Three Cheers for Gates and Crowley

Henry Louis GatesNow that all the relevant tapes and manuscripts have been released some folks are growing weary of the Gates-Crowley affair.  When one side in a dispute says the issue has been overblown and it’s time to move on, you know the facts aren’t sliding their way.

So it is with the Cambridge controversy.

We now know that the the Cambridge Police Department had no solid grounds to suspect a break-in.  The woman who reported the incident surmised that the men at the front door might live there.  She reported that the men had suitcases with them (as opposed to the backpacks Sgt. James Crowley cited in his report), which suggests their intentions were innocent (you might bring a duffel bag to a burglary, but a suitcase?)

 In fact, Lucia Whalen told police that the presence of suitcases suggested that the two men she had seen lived in the home.  Whalen said nothing about the race of the men she observed on the porch, yet, if Sgt. Crowley’s incident report is accurate, he entered the home with two black men on his mind.  This suggests that racial profiling was a bigger part of the picture than some of us initially suspected.

The point may be subtle but it is important.  Crowley remembers being told that two black men with backbacks were in the home; where did he get that idea?  He didn’t get it from Whalen?  Perhaps the fact that Gates is black “colored” his memory.   It is also possible, even likely, that a reference to two men with suitcases automatically triggered a mental image in Crowley’s mind of two black guys with backpacks. 

You can disagree with my explanation, but Crowley is clearly the victim of false memory (a subject I am currently researching) and something triggered the two-black-men scenario.

The released tapes also tell us that Sgt. Crowley asked for backup from the Cambridge PD and Harvard campus police after Dr. Gates had clearly identified himself.  Was the strapping young cop really that afraid of a short middle-aged man with a cane?  Obviously not.  So why did he need the backup? 

As I suggested in an earlier post, college professors and police officers are accustomed to deference and sometimes behave badly when they don’t get it.  Hopefully, a beer with the biggest cheese of all will help put things in perspective for both men.

Has the Cambridge stand-off been exaggerated by the media?

I don’t think so.  When was the last time Americans have enjoyed so much good conversation about race, racial profiling, homeowner’s rights, and the proper role of law enforcement? 

Juan Williams, a familiar face on Fox News and a familiar voice on NPR, has developed a reputation as a black herald of a post-racial society.  This morning, Williams was on Morning Edition arguing that the Gates affair has nothing to do with racial profiling.  Williams developed that opinion before the tapes were released and he’s sticking to it. 

President Obama hopes the Gates incident will become “a teachable moment” in America.  Juan Williams doesn’t think the Gates-Crowley encounter has nothing to teach.

Gates has been criticized for whining about a mean cop while poor blacks experience far more egregious treatment at the hands of officers who make Crowley look like Dudley Dooright.  Why hasn’t professor Gates, the man with posh accommodations in Cambridge, Martha’s Vineyard and Manhattan, been talking about the plight of poor blacks all along.  And why has President Obama gone to bat for his friend Skip while refunding the notorious Byrne Grant system so still more black guys can go to prison?

These are very good questions.  But here’s the point: because of what happened in Cambridge people are asking questions, making comments, sharing insights and expressing opinions of every conceivable sort.  Attorney General Eric Holder was right on the money when he called America “a nation of cowards” on the race issue.  Back in February, Holder admitted that the workplaces of America are much more integrated than they once were, but he noted that “Certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character.” 

Well, thanks to Gates and Crowley we’re all talking now.  We’re not all making sense, but we’re talking. 

Like the Jena 6 story or the Tulia drug sting, the Gates affair was fraught with moral ambiguity.  This wasn’t a story pitting a dastardly villain and a virtuous hero–real life doesn’t work that way.  People don’t talk much about hero-villain stories where the moral issues are obvious.  These stories flash across the evening news, we all say “ain’t it awful” and then we move on to the next story about an explosion, a wildfire or a trainwreck. 

But stories like the Gates-Crowley stand-off spark controversy and endless conversation precisely because the issues are subtle and open to a range of interpretation.  Juan Williams is talking about professor Gates and officer Crowley even though, as always, he takes the moderate white position that there’s nothing to it.  Williams is talking about Gates-Crowley because it’s what people are talking about–you can’t avoid the issue if you’re a black commentator paid the big bucks to tell white folks how far they’ve come on the race issue.

Robert Jenson is a white University of Texas professor who tells white people they haven’t come as far on the race issue as they like to think.  Here’s Jenson’s take on the Gates-Crowley brouhaha (highly recommended).

And then, contra Williams, we have the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers decrying racial profiling and siding with professor Gates.

Thousands of articles, hundreds of thousands of blog commentaries and millions of comments have flowed from a single incident.  Maybe Professor Gates doesn’t have much to complain about compared to most poor black victims of racial profiling, but people can identify with Gates precisely because of his academic attainments and lofty social position.  We say, “If it could happen to him . . .”  

Many white homeowners are thinking about the paramaters of police authority because of my-home-is-my-castle concerns. 

Moral ambiguity drives controversy, controversy drives conversation and conversation sometimes produces genuine insight.

You couldn’t dismiss the Jena 6 case by preaching that violence is not the answer (although people certainly tried).  You couldn’t erase the damage done in Tulia by surmising that some of the 46 people arrested were guilty as charged.  And you can’t dismiss the Gates-Crowley stand-off with snide references to professorial arrogance. 

If there weren’t valid points to me made on both sides of these national narratives they wouldn’t inspire so much ardent debate. 

Friends of Justice uses narrative campaigns to pose hard questions about the issues Eric Holder thinks America needs to be talking about: history, race and the criminal justice system.  Our stories aren’t “ripped from the headlines”; we focus on anonymous narratives that would pass unnoticed if we didn’t put the facts together and ask the questions legal professionals aren’t allowed to ask. 

Friends of Justice gives defendants, lawyers, reporters and advocacy groups something to work with.

Statistics and studies don’t inspire debate; stories do. 

So hats off to Sgt. James Crowley and Dr. “Skip” Gates.  Because you weren’t “at your best” our minds and hearts have been stretched.

6 thoughts on “Three Cheers for Gates and Crowley

  1. “The informant said nothing about the race of the men she observed on the porch, yet Sgt. Crowley entered the home with two black men in his mind. This suggests that racial profiling was a bigger part of the picture than some of us initially suspected.”

    Given what we now know the 911 caller said, I think most people draw the opposite conclusion. I do. I don’t know where you got the information about what Sgt. Crowley supposedly had “in his mind” about the race of the reported suspicious persons when he entered the home. I am pretty shocked at this point in the development of the facts to see this incident still being spun as a case of racial profiling on the part of the police.

    On the contrary, it now appears manifest that the only person in this incident focused on race was Prof. Gates, and again, that has been the theme of his career– the injustices perpetrated on “the Black man” by “Whitey”– whereas racial sensitivity training has been an aspect of the career of Sgt. Crowley, whose record on the issue was impeccable and should remain so. The three officers on the scene, one white, one Black, one Hispanic were, and are, all of one mind. So the conclusion I am seeing here does not follow, but mystifies.

    Some other incident will probably provide a better “teachable moment” for your (and I will say “our”) side of these issues, whereas this one probably best serves to teach people to keep their cool and not to jump to conclusions about the motives of police officers doing their jobs, and to begin insulting them on the basis of such assumptions, if one does not wish to go to jail. Also, for the President not to take sides in a non-presidential issue, especially without all the facts and where a personal friend is concerned.

    I thank God that all involved have elected to work things out amicably.

  2. When Sgt. Crowley filed his report he remembered that the informant had described two black males. Who put that notion in his head? Did he make it up? I don’t think so. Did the fact that Gates is black influence his memory? Likely. The most likely explanation is that his memory was influenced by expectations and stereotypical attitude. How else do you explain the apparent invention of black suspects? When you “remember” that the suspects were black you aren’t being objective. You are allowing racial stereotypes to influence your judgment. That’s profiling.

  3. This sounds like a police report that was written by corrupt detective Chad Jeansonne of Bunkie,Louisiana.

    Dr. Bean, keep up the great works! we appreciate all you do for the well being of all. Jerriel BAzile

  4. No, if you’re talking “the most likely explanation” (and you are), it’s that the persons the caller described turned out to _actually be_ two black males, and the report was written after the fact, not between the 911 call and the arrival of police, which is where you’re trying to go.

    Maybe I won’t post anymore. It is irksome to find myself having to work so hard to defend my habitual nemesis, the Cop, for the sake of Truth. Maybe objective facts before humans are nothing but Rorschach blots, with each respective mind seeing what it will. It is a version of the conflicting eyewitnesses conundrum.

    And I see it daily in my work: people stopped for Walking While Black, Driving While Hispanic, and Being in a Black Neighborhood While White. Racial profiling by police goes on all the time. But this just wasn’t it.

  5. officer crowley does not look like a hardened racist but more like a “dennis the menace” type character who, in an uncongenial environment, would likely lash out at anyone who threatens his NON-MENACING disposition. believe me, i have seen some rough cops, all colors, and looking at his puzzled and immature face does not scare me like some cops have scared the h out of me at other times in my life. i know that there are incognito racist but i think i could have just said Yes Sir, No Sir and inflated his ego a bit while he walked on out my front door, apologizing for disturbing me in my castle. let’s move on to the hard core, destabilizing racist attitudes and actions. i’m concerned about the “subtle” racism that is undermining black progression while appearing to be lending “helping hands”.

  6. Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass police department, is a LIAR. Below the lady that made the 911 call says she never said anything about race. The dispatcher “pressed” her and she said “One looked kind of Hispanic, but I’m not really sure. Gates lied about her in his police report. “She went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch,” Crowley wrote in his report.

    Cambridge police Commissioner Robert Haas acknowledged that the police report contains a reference to race, but said the report is merely a summary of events. The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, has said his information on the race of the suspects came during a brief encounter with Whalen outside Gates’ house; she contradicted that Wednesday, saying she made no such description. Crowley falsified a police report which is a crime. Arrest him, indict him, send him to prison, and fine him.

    I contend that Sgt. James Crowley has clearly lied and I would also think this is not the first time. Crowley is a professional LIAR!

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