Fear, Race, and Pride in the Gates Arrest

By Alan Bean 7-27-2009

A New York Times piece picks up on a question Scott Henson introduced on his blog: What does the behavior of Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge PD say about police culture?

Not surprisingly, there is little consensus among police officers on the thick-skin vs. zero tolerance question.

An LAPD officer is unimpressed with Crowley's approach: "Whether we're giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we're not dealing with people at their best, and if you don't have a tough skin, then you shouldn't be a cop."

A New York detective disagrees: "We pay these officers to risk their lives every day. We're taught that officers should have a thicker skin and be a little immune to some comments. But not to the point where you are abused in public. You don't get paid to be publicly abused. There are laws that protect against that."

Have you noticed that officer Crowley's police report is generally embraced by the media as gospel truth while Professor Gates' version of the story is rarely mentioned? The Harvard professor says he repeatedly asked officer Crowley for his name and badge number, a clear indication that a formal complaint was in the offing. Crowley, Gates says, refused to comply.

The adversarial dynamic between the two men was fueled by fear, race, and male ego.

In an abstract and academic sort of way, Professor Gates has always been wrestling with the ghosts of American racism. As Stanley Fish points out, Gates has experienced continual snubs and "the soft bigotry of low expectations" throughout his career. But suddenly, the professor found himself confronted by a white cop who couldn't accept the fact that a black man might own a house in an exclusive Cambridge neighborhood. Gates interpreted the encounter in terms of the oppression narrative he knows so well. It wasn't that officer Crowley was asking for identification as a formality; the man clearly didn't believe that Gates was telling the truth.

Like the civil rights leaders of an earlier era, Henry Louis Gates wasn't going to back down by allowing the officer who had invaded his home to control the situation.

That's how the situation appeared to Henry Louis Gates.

How did the scene look and feel to officer Crowley? It's hard to say. His terse police report focuses almost entirely on Professor Gates' alleged histrionics (a preemptive strike against an anticipated complaint); Crowley says little about his own feelings and perceptions.

But a few safe conclusions can be drawn. Crowley had been led to believe that two big black men with backpacks were trying to break in to a home in a posh Cambridge neighborhood. The fact that both Gates and his driver were dressed professionally, that neither man wore anything resembling a backpack, and that Gates weighs 150 pounds in a three-piece suit doesn't figure into the equation

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