Monday, July 27, 2009

Your Momma!

I hadn't planned to weigh in on Professor Gates' encounter with the Cambridge police. However, today my sister sent me a link to a Huffington Post article that confirmed my suspicions about the substantive legal issues in the case. I'd like to think that this information will be in the headlines as much as Gates' initial unfortunate encounter with the Cambridge police officers but I'm not counting on that happening, so I figure that I'll do my part in blog land.

Just in case you've been without access to the news for the last week, a brief recap of the facts. African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (aka Skip) was arrested for disorderly conduct by the Cambridge police because he verbally reprimanded a police officer investigating an allegation that Gates was attempting a break-in at a residence. Turns out the residence was Gates' own and according to officer James Crowley's police report, he ascertained that it was Gates' home before making the arrest. However, Crowley heard Gates making a phone call and asking to speak to the police chief about a racist officer. Then Gates allegedly made a series of comments to Crowley, accusing the officer of racial profiling, loudly and in disparaging terms. The entire police report is available on The Smoking Gun.

When I first heard the story, the one thing I couldn't figure out was how Gates' behavior could be construed as disorderly conduct under Massachusetts' state law. Guess what, it isn't. Talking back to a police officer, raising your voice, even talking about his or her momma, is not a crime. It seems that there is a body of Massachusetts' case law that establishes that yelling at a police officer, even while being arrested is not a crime and doesn't constitute disorderly conduct. Which brings me to all the brouhaha about President Obama's observation (solicited by a reporter's question as to his opinion on the Gates arrest) that the police "behaved stupidly." They did. Arresting someone who hasn't done anything illegal is behaving stupidly.

The message boards have been barraged with the usual nonsense from dittoheads and other mentally deficient folks. They insist that there is "reverse racism" at work and that's why the DA's office dropped the charges against Gates. Can we all say, "Nonsense!" The DA dropped the charges because there was no crime committed.

Maybe Professor Gates would have been wise to refrain from getting into a verbal dispute with Officer Crowley; however, I understand his frustration. Gates is four years older than I am. I feel confident that this was not his first encounter with what he perceived to be racial profiling; besides, the man was in his own house. There was no break-in taking place. The officer doesn't dispute that he became aware of this fact pretty early on in his interaction with Gates. Why didn't the officer just apologize to Professor Gates and move on?

Gates is a renown scholar, has hosted documentaries on PBS, published several books, and is known as a public intellectual. His biography on the Harvard faculty site is impressive. If you don't know who he is; you should. He's one of the leading voices in African-American history and culture. If you want to be enlightened and fair in race relations, one of the first steps is to learn who we are.

However, there is a larger issue here than one black scholar. If this were an isolated incident, a rare occurrence, it would just be an unpleasant incident. Racial profiling is a real issue in America. If you aren't aware of it, perhaps it's because you're not a racial or ethnic minority, or a practitioner of a faith other than Christianity. A 2004 report released by Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) found that racial profiling impacted 32 million people. This is far too complex a subject to deal with in a blog entry. If you are interested and want to learn more, the AIUSA report is a good place to start. There is a link to the executive summary and the full report on the site.


jack-of-all-thumbs said...

As usual, I learn something when I read your posts. I admit that I would not have been surprised to find a somewhat different perspective, but I foolishly wasn't prepared to find one backed up by a legal point that I hadn't even thought about. (Guess I forgot about the Law School thing...)

Yep, it simply didn't occur to me that arguing with the officer couldn't be considered to be 'disorderly conduct'. I just assumed that it was. Well duh. (Though frankly, I don't feel comfortable enough with it to try it myself....)

I'm hopeful that the awareness raised by this incident can move us another small step closer.

And how can I get invited to have a beer with Obama?

Dannelle said...

Just when you think things are looking better something like this happens. Pity the stupid officer- his momma could have done a better job!

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Of course, on the drive back from Florida, we had to hear the drivil about how Obama stepped in it with his emotional response. Bottom line, the arrest should never have happened, and the truthful response of our President should not be exploited. We have so much to learn about tolerance and patience.

Alan said...

You and I have had the "get over it" conversation before and agreed to disagree on certian points. So, I find myself oddly on the same side on racial profiling. Guess living through it makes one more sensitive. Long story, but here's the short version. I used to fly a lot. After 9-11, when "security" got stepped up and "random" searches became common I noticed that I got searched quite often. One trip (five different planes round trip) I got randomly pulled to be searched five times. I'm American. All of my family has been American for more than 100 years. I have a fairly common American name. I also have a swarthy complexion, dark hair, a full beard, and fairly small thin stature. Somehow, despite my common name, American passport, and stellar background, I got pulled every time as a potential threat. Happened on many trips. Had to be how I looked. Racial, or really bad visual profiling. No argument that it happens and it is a problem.

However... if you are the guy on the other end of the question (and I have been) you have to make really quick decissions that often leave lives at stake. The look of things, situations, people, the feeling in your gut is what you have to trust because you don't have time to pull everyone's history. I don't want to live in a world where the police instantly know everything about me. I'll put up with a bit of profiling and a human brain involved in the process instead.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Dear Sheria,
Great and informative post.

Much love to you,


Mark said...

You know damn well if it had been a white professor, same age, same sort of professorial comportment, the officer would have said: "Oh gee, I understand, Professor, just looking out for you" -- probably without even checking his id.
The idea that the Cambridge police don't know their community well enough to recognize a high profile man like Gates is, for me, the defining quality of this episode. Of course they acted stupidly. Police act stupidly all the time. They usually have chips on their shoulders--that's why their police. When you talk back to them, 90% of them take it personally and will threaten to arrest you.
And what was with Crowley saying "I didn't vote for him" about Obama? What does that have to do with anything?
It curdles my stomach that Obama had to back down from his statement. He spoke the truth.

Joy said...

Excellent post! Good comment, Mark, and I agree.

My son (white) was stopped for speeding in Nashville and handled roughly by the cop. He was polite and cooperative. I've never been asked to get out of the car, but he was. He said he felt scared and intimidated. He was driving an old car and had long hair at the time and wore a black t-shirt and jeans. His hair was maybe collar or shoulder length and neat, clean, and well-groomed. He has never done drugs but must have looked as if he did. That's not the only time he was profiled like that.

This kind of thing happens all the time to some people much more than others. We've all heard of being arrested for "driving while black" but being in your own home while black is ridiculous!

Joy said...

To add to my previous post, my son could cut his hair and did. I wasn't comparing his experience with those who have dealt with racist treatment all their lives. You probably know me well enough to realize that, but I wanted to clarify.