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Commentary :: Human Rights
Crime Scene: A teachable Moment
26 Jul 2009
Henry Gates was arrested because he had the gall to "mouth off" to a cop.
On July 16, Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr. was returning from a trip to Europe and upon arriving at home found the front door jammed. Given that it was reported that his home was previously burgled when he was out of town one can only imagine the anger of “not this again” shouting in his mind as he tried to enter his home.

At the same time Lucia Whalen, a neighbor who obviously doesn’t have a clue about who her neighbors are calls the police and reports “two black men are trying to break in the front door” begging the question – wouldn’t a burglar try to maintain a low profile during the break in?

But this just isn’t Anytown USA – this is Boston MA. Those who have no grasp of history but do have a grasp on a microphone claim that MA is the most liberal state in the country. The myth no doubt attributable MA being the only state that voted against Richard Nixon in 72. The reality is that MA voted “against” Richard Nixon because he favored busing black students into white neighborhoods.

Indeed racism has a formidable history in MA. It was nearly 20 years ago in this same city when those who are “to protect and defend” us became vigilantes in blue and violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of black men breaking into their home or frisking them on the street to find out who killed a pregnant white woman when her husband, Charles Stuart told police she was killed by a black man in an area of Boston where the couple had no discernable reason to be passing through. A few weeks after the police reign of terror the husband committed suicide because it was he who killed his wife blaming a black man seemed plausible at the time and the police readily agreed.

When the police arrived Prof Gates was already in the house. Now put yourself in his shoes, if in fact you were previously robbed, you return tired from a long trip overseas and your front door is jammed your first thought is you were robbed again and when you do get in the house the police arrive and act as if you broke into someone’s house. The boiling point is reached. In the back of your mind your anger has to be exacerbated by the irony that the police never did catch the guy who robbed you before and now they’re in your house asking you to prove you belong there. Seems reasonable to me that you would demand the arresting officer’s name and badge number.

Enter Officer Friendly, James Crowley a man the press now tells us has been teaching a class to fellow police officers about racial profiling as if that removes any taint that perhaps his actions that night might have been influenced by any racial bias just in case the public is considering that possibility of racial profiling based on previous experience.

The events that followed are basically these: Prof Gates proved to Officer Crowley that he did in fact live there and in the process proceeded to berate the officer and accuse him of being “a rogue cop” whose actions were based solely on the fact that Prof Gates was a black and the implication being that this would not happen if he were white. Tired and annoyed by the tirade Officer Crowley arrested Prof Gates and claimed he was “following the book” which he neglected to mention also includes convincing someone to go outside their home which would make an arrest much easier to conduct.

On July 22 during a press conference conducted by President Obama addressing the issue of a new national health plan Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times asked President Obama about his thoughts of the previous weeks events involving Prof Gates and Officer Crowley and his response that the “police acted stupidly” generated the media’s feeding frenzy and gave American racists across the country reason to come out of the closet and spew their bile.

Lost in all of this is why isn’t anyone asking Lynn Sweet why should we ask that question given the topic of the press conference instead of a more germane and appropriate question something like “This is a two part question Mr. President: given that the United States ranks 37th in the world in health care how do you respond to those politicians who claim we have the best health care in the world and how do you respond to those who say we cannot afford your plan to provide health coverage to those less fortunate while they had no problem financing an unjust, immoral and illegal war in Iraq? Frankly no one should call on Ms. Sweet again as it is obvious she brings nothing but distraction to the table.

Today President Obama tried to diffuse the uproar generated by his comment that “the police acted stupidly” he admitted that his choice of words was inappropriate and that the issue of racial profiling was still a reality that exists for far too many people of color and the Gates/Crowley confrontation provided the opportunity for a teachable moment where we could turn down the volume of our own voices and just listen to each other.

A teachable moment happens when it occurs to me that while Prof Gates is indeed black yet being educated at Yale and teaching at Cornell, Duke and now Harvard hardly qualifies him to identify with those brothers and sisters who are just as black but who experience the in your face and violent degree of racial profiling they are subjected to on a daily basis.

Coast to coast housing projects, slums, gangs, violence and prison are the norm for a good number of people of color – an Ivy League education is not. The former can be a life sentence while the latter is but a few hours of incarceration – claiming the incident occurred purely because of his skin pigmentation is a weak attempt to cover up Prof Gates disdain that the elite among us have for the less educated among us. Perhaps this well educated man who just really found out what it’s like to be black in a white world would be better served by remembering that racism perpetuates itself when the slave begins to imitate the master.

I really don’t think Officer Crowley is a racist but then again there is the undeniable dynamic involved when someone in uniform has a potential opportunity to put someone of color in his/her place . If anything, I think what really triggered Crowley’s reaction was his response to what he perceived Prof Gates demand of “do you know who I am” as a classist remark and excluded the possibility that Prof Gates was implying he belonged in the house. The fact is the police should know something about the people they are serving and protecting. Given Officer Crowley’s history it’s hard to imagine that “uppity Negro” influenced his reaction but he was going to show him that it didn’t matter who Prof Gates was because he was the one with the power to arrest or not arrest.

Seems like a teachable moment is also when I think Officer Crowley should promote changing the book to insure that once a police officer determines that someone rightfully belongs in his/her home and no crime is being committed therein then the officer should realize he or she does not legally have a right or a duty to be there and should promptly leave the scene of a burglary occurring the mind of a neighbor who rightfully should be charged with making a false report regardless of any level of taunting by the home owner.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Gates/Crowley affair is when police across the country deeply resent the implication that race was a factor in the arrest and demand that President Obama apologize for basically being black because the history of race relations between those charged with “protecting and serving” the public is rich with the abuse of power and more often than not getting away with murder as when 4 white police officers killed an innocent black man named Amadou Diallo and were cleared of all charges by an all white jury in Albany NY.

The Diallo murder is but one of a numberless number of crimes committed by armed men in uniform that police unions across the country have yet to apologize for. That and not President Obama’s comment is what is truly insulting. What remains truly disturbing is that civil libertarians have not expressed outrage against another example of the police state that infests this country.

Indeed our society is so conditioned by the over abundance of prime time police operas on television that we accept without question that the role of the police is an honorable profession while the reality is they are protecting and serving the interests of a status quo which owes its very existence to a racism in which Officer Friendly willing participates in and unwittingly perpetuates. That is the teachable moment for anyone willing to listen to the uncomfortable truth rather than the uncomfortable lie that as a nation we have overcome our historical racism. While the President offers to discuss those differences over a beer personally it seems such conversations would have a better chance of success if they were smoking a peace pipe filled with wisdom weed rather than letting the alcohol talk.
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