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.