Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An "Unfathomable" Arrrest

Frederick Douglass portraitImage via Wikipedia
Recently, a Black Ivy league scholar was arrested in broad daylight for disorderly conduct in his own home.  The headline on CNN was titled "An 'Unfathomable' Arrest".  Was it unfathomable?  Really?  Not to me. I hate to have to take the dissenting view from what seems to be the majority opinion being expressed by black folks on this one.  But, I'm going to.  I kind of feel like maybe I should just keep my mouth shut on this one. There is real racism in America. It goes on every single day.  I have been and continue to be a victim of it.  It's important that when it happens that people are made aware of how far we still have to go.  But, when we cry wolf, we hurt our own credibility, we  actually hurt the cause of racial progress.  In the name of being politically correct, I fear the majority of reporters are scared to point out what is obvious to most of us.

Some of the details of the case are still disputed.  We do have the police report.  Maybe Gates will say something later that will change my mind.  But, I don't think he's disputed any of this. The gentleman who was arrested was seen by a (white) woman entering a home.  There were two men on the porch.  She saw one man putting a shoulder to the door (which was stuck according the report I saw last night).  She called the police and an officer was dispatched.  He arrived at the home to find the professor inside.  The officer asked for the professor's identification to confirm he resided at the residence. Rather than hand the office his identification, the professor proceeded to demand the officer's name and badge number and his identification.  The professor refused to step on the porch and speak with the officer.  To the officer's request for identification, he replied "Why because I'm a black man in America?'  According to Gates' own report, he is the one who brought up race, not once but more than once.  If there was racial profiling going on here, as some claim, the professor was guilty of it (too).  He assumed that the office asked for his identification because he was black and the officer was white.  He not only assumed it, he verbalized it.  The officer asked Gates to "step out onto the porch and speak with me," the report says. "[Gates] replied, 'No, I will not.' He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was 'Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police' and that I was 'investigating a report of a break in progress' at the residence.  It's been reported that, at some point during the escalation of the confrontation, the professor made reference to the police officer's "mama".

Jelani Cobb, an author and professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, says it's troubling on many levels when "one of the most recognizable African-Americans in the country can be arrested in his own home and have to justify being in his own home."  Really?  Troubling?  He may be recognizable to Jelani Cobb.  But,  I didn't know his face or name before yesterday.  And, recognizable or not, if a man (black or white) is seen putting his shoulder against a door, it's reasonable for a citizen to call the police.  It's reasonable for the police to respond.  And, it's reasonable for the police to ask the man to prove that he should be there.  I would expect the same whether the man was black or white.  When I lived in Lexington, KY in a middle class neighborhood, I locked myself out of my house one day. I called a locksmith to let me in. The company dispatched a white guy. He came, let me in and then asked me to go into the house and to show him my driver's license and a piece of mail with my name on it to prove I lived there. It seemed like a very reasonable thing to me. Did he do it because I was black and it was a predominantly white neighborhood? Was he racially profiling me? I don't think it was either. It was just standard operating procedure and nothing more sinister than that.

Kim Coleman, a Washington radio host, cultural commentator and blogger, said she grew numb when she saw the mugshot."I was not prepared for that," she said. "To see one of my heroes in a mugshot was not something that I was expecting. ... It just tells me we're not in a post-racial society."  She said there's a reason why you don't hear about prominent white people arrested in their homes: "because it doesn't happen."  Kim, I don't know that it doesn't happen that prominent white people aren't arrested in their homes.  I wonder how many of them get belligerent with the police, making accusations about their motives and talking about their "mamas".  You're right.  This is an indication we're not in a post-racial society.  We don't know what part race played in the policeman's actions.  But, from the professors own words during the confrontation, we know that race played a major part in his actions.

Black or white, right or wrong, whether engaged in legal activity or not, when a police officer asks you for your identification it's best for you to produce it.  I've been pulled over for DWB (driving while black).  As a prudent person, when the police pull me over, I cooperate. It's not because I'm black and they're white.  It's because they are the police and have the force of the law behind them.  If I have a dispute, I'll take it up with the appropriate authorities later.  But, to get into a shouting match with the police is just stupid, IMO.   I would hope a man who has lived as long as the professor is would have learned this lesson. 

Sorry, professor, unless more facts come out in your favor, I just can't get behind you on this one.  
BTW- tonight is the second in a series by Soledad O'Brien- Black in America.  It's on CNN.  The first one was excellent.  If you get a chance to watch it, I suggest you tune in.  I'll be watching.  We still have a long way to go. 

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Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Brian, thanks for sharing what I am sure will be a rather unpopular opinion. I'm as white as the day is long, but I have black friends and I've witnessed racism in action and heard enough stories to make me sick.

I think if the police banged on my door and asked me for identification I'd be upset as well, but I'm sure I would comply. When I read the report about Professor Gates my heart was pounding in my chest. There are a few things that anger me more than others and racism is one of them. I'll admit that my reaction was the same as many others, I assumed the police officer was in the wrong. Why? Because, despite all the excellent policemen I've dealt with over the years and have known personally, I know of far too many with racist tendencies.

Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

okiedragon said...

I am an Air Force brat - we lived in Great Britain when I was in the second, third and fourth grades. I am caucasan, blue eyes, had a nose covered in freckles with long brown hair. I was a damn Yank - boys there in the small town we lived in chased me and my brother and called us names and threw rocks at us. Literally and on multiple occasions.

I wasn't a different color, wasn't anything more than an American living in England. Nothing made me more aware of the cost of bigotry than to be hated for being different even though you could not see a difference. I am now a farmers' market manager and the US Dept of Ag sends out surveys and ask the race question to which I always reply - human race - all members are of the human race. Even in filling out medical records where it says color, I am pink with a farmer's tan. If it asked for race, I'd reply human.

I don't like bigotry - be it based on color, language, or origin. It's too bad when it is called that when it isn't. Just recently we had a black ambulance driver who was man-handled by his neck by the police officer for not yeilding to him but the ambulance driver had a patient in his vehicle. The video tells me in his case - it probably was bigotry in action.

I had not heard the facts as you stated them - I also had assumed the worst. Yes, we should obey police officers, but when the ambulance driver had a patient that needed to get to the hospital, the police officer was wrong. Case by case - thanks for the rest of the story.

Brian said...

I think there is room for disagreement on this. Last night during the press conference, Obama was asked about the incident. When he presented the facts, he summarized the verbal exchange between the officer and the professor (the part between the officer asked for his ID and the professor produced it) as "and some words were exchanged". Ty (my wife) immediately said "I hadn't heard it like that. I think the professor was right."

I think the tone of those words and the words themselves are important. Also, how long did it take the professor to produce his ID? I find it difficult to believe that if the professor had said "I live here, officer. Here is my id." that the situation would have ended with the professor under arrest, no matter how racist the cop might have been.

Don said...

Thanks so much for your perspective, Brian. As was said, probably an unpopular perspective. As I read about this incident, I found myself so torn. I, too, had neve seen a picture of this obviously respected professor, nor heard of his work. That is unfortunate, and as you say, shows we're not in a post-racial American. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to get the "real" story, the "real" facts. However, being from the South, my heart tells me to give the benefit of the doubt to Professor Gates, but I fully understand your position.

Brian said...


I find this to be a very interesting incident and, regardless of the specifics, I always appreciate the opportunity to dialog about race in America. We don't do it enough.

What I find to be interesting is how the tide seems to have turned and now the benefit of the doubt goes to the professor, where a few short years ago it would have gone to the police officer.

As I've said, as a black man, I've been the victim of discrimination many times. I've been pulled over for DWB. And, I would not be shocked if the cop was racist. But, I have to believe the professor contributed to the incident, based on what I know so far.


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I've seen lots of racism over the years, both observing it directed at friends and also, it's amazing what white people will say to other white people. They just assume I am racist too and I'm left with my mouth hanging open in shock.

Incidents like this, while inflammatory to the whole race issue, are also good for getting people talking about race. I like to ask racist people if surgeons have to go to different schools to learn how to operate on different races.

Alivia said...

Brian, Thanks for sharing your unpopular opinion. I think it is time we talked more thoroughly about race and surrounding issues. There is a lot to heal from. I am a white girl, grew up in white, middle-America and found out that I am part black. I understand from my research that this is not uncommon. From the time I was a youngster, I had a sensibility about race that was unpopular in my family-- but that might be a gift of recognizing I was gay at a young age, I don't know. However, when we really get talking about this we need to talk about healing from internalized racism, from trauma related to events with a race component, and from yes, racism against whites-- or counter racism. People are still being victimized true, but when they are not and they cry wolf, or instigate or escalate a conflict where there isn't one, or where cooler heads de-escalate and possibly even educate, this is a sign we have a lot of work to do. Let's get on with the healing-- and those who are not interested-- well, they will die off eventually, and in the meantime we can pray they have a powerful "conversion" experience.
Thanks Brian, well spoken.

Anonymous said...

Brian, well said. I read the police report today at "Smoking Gun", and I think its enlightening to the situation. Assuming the report is truthful, and I was not there, it does make the police officer seem more cool headed than initial news reports would have you think.

Here is the police report. I recommend everyone read it:

By the way, another thing to keep in mind, is that although I'm quite sure there is no shortage of racial profiling and straight out racism with some cops, you have to remember that a good number of them in general are just Type A personalities, and I think alot of situations are not racial motivated, but just times when they over-react in general. I'm white and was pulled over by a white cop. My windows were slightly tinted and he couldn't see if I had a passenger. My window was totally rolled down, both of my hands on the steering wheel in plain sight, and he came up slowly to my car but behind my drivers window. I could see His hand was already on his gun. He asked if there was anyone else in the car. I replied in a totally calm and normal manner "No, I'm the only one in the car". The cop apparently thought i had a disrespectful tone, and responded in anger saying "If you talk to me like that again, I'll pull you right out through that window!" in a loud and scary tone. And if you've seen the recent news stories of police "tasings" and youtube videos of it (70 yr old grandmother recently tased by cop for talking back to him. White on white. You have to see it to believe it), you will realize that alot of cops overreact, and it has nothing to do with race. (Another recent story. Mayor of MD town, has his house busted into for suspected drug bust, his mother-in-law is handcuffed and slammed to ground, and they shot his 2 golden retrievers. White mayor, white cops. By the way, wrong house. Oops sorry about that!).

In this specific story regarding the professor, it does appear that he overreacted, but it frequently is the other way around with the police losing their cool, and that can happen without any kind of racial motivation.

- Darren

Brian said...


It's ironic that during this discussion of stereotyping and profiling that we would be discussing the general nature of cops. But, I agree with your assessment. I think that cops are type As by nature. You'd almost have to be to go into that line of work. Couple that with running into bad guys all day long every day and it's easy to understand why they would overact. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who lays their life on the line everyday. And it's no exaggeration to say that cops do that.

Your story doesn't surprise me and you're right. Cops overact, white-on-white, all the time.

I give cops a wide berth and I understand they will probably be prone to overreaction. I try to make them feel as safe as possible whenever I have to interact with them.


kc bob said...

I so appreciate the way that you have framed the story and offered your insights Brian. I am not sure what really happened but find the arrest to be somewhat of an absurdity.. just because the policeman can explain it does not mean that he exercised good judgment.

Even if Prof Gates was upset the policeman should have recognized his response for what it was and dealt with it in a way that did not cause an arrest.. an arrest was not warranted.. black/white/brown/whatever.. the man was in his own home.

I do not think that it is helpful to excuse the bad judgment of a "professional" who should be able to deal with such a response.. even if it was loud and belligerent.

Of course I may be way off base.. wouldn't be the first time.

Brian said...

That is an interesting perspective, Bob- that the policeman was responsible for defusing the situation. I agree that he should have been trained on how to handle belligerent people and should have skills on conflict resolution. Maybe there's enough blame to go around to both sides in this story. But, I've gotta say this is not a clear case of racial profiling and I don't believe it deserves the national attention it's getting. We have much more important things to talk about. I really wish Obama had not put his two cents in during the news conference the other night. He hijacked his own agenda concerning health care by answering the totally unrelated question tossesd at him.

kc bob said...

I agree with you last comment Brian.. probably not profiling.. and I am sure that the prez wishes he had not jumped into the mess.