Fear, race and pride


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 into 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–Crowley was reacting to the information he had received.  As silly as it may seem in retrospect, Crowley had reason to believe that his life was in danger.

In short, both men had good reason to be afraid.

Officer Crowley’s training and experience taught him to project a “command presence” in threatening situations.  When you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous person you want to be the man in control.  Even when asking for identification, Crowley was determined to dominate the scene.  When Gates initially refused to identify himself, Crowley became even more brusque and demanding. 

Eventually, professor Gates produced positive proof that he was indeed a Harvard professor and that he really was the legal occupant of the home.  Then Gates turned the tables by asking Crowley for his name and badge number.  Crowley’s report suggests that Gates used his status as a well-connected Harvard professor as a weapon–the equivalent of the firearm strapped to Crowley’s hip.

Now we move beyond fear, race and professional pride into an Alpha-male standoff–two put bulls determined not to give an inch.  Gates wasn’t going to back down to a white authority figure who insisted on treating him like a common criminal.  Crowley wasn’t going to defer to an arrogant ivory tower academic looking down his nose at a lowly cop. 

Barack Obama has invited both officer Crowley and professor Gates to the White House for a beer.  Gates has accepted the invitation; hopefully Crowley will follow suit.  I like the image: three good-hearted American guys talking things out over a Budweiser.

19 thoughts on “Fear, race and pride

  1. I don’t think alcohol is a good idea. Alcohol make people hyper sensitive to assaults on their self esteem and increases the chance that they will perceive as an insult something that was not meant as an insult, it also releases anger. The appropriate drug to use would be marijuana which relaxes and opens the mind, unfortunately it is illegal.

    I suggest getting both to participate in one of Jane Elliott’s racism sensitization exercises or at least view the documentary films “Blue Eyed” and “A Class Divided”.

  2. Crowley gave his name to Gates at the outset of the confrontation. When a person screams “Give me your name and badge number!” it is a blatant attempt to intimidate and obstruct the officer. In this situation, Gates’ demands to have Crowley’s badge number couldn’t have been anything else. This was not a random traffic stop, or a confrontation outside of a bar. Gates knew full well that he didn’t need Crowley’s badge number to identify him in any potential complaint. On top of that, this was broad daylight and there were several witnesses standing in the street outside Gates’ home. When a police officer knows that a person is trying to intimidate them with these kinds of threats, they rarely comply. Despite that, Crowley was prepared to give Gates his card, but stopped when he saw that wasn’t going to mollify the professor. Gates wanted to berate and humiliate the officer. That was the price Sgt. Crowley was going to have to pay for daring to enter his home and ask for his identification, which he refused to provide initially.

    The reason this story has captured so much attention in the media is because it is a classic case of reversal. We have an affluent, arrogant and highly educated African-American who apparently feels that white police officers are corrupt racists and that he has the right to refuse to comply with their requests even though they were sent to protect his property. In this case, Dr. Gates picked the wrong officer to hurl those accusations at.

  3. Again, Gates says Crowley refused from the outset to give his name. So we are back to your unwillingness to believe a word a highly respected Harvard scholar says. Further, you entirely discount the sense of horror Gates’ black friends experienced when they came to his aid. Is this all just a figment of the race-baiting imagination?

  4. I don’t believe this is an accurate description of what happened. Crowley identified himself as “Sgt. Crowley” on Gates’ front porch, before entering his home, where he also stated why he was there. Obviously, being a uniformed officer with his squad car parked in front of the house, Crowley was that which he claimed to be. The only reason Gates asked for his “name and badge number” when Crowley came inside his home was to intimidate the officer. In this case, there was no other reason to ask for it. Gates wanted Crowley to know that he intended to make him pay a price for his intrusion.

    Gates’ scholarly background, which was entirely unknown to Sgt. Crowley, is irrelevant, as is the fact that some of Gates’ friends were horrified at seeing him in handcuffs. You have to strip those things away and look at the specific behavior that led to Gates’ arrest. Given the fact that Gates’ was still arrested after his identity had been verified by the campus police and after Sgt. Crowley had radioed his dispatcher that he was “probably talking to the owner of the residence” leads me to believe that Gates’ behavior, rather than his color, is what led to his arrest.

    The officer chose to make a discretionary arrest based on his assessment that Gates was refusing to comply with his multiple warnings to calm down. Quite obviously, the scene that Gates was making in front of his neighbors was intended to inflame them and rally their support. No police officer is going to allow themselves to be driven from a scene in that manner. That’s why Professor Gates was arrested.

  5. If an officer introduces himself a single time, I am unlikely to remember the name. If I want the officer to tell me his name and give me his badge number it isn’t up to the officer to evaluate whether or not I need the information. The officer’s job is to protect and serve Gates, not the other way around. We are dealing with a complex human interraction here and you aren’t willing to credit the humanity of one party in the dispute. That is your right, of course, but I find it troubling.

  6. All peace officers wear name plates. Besides, Gates wasn’t just demanding Crowley’s name. Again, demanding a badge number in this scenario is strictly an attempt to intimidate and obstruct the officer. Gates didn’t need that information in order to file a complaint, because it wasn’t a random traffic stop. Gates’ job, as a law-abiding citizen, was to comply with the officer’s requests, knowing he was there in response to a call about a reported crime in progress, and he refused to do that. I know that it is somewhat out of fashion to side a white police officer in an incident such as this, but I see more evidence that Gates’ behavior was out of line than I do that the officer was a racist. The fact that you’re more willing to accept Gates’ characterization of the event than a police officer’s says more about you than it does about the facts of the case.

  7. There are clearly two phases to this incident: before the cop saw Gates’ identification and after. What was appropriate in the initial phase (polite request from the officer and compliance from Gates) was not appropriate in the second phase. Once Gates has established his credentials as a law abiding home owner he is in charge and it is the responsibility of the officer to comply with his wishes as a humble public servant. No one can argue with that. So, if Gates wants the officer’s name and badge number he has every right to it–in the second phase. The transition from phase one to phase two involved a shift from officer as authority figure to officer as public servant. Gates is then in an employer-emplyee relationship since, as a tax payer he supports the police department. If this isn’t standard policy it should be. My guess is that cop culture changes remarkably from department to department depending on who is in charge of policy. The Cambridge PD needs to reevaluate a few things on the basis of this incident and I suspect this will happen.

  8. Alan, again, this is not accurate. Just because Gates identified himself does not mean that he had satisfied the officer’s concern about the situation inside that house. It was merely the first step of the investigation. You’ll remember that the initial phone call to the police department reported that two men were trying to break into Gates’ home, not just one. The tone that Gates chose to take with the officer from the outset raised the officer’s suspicions about what was actually going on.

    The point at which the confrontation changed is when Crowley had to call on the campus police in order to verify Gates’ identity. The reason this was even necessary is because Gates had refused to show Crowley a license with his address on it. Instead, he just waved his Harvard ID at the officer, in another obvious attempt to intimidate the officer. At that point, Sgt. Crowley radioed his dispatcher that he was “probably talking to the owner of the home, but he is being very uncooperative.” Gates could have stepped back and moderated his behavior, knowing that his identity was no longer in question, but the officer still had a concern about someone else being in the house. Instead of calming down, Gates decided to escalate the situation by screaming at the officer.

    In a situation like this one, it is the responsibility of the police officer to exercise full authority until he– not the homeowner– is satisfied that the situation has been fully assessed and resolved. It was NEVER up to Professor Gates. The transition point, where the confrontation went from being a possible crime scene to disorderly conduct by the homeowner, came when Sgt. Crowley asked Professor Gates to step out onto his porch. This is when this renowned Harvard scholar said, “I’ll talk to your momma outside!” and he continued to scream at the officer as neighbors gathered in the street.

    Can we at least agree that Professor Gates behavior toward the officer was hostile from the outset, and that he said he was the victim of racial profiling?

  9. We can agree that Gates sees himself as a victim of racial profiling. I don’t know for certain how hostile Gates was since we have conflicting accounts that are difficult to reconcile. Gates says he was aggressively attempting to get the officer’s name and badge number. Was this an attempt to intimidate the officer or merely an attempt to balance the playing field. I’ll tell you one thing, if an officer enters my home for whatever reason he can expect a less than hospitable reception. No home owner should have to prove that they own their own home. If it is necessary for an officer to ask a home owner to prove he owns the home he is sitting in the question should be accompanied by an apology. As for the second person mentioned in the emergency call, I have no idea how that issue was handled. I credit the basic outline of both accounts but am inclined to believe that both men are relating the facts to their own advantage. This doesn’t make them bad people, but it does mean that a measure of skepticism is appropriate in both directions. It is the tendency to believe the cop and dismiss the professor out of hand that bothers me.

  10. I have enjoyed this lively exchange between the two of you. I don’t think that white people will ever fully understand the feelings that people of color experience at the sight of a police officer. I grew up idolizing police officers. I thought they were heroes. In fact, I still think many of them are heroes who put their life on the line. The problem is that my experience is very different than that of many people of color, especially that of African-American males. My black male friends have helped explain to me the deep fear and mistrust that they experience in the presence of police officers, especially white officers. Their experience, and their knowledge of the experience of other black friends, has led them to be extremely wary and fearful of what an officer will do to them. I suspect that all three of us in this discussion can understand that reality on an intellectual level, but I don’t think we can understand it on deeply emotional level. My guess is that Sgt. Crowley cannot understand that deep emotional response either. Prof. Gates obviously can and did during the incident.

    John, you have stated many times in your responses that Gates overreacted and was hostile towards Crowley. From your perspective as a white male, that is understandable because of your experience of the police as being trustworthy and there to protect you (I am assuming your experience is at least somewhat similar to mine — though of course that may not be the case). I wonder John — could you perhaps put yourself for a moment in Dr. Gates’ shoes, taking into consideration all the weight of racism, racial profiling and the lockup of millions of black males? How would you feel and how would you react when you experience tells you that the police are to be feared, not trusted? How would you feel when many of your friends have been pulled over for “driving while black”? Can you get a small sense of why Gates responded the way he did? Can you really fault him for reacting the way he did when emotions so powerfully take over in situations like this?

  11. “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.”

    I think the above characterization or conclusion is completely insupportable _except as_ Prof. Gates’ purely subjective and personally biased perception. I understand this was done for effect, but it could be misleading to the casual reader.

    Stanley Fish in the New York Times blog related some of Prof. Gates’ actual experiences of that type in Durham, North Carolina, but all reliable indications are that this is not what happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts. See the statements, reported in the Boston Globe, of black Cambridge Police Sgt. Ashley who was also present, witnessed the incident. He “support[s Sgt. Crowley] 100%.” I’m not saying I agree, because I think the arrest was optional, and that the better option was not to do it. However, Sgt. Ashley’s statement convincingly contradicts perceptions, on the part of both Gates and half of the many commentators who were not there, of any racist animus on the part of Sgt. Crowley.

    In a contest of alpha personalities, a professor may win in the long run (we shall see), but in the moment, the police officer has the distinct advantage. And so it should be, in all but the rarest case. I agree with John that drawing a sympathetic and potentially violent crowd on the street, by just such a display as Gates made, is one of the specific dangers officers face. There are particular offenses (e.g., the proverbial “Riot Act”) that can be charged when bystander involvement is purposely instigated. The officer’s training is that in such cases it is imperative that they maintain authority and control. Whether that required an arrest in this case I still doubt, and consider an open question.

    Racism is terrible, and the false accusation of racism is proportionately terrible. You risk making the same mistake that President Obama did– being accurate in the generalization, and inaccurate in the specific case. Allowing Prof. Gates all of the respect to which he is entitled, and his abundantly apparent humanity, his characterization of the facts remains highly suspect. Withholding faith in his version seems prudent at least for now, since it may soon be superseded by objective evidence.

    Again I call for release of all the audio recordings. I remain a stubborn member of what politicos call “the fact-based community,” an attribute which often frustrates my more ideological friends. Candidates’ handlers in the run-up to an election don’t even waste their time on my kind, first because we are so small a group, and second because by the time the facts can shake out the election is over. But there is no election now, and it matters that we get to the bottom of this incident.

  12. You write persuasively, King (as have all contributors to this discussion). But consider the circumstance. You have been told that two big black guys with backpacks are trying to break into a home. You enter the home several minutes later and find a small, professionally attired middle-aged gentleman with a cane. If the gentleman was white you would know he wasn’t one of the reported burglars–he didn’t fit the description. Gates fit the description in only one respect–he was black. When he showed his credentials the officer remained unconvinced. This is strong indication that he really did take Gates for a criminal–that was certainly what Gates thought and, unlike you and me, he was there. Again, it comes down to whether you trust these guys to tell the truth. I trust them to tell a highly subjective version of the truth, but, as you suggest, we need to remain open to the possibility that the actual encounter, objectively considered, would be quite different than either account we presently have. No tape, audio or video, would cover the initial encounter and that’s what got things going downhill.

    It is the very ambiguity of this case that makes it so revealing. People fill in the gaps on the basis of their experience. As Mr. Hildebrand says, Blacks and whites have very different experiences with the police and a good cop will understand this.

    I am hoping the two men take Obama up on his offer and drop by the White House for a beer. I doubt much good will come from an adversarial process.

  13. Alan, the description provided by Ms. Whalen in her 9-1-1 call was simply “two black men with backpacks”. She offered no other details. The fact that Gates might have or might not have had his cane with him is irrelevant. And do you know how Gates was dressed? He was in the house and he was a black man, therefore he fit Ms. Whalen’s description. You ignore the fact that, from officer Crowley’s perspective, there might’ve been a second person somewhere in the house. You’re attempting to spin this so that it supports your conclusions.

    If the truthfulness of these two men defines what really happened, then you have to address the fact that Gates has lied about two things: first, that he didn’t scream at Crowley and, second, that he fully complied with the officer’s requests. Nobody has come forward to contradict the officer’s characterization of Gates’ behavior. Nobody. And there were several witnesses in front of Gates’ home. Furthermore, I’m sure that by this time the department (and probably President Obama) has listened to the tapes and they’ve heard Dr. Gates yelling at the officer while he was trying to communicate on the radio. On top of that, you have Officer Ashley quoting some of Dr. Gates’ belligerent remarks.

    I will very surprised if Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley agree to meet face-to-face in front of President Obama. Crowley will want to discuss the specifics of the incident which led to his decision to arrest Gates, but Gates will no doubt want to speak in general terms about racial profiling and how blacks in this country experience law enforcement. A meeting like that will resolve nothing.

  14. I think that discussing the issue in general terms is a healthy thing for our society, but I don’t see anything positive coming out of a continued debate on the specifics of this particular incident. My guess is that this blog is a fairly accurate representation of the way the country as a whole feels about it and who was in the wrong. Better that we should agree to disagree on the facts as we now understand them and move on.

  15. We can talk about the greater issues and that would be a healthy process for the society. But those things have little to do with this specific incident. You’ve assumed that “white privilege” played a role in this situation, yet the specifics of the incident do not bear that out. You can also argue about the validity of the legislation which allows officers to make discretionary arrests for disorderly conduct, but that’s another of those “greater issues”.

  16. What is known is a potential robbery was being INVESTIGATED. Wasn’t this made clear to Mr. Gates? Probably so. I can tell you with certainty that if a policeman came to my house and I’d been trying to get my door open by breaking it in, I’d have complied with whatever the officer wanted. OBVIOUSLY, I would already know that I had had to break in my own door to get in. I think Mr. Gates came across as what he probably is, obnoxious and arrogant. Sometimes it is just good to look at the obvious, and the obvious to me is that he was arrogant and obnoxious. Whether to arrest MAY BE a judgment call, but I was not there. I think Gates needs to take an inservice on reverse racism.

  17. It is again interesting to see that “L” has assumed that it was Gates who was “arrogant and obnoxious”. Is it not possible that Crowley too was arrogant and obnoxious? But the assumption is made that only Gates was so. This is another example of the subtle default mode that many whites go to — where we immediately assume that the white officer is “right” and the black man (even though he is a Harvard educated professor) is “wrong.” I know that all the other officers, including the officer of color, stand by Crowley. That does not suprise me when it come to the police. Their first loyalty is always going to be to each other.

    It seems clear that Gates did overreact to the situation, but so did officer Crowley in his arrest. “Reverse racism”, as “L” referred to, is one of the most heinous myths of our current state of race relations. There are certainly rare situations of racial prejudice by people of color against whites, but racism is a socially constructed system of preference that benefits whites over people of color (even when said whites don’t have any conscious understanding of the preferences they receive — which is often the case). Therefore, with this understanding of racism it is impossible for Gates to engage is “reverse racism”, but it is entirely possible for him to engage in racial prejudice, though I don’t think that was the case here. The more likely sceneraio is that Gates felt 1) fear — based on his and most black men’s very negative experience with police officers, and 2) exhaustion after returning home jet-lagged from an oversees trip. The combination of the two seems the most likely cause of his strong reaction to the questioning from Crowley.

    I just don’t think that whites like myself fully grasp the fear and anger within the African-American community over the historic treatment of black men. We need to start to understand and hopefully become advocates for just policing practices. I’m glad to see that the “beer summit” as it was dubbed seemed like a step in the right direction. I hope the conversation on racial profiling and its horrible legacy continues.

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