Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another View on the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Incident

Last night, I wrote a piece on the the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Hopefully, it should be up on IC in the next day or two. However, if you cannot endure the suspense any further this column can be read here.

In the meantime, I came across an interesting take on Gates' arrest by Glenn McNatt of The Baltimore Sun. McNatt, who is African-American, found himself in a similar predicament as Gates. However, unlike Gates, he behaved very differently towards the Baltimore Police and not surprisingly the situation ended with a very different outcome:

A similar mix-up happened to me about 10 years ago, shortly after we moved into a house in Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood. Someone saw me emptying the trash out back one night and called the police.

I was in the kitchen finishing up the dinner dishes when they knocked on the back door; when I opened it they entered and asked if I lived there.

In the end I had to show my driver's license, then call my wife and daughter downstairs to vouch for me.

Unlike Mr. Gates, however, I didn't automatically assume the two officers were racists; one of them was white, but the other was African-American. I figured they were just doing their job, and that they were probably as wary of me as I was of them.

They both managed to stay civil, if professionally cautious, until my story checked out. And I was ever the mild-mannered editorialist, though I didn't mention where I worked or what I did.

Eventually they satisfied themselves that everything was OK and left. I didn't demand an apology, and they didn't offer one.

Afterward, I wondered whether I should have been more indignant, as Mr. Gates apparently was. But I figured there was no point in escalating a situation with a potential to turn nasty, especially with my family in the house.

If Gates had adopted the demeanor and disposition of McNatt with Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department he would never have been placed under arrest. Unless, of course, Gates adopted that demeanor deliberately to draw attention to himself and his cause. But to be fair I cannot read Gates mind. McNatt writes further:

We all bring to these encounters our unique personal histories and agendas; that evening I just wasn't inclined to make a federal civil rights case out of an obvious misunderstanding, even if the misunderstanding did hinge on the ever touchy subject of race.

Now, this assumes the person who called the Baltimore Police did so because McNatt was black. Unless, McNatt has additional information that for whatever reason he is disclined to share one cannot assume the person who made the call was motivated by race. We only know the caller saw something out of the ordinary and contacted the authorities who responded and determined there was nothing out of the ordinary after all. McNatt understood.

This is what police officers do in this country every day and it is what Sgt. Crowley was doing when he responded to the 911 call of a possible breaking and entering at Gates' residence last Thursday. Gates, however, does not or chooses not to understand.

1 comment:

Orion Briggs said...

Its true the situation quickly escalated needlessly.Both parties over-reacted and it ended up being a battle of egos.However,the police officer is held to a much higher standard of accountability.The policeman is required to keep clear head in the face of verbal attacks or personal insult.Dealing with angry people on a daily basis is part of his job.He should be above pettiness and always be the bigger man.A 58yr old man with a cane managed to get a rise out of him which speaks volumes about his level of self control.As it stands,he is quick to anger and prone to make emotional decisions which makes him unqualified for the job.