank you.
    I find it fun these days whenever a “race controversy” comes up simply to reverse the races of all the players in the drama, and nothing else, and game it out. It’s kind of interesting and challenging.
    Anyway, I just couldn’t get why this was a big deal at all. Big Shot Harvard Man and Standard-Issue Police Officer, both of whom have reasons to believe their wanks are actually bigger than they are, couldn’t stop trying to prove theirs was biggest until things got out of hand. *yawn*
    Nobody knows who I am, thus I would be unable to play the do-you-know-who-I-am card, but odds are I would’ve been every bit as frisky as Gates was about being arrested in my own pad. And nothing will get me as knee-jerk pissed off like someone telling me they’re too important to play by the rules (written or unwritten; I translate it toI am above you), meaning the do-you-know-who-I-am card does nothing but piss me off, too.
    Shorter: We are doomed.

  14. doc: i don’t know you, but I certainly know bullshit when I read it. cop arrests black man in black own home or anywhere for that matter; cop is white. any more questions? I’m one of many persons who learned a big lesson during the Black Strike at Madison way back in the day, when we told by a black professor that we needed to understand that the blackest thing in our lives weres the Holsteins in the back yard. He was right then & Gates is right now. I’m sorry this is so hard for you, Doc, but making it more complex than white cop arrests black man is only helping the ReThugs.

  15. I think that the point that’s missing from your account is that the officer maneuvered Gates into a situation in which he could arrest him. Until Gates stepped outside the house, into public, the officer had no grounds to arrest him, particularly once he’d shown his ID. In fact, once the officer’s concerns about a possible break-in had been put to rest, he should have said that was good enough and left. Sure, Gates shouldn’t have yelled at the guy, but by your logic the officer would have been justified in Tasing Gates before he arrested him.
    Being an asshole isn’t an arrestable offense.

  16. And let me add, as an aside, there’s no reason Gates had to let the officer into his house in the first place. He could have refused him entry. And if you read the report, one of the things Gates was upset about was that the officer wasn’t giving him his name. The officer writes that he gave Gates his name a couple of times and that Gates is ignoring him, but he also mentions that he’s having trouble talking on his radio because of the acoustics of the kitchen. So the guy’s talking on his radio, in Gates’s house, probably not exactly paying attention to Gates who’s already upset (according to the report) and probably thinks that the cop he’s let in the door should be talking to him and not the radio, and the officer says he can’t hear what’s going on himself.
    Maybe he could have just treated him like a person.

  17. I think this post is absolutely moronic. Its not ok for cops to arrest people in their own houses because the person wants to be left alone and, in effect, politely or impolitely, asks the police officer to leave. The Original Post writer’s longwinded story about his own father is neither here nor there. He doesn’t know for a fact his father would have been hauled in if he’d behaved differently, and neither do we. For one thing, his father behaved the way his father behaved–for another thing his father was white. For another thing we don’t know anything about the history of the police officer who didn’t arrest his father, what kind of day he had, what kind of training, whether he was of Irish extraction or from Slovenia, or had a tough day on the job, or fought with his wife, or was near retirment, or anything else that might have influenced that interaction back in the day. What we do know as citizens is that its *&^%$ not a crime to be in your own home, in your undewear or on the phone or tired or cranky or needing to go to the bathroom after a 36 hour flight, or while being black, or while being an arrogant professor. Its.Not.A.Crime. and people shouldn’t get arrested for it. That’s all we know, and all we need to know.
    Here’s the other weird thing. We can decouple this entire argument from race, and I think we should. The professor wanted peace adn quiet in his home, and the police officer chose to arrest him rather than thanking him for his time, muttering “asshole” under his breath, and going off peacably. Maybe like the writer of the post he has a hard on for arrogant professors. Maybe he was having a bad day. But you know what? I come from people who were followed by the FBI. In fact, the entire American People come from people who were so afraid of rampant abuse of power by the police that we enshrined all kinds of protections against having the police bull their way into your house on some pretext to search it, or to “get” you for some crime, or to plant evidence on you. I don’t think the police officer was there to do any of those things but Gates was well within his rights and his experience, no doubt, as a political person to *not want to have the state hanging around his house* one minute longer than he wanted the state there.
    I can’t believe what a load of authoritarian, lie there and take it, apology this original post was. Its not ok to arrest someone in their own home because you feel pissy and you’ve got a badge. In fact, you have more responsibility to control yourself and your temper because you have a badge and are armed. Its not some kind of perq of the position that you get to act out your anger whenever you want.

  18. this case is like a rorscach test–everyone’s first instinct is to project all their personal baggage onto it. that’s fine; it’s a free country. by the way, “it’s a free country” used to be more than just a glib little saying. in the english speaking world a man’s home is his castle, since the magna fucking carta. as in, since fucking 1215. in this gates case, everyone’s knee jerks to the racial component of the incident, while we bury the lede–now you can be arrested for disorderly conduct in your own home. and there’s no shortage of liberals in the blogosphere who say, “it’s regrettable, but look at it from the cop’s point of view.”
    how about “no?” almost 800 years of common law flushed down the toilet because we feel guilty that a cop’s job is hard? how about “no fucking way.”
    “bullshit is bullshit, it just comes by different names.”–paul weller

  19. “However, [Crowley] was the guy who was clean. He taught classes on racial profiling and the ills it evokes. As much as Gates wasn’t the ‘black’ stereotype, Crowley wasn’t the ‘cop’ stereotype.”
    “…she didn’t mention race until prompted by the dispatcher and even then she didn’t say, ‘Two big ol’ black ‘uns!’ Of course, since both men turned out to be black, we’ve now folded that into the narrative as well.”
    No, dude, “we” didn’t fold it into the narrative. Crowley shoved it deep into the narrative, and smeared Whalen with it, when he wrote in his report that she reported to him on scene that she’d seen two black men with backpacks; something she categorically denies having done and a claim for which there is no evidence other than his self-serving report. (Tumult, anyone?)
    If he is so “clean”, why did he choose to falsify his report in that specific manner? The fact that he teaches other cops how not to get caught profiling does not actually speak in his favor.
    Examine your assumptions.

  20. “this was the guy who was clean. He taught classes on racial profiling and the ills it evokes”
    Right, and this is “proof” that Crowley is not a racist? Are you kidding? You’ve never lived in Massachusetts, clearly.
    Teaching those classes is a work assignment, not Crowley’s personal calling. I hate to break it to you but that prostitute is only having sex with you for the money, she doesn’t really think you’re cute.
    There is no law against being rude to a cop. It is not illegal to say “fuck off” to a cop.
    The thing that pisses me off is that this “teachable moment” is being used to misinform the public.
    Cops are not supposed to bully people. That is in fact illegal. Not a single “journalist” pointed out that Obama is a lawyer, an expert in Constitutional law. If Obama says the cop acted stupidly, the follow-up should be asking about the law.
    But no, the country has turned into a giant Chuck E. Cheese and we’re just going to talk about how the president said that cop was stupid.
    Kill me now, please.

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