Now 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.