When Cambridge, MA, police sergeant James Crowley responded to an otherwise routine breaking and entering call last Thursday (7/16/09), he had no idea of the firestorm that call would ignite. In the aftermath, there is no doubt that racism is alive and well in America, and it cuts both ways.
Sgt. Crowley, who teaches other police officers how not to racially profile another person, now stands accused of such behavior himself, and every official from the President of the United States, to the Governor of Mass., to the Mayor of Cambridge have labeled Crowley as either stupid, racist, or both, most without the slightest sense of what really happened that summer afternoon.
According to police reports and witnesses at the scene, a neighbor saw two men attempting to force their way into a residence, one that had recently been burglarized. Responding to the report, Sgt. Crowley (who is white) spoke to the woman (who has olive colored skin and is of Portuguese descent) reporting the break-in and determined that the man she saw had by then entered the house. Crowley, in uniform, then saw a man inside of the rental house and asked him to step outside. The man, later identified as Harvard Professor Henry Gates (who is black), head of the University’s African American Studies Department, refused to come out, indicating "all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized I was in danger, and I said 'no' out of instinct." Gates, who once said "he knew every incident of racism from slavery to Jim Crow segregation," then demanded, and was told Sgt. Crowley’s identity for the first of three occasions.
According to the report Gates was also told the police were responding to the report of a break-in and that the reporting witness was just outside. Gates then yelled that the reason the police were really there was “because he was a black man in America.” (Enter the ever present, often played race card.) Crowley, meanwhile, said, as the first responding officer on the scene, that his request for Gates to come out was for Crowley's safety, because, as he would later say, he had three beautiful children and a wife who depend on him and he had to go home each night. Both Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley state they were in fear for their own individual safety, and the lines were drawn. Gates was not going to be told what to do by a white cop and Crowley was going to find out who the mysterious black man was in the house with the broken front door. They both saw something; something that was entirely different based upon their own life experiences and their individual perception of what the presence of the other man could mean.
Shouting that Crowley “had no idea who he was messing with,” Gates attempted to call Crowley’s Chief and told the police dispatcher “he was dealing with a racist police officer at his home.” When Gates finally relented and provided Crowley with a college ID, the Harvard University police were called to assist. Gates continued to yell at Crowley, and when asked by Crowley to step outside allegedly said, “ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Gates then followed Crowley, who he would later describe as a "rogue cop" outside yelling at him, calling him a racist, and telling him he had not heard the last of this. After being repeatedly asked by Crowley and other officers to stop his disorderly behavior, noting that a number of citizens had now gathered in front of the house, Gates refused and continued to yell, “This is what happens to black men in America!” He was then arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the police department.
Prosecutors have subsequently dismissed the charges against Gates, who said he was considering a law suit against police. Massachusetts’ black governor called the incident “every black man’s nightmare and a reality for many black men,” while President Obama said the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.” The White House Press Secretary subsequently amended the President’s comments to reflect that “both sides” were to blame. All of this, of course, has become the fodder for radio and TV commentators, with most blacks lining up to support Gates, no matter the facts, and whites seeing this as just another incident of reverse racism.
The truth, perhaps like that suggested by the Presidential Press Secretary, is that while the police acted properly in their initial response to the crime report, and while Gates may have been spoiling for a fight, the police appeared to have overacted to his provocations. After all, police have wide latitude in whom they arrest and who they let go. Who among you has not welcomed a warning instead of a ticket when you were speeding?
Where the story seems to break down is what both the police and Professor Gates could have done to reduce the mounting tensions at the house. Many commentators have stated your first response to police should be to do what you’re told. Black, white, Hispanic and other races can attest to the trouble you get into when you don’t obey the police. If the cops are wrong, if your rights have been violated, taken them to court and sue. That should be the American way. And no one white will ever know what it's like to be black, especially to be challenged in your own home. And if you've never been a cop you will never know what it's like to face what a cop does every day of his or her career, this for little money and, as this incident once again proves, many times little respect, something Gates also felt was missing from the equation.
When will we ever learn, as a nation, that we must all work together and that our first response in such a situation should be to try to resolve it by peaceful dialogue, and not shouts concerning someone’s race or their “mama.” Perhaps the female witness was the real racist, mistaking the men she saw forcing open the door for burglars; but what should she, or Sgt. Crowley have done? Bill Cosby, suggesting this story should not take off like it had racially, said of the President’s statement, “If I’m the President of the United States, I don’t care how much pressure people want to put on it about race. I’m keeping my mouth shut,” thereby suggesting the need to get all the facts before you form an opinion. Are we becoming a country where only a black police officer can confront a black suspect, and so on across the racial spectrum, without someone playing the racial trump card? One of the black police officers at the scene, while suggesting that had he been the first responding officer things might indeed have gone differently, still supports Sgt. Crowley's version of the incident; something that has cause other blacks to call him an "Uncle Tom." And on it goes...
Well, once again it appears the venerable “Dr. Huxtable” was right all along. Lines are being drawn, and they're black and white. If this country is to ever make it through the 21stcentury, we need somehow, as Rodney King said while witnessing the 1992 LA riots, “to all just get along.” Maybe if they can somehow work this out in Cambridge, circa 1630, it will begin right there. And the "teachable incident" that Prof Gates, according to some media reports, appears ready to lecture us all on should be one that both he and Sgt. Crowley sit on the student side for a change and both learn from the incident. There is, after all, much to be learned and much to be understood, this from all sides of this issue. Perhaps we should all try to wear another man's glasses on occasion, this in an attempt to understand what he believes he sees when he looks at us and we at him.