Thursday, July 30, 2009

To Serve and Protect?

At one point in my life I thought I might want to be a police officer. I liked the idea

of protecting people and fighting the bad guys and contributing something positive to society.

I also thought that instant respect came with putting on that uniform. As I grew older, I

watched the police in Berkeley and at San Francisco State in the City. The Alameda County

Sheriffs were known as the "blue meanies", and were quick with billy clubs and tear gas.

They even tear gassed a hospital. I watched the police in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama;

and of course, the "police riot" in Chicago in 1968, and my view of law enforcement changed.

They were brutes and bullies used by the powers-that-be to control society and defend the

status quo. Every time another department put an American flag on their uniforms, or on

their cars and motorcycles; I knew they had no understanding what the flag actually stood for.

Two friends of mine became San Francisco police officers. In fact, lots of friends

of mine or acquaintances, graduates of St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart, Riordan, and other city

schools, became police officers. I knew them; and while many did fit the typical stereotype,

many did not. The two friends I knew were partners. For more than a year, I would meet

them in the Tower Market parking lot around midnight, and ride with them for three or

four hours. I went in with them on calls, and I saw what their world was like. It was 7.5

hours of boredom, and maybe half an hour of fear and adrenaline. One night, they were

called to back up another unit. About four or five African-Americans were up against a wall.

My friend got out and evaluated the situation; and when he returned to the car, I asked him

what was going on. They quoted a section of the penal code that I was not familiar with.

When I asked them to explain, they said the suspects were under arrest for "...failure to bow

and scrape". I could tell my friends were embarrassed and did not like what they saw, but

they felt there was nothing they could do about it.

All of this is background or preface to a discussion over the arrest of Professor

Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home by a Cambridge police sergeant.

It is a story that has taken on significance because of the racial overtones associated with it,

and because the President of the United States has weighed in and declared that the

Cambridge police acted "stupidly".

I have seen police officers at their best and at their worst. I covered the L.A. riots

after the Rodney King decision. Ground zero was the intersection of Florence and Normandy

in South Central Los Angeles. The police were four to a car, with shotguns sticking out of

every window. They were scared and really had no control for more than three days.

(National Guard troops had to be sent in to restore order.) In San Francisco, massive

demonstrations shut down much of the city at the start of the first Gulf War. The SFPD

engaged in running street battles with those who wanted to shut down the Federal Building

and the City in general. In Los Angeles, the black population of South Central L.A. truly

hated the L.A. cops and vice versa. In San Francisco, the "police vs. demonstrators" was

more of a game. I knew demonstrators and cops; and each had some sympathy for the other,

but had parts to play.

I don't know all the facts in the Gates case. I have listened to Gates and to the

officer involved. My unscientific analysis says they were both wrong. Cambridge police

got a call of a possible burglary in progress. Gates was locked out and forced his front door

open and got in. Someone saw him and called the police. The Sergeant showed up and saw

the forced front door, and found Gates inside. Gates says he presented ID to prove who

he was and that this was indeed his home. The Sergeant asked him to step outside. (The

Sergeant says there was a report of two men breaking in. He didn't know if there was

someone else in the house, or if Professor Gates even knew if they could still be in the

house.) Professor Gates admits he verbally challenged the officer, demanding to know if

he was being asked to step outside because he was a black man. The officer continued to

press for the Professor to step outside, and the Professor got more agitated, asking if the

officer knew who he was, and telling the Sergeant that he shouldn't mess with him. The

Sergeant eventually arrests Gates for disorderly conduct and takes him away in handcuffs.

Charges were later dropped.

Professor Gates and many other African-Americans and Latinos say this is a classic

example of racial profiling. A black man in a rich neighborhood (near Harvard) is

immediately suspect. A minority in a predominantly white neighborhood must be up to

no good. In New Jersey, a court case proved that State Police were stopping luxury cars

with African-American drivers, under the assumption that they were drug dealers, because

how else could they afford the cars. In Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and many other

American cities, studies have shown that police disproportionately stop and hold more

African-American and Latino males than they do white males. There are too many instances

of minorities being killed by police in a shootout, only to discover later that the suspect was

unarmed. None of this is new to anyone in this country. Racial profiling is real and has

tragic consequences.

However, in this case it would appear that Professor Gates is as much in the wrong

as is the police Sergeant. Being asked to step outside was not an unreasonable request; in

that the Sergeant did not know who might be in the house (a danger to both the officer and

Professor Gates), and he didn't know what Professor Gates was up to either. Men might

have to "break into their own house" because they have been locked out or thrown out in

a domestic dispute, and are "breaking" back in to do harm to their partner. Gates should

have stepped outside. He acted stupidly. For his part, it should have been clear to the

Sergeant, fairly quickly, what the situation was; and when confronted by Gates he could

have stepped outside, taken a look around to see if there were any other points of illegal

entry, and re-connected with the Professor. Even if he didn't want to do that, once he had

cuffed the Professor and then checked out the house, he should have released Gates and

never, ever should have arrested him and taken him to the police station, subjected him

to mug shots (which the public has now seen), and held him. The officers actions were

overkill; and very few police I know would have done that. Did the Sergeant get into his

feelings because of Gates' attitude and confrontational behavior? Did he arrest Gates

because he was offended when accused of being a racist? Why was Gates so upset? Was

the Sergeant's request outrageous or impermissible? Why was Gates so offended and why

did he act like such a prissy diva?

There is plenty of blame to go around on this one. That it raises the issue of profiling

and law enforcement is good because the practice still exists (most of our anti-terrorism

practices are based almost exclusively on racial profiling). Anything that gets Americans

talking about race is a good thing. We are a nation that based its' laws and practices upon

the principle of white supremacy for most of our history. The legacy of that philosophy is

still resonating in this country today (think of the swim club in Pennsylvania which kicked

the black and hispanic kids out because they "would change the nature and complexion of

the club if allowed entrance"). However, Gates was as much at fault as was the Sergeant.

Tempers flared, egos got involved; and the result was embarrassing for both of them.

Over the years, I have developed respect for police officers because I know many,

and they are good, caring people. I have respect for minorities in this nation because they

have had to fight for a respect that I have never struggled to attain. I am glad we are talking

about this; but in this particular case there appears to be no villain, only two male egos

too big for one house in Cambridge to handle. What do you think? I welcome your

comments and rebuttals. Please send them to


  1. this kind of crap really gets old. how many times have i heard "I guess you dont know who I am?" like becasue of your status or last name you are excempt from law. "Ego" gets alot of people into trouble because they think they deserve special treatment because of status or they think they are a step above the rest of society and dont have to follow law as the "average citizen" has to. the race card is pulled out way to often and it has to stop. more than not it is not even needed anyway. If this had happened with the roles reversed this wouldn't have even been a bleep on the news radar. that to me is says alot about modern society.

  2. To really tell, a person just had to be there to hear the exact verbal and nonverbal exchange between these two men.

    It seems to me that the professor had an attitude that could have been caused by any number of things but he was finally home and was probably frustrated at having to break into his own home and maybe he had a bad day before this last straw and was at his wits end just needing to pile into that living room arm chair just the other side of that door.

    Maybe if the cop had came with an attitude and maybe he had bad experiences right before this incident setting him on edge. It seems if he had explained the safety needs for the professor to step out that door that the professor had finally made it behind, instead of demanding he follow his orders, thus belittling the professor and frustrating him further, maybe the cop could have cooled things down instead of enflaming the situation. The professor did show ID from inside his own home showing he truly belonged there.

    It just looks like ego versus ego but one has a gun and both feel entitled. Both were wrong.

    As Obama had inserted himself into the frey, he did a good thing to have the picnic table attempt to cool the situation down.

    Professors do tend to get full of themselves over time and I would think "Harvard" professors would tend to be even worse.

    Police tend to loose their normal citizen perspective and get too full of themselves with their power to make people bow and scrape because the cops are "entitled" and have a gun to prove it.

    Just a bad situation made worse by the media.

  3. Having paid very close to this discussion, it appears to me that regardless of the egos which painted an unflattering picture of both parties, the arrest of Gates for "disorderly conduct" was illegal based on MA law, hence Prof. Gates' release. The d.c. charge was based on a cop's decision that Gates was disrespectful, not on the content of the law, his reaction to an uppity citizen. In fact, Gates has a First Amendment right to protest the officer's presence and conduct, regardless of its motivation or the accuracy of Gates' perception. Police conduct, particularly its insistence that it never be challenged, must be constantly scrutinized, opposed, and criticized when illegal. They are the ones with the guns, and many of them are far too ready to soothe their own bruised egos with an inappropriate application of force. While Gates may have been impolite, the police were simply wrong.

  4. I guess you were writing this before the tapes of the 911 call came out. But the woman said they were two men with suitcases(she also didn't mention the men's race) while Officer Crowley wrote on his police report that two black emn with back packs. I also have to correct you about Gates got in by the front door, Gates went back yard to get inside his home. Still, the biggest ego was the Officer Crowley and the police. After Prof. Gates presented his I.D., Officer Crowley should had said sorry & tip his hat out the door. If Crowley would had done that & told the truth in his report, I don't think they would had this problem.