Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Failure To Communicate

In a nutshell, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in Cambridge, MA after a neighbor called 911 when she thought she saw two African-American men with backpacks trying to force entry into a house.

Just to add to the fun, "Skip" Gates is a friend of the President and when he was asked about the incident at the end of last night's press conference, he said the police had "acted stupidly".

Professor Gates' attorney, Charles Ogletree, issued a statement giving Professor Gates' side of the story.

The police officers report of the incident is up on The Smoking Gun.

According to Gates, he had just arrived home from a trip to China and couldn't get in his front door because of problems from a previous break in. He went to the back door, let himself in with his key so he could turn off the alarm, and returned to the front door where he solicited his driver's help to force open the front door so they could bring in his luggage.

It was at this point that a neighbor noticed the activity, called 911, and police responded.

You can read the police report and attorney statement I linked to above to get the finer details, but suffice it to say that Professor Gates is claiming Racial Profiling while the arresting officer is claiming Disorderly Conduct.

The arresting officer, whose incredibly ironic name is Jim Crowley, claims he was just carrying out his job in a professional manner (Crowley is also an instructor at the Police Academy who teaches a class in how to AVOID racial profiling). According to his account, Gates was verbally abusive, uncooperative and started yelling about "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO A BLACK MAN IN AMERICA!"

According to Gates, he was polite, cooperative and was arrested without cause, in his own home, after providing identification, just because he was black.

There are a lot of forces in play here. Let me run them down for you.


Let me preface this with a little story.

I used to work in a credit office for a high end (heh heh) retailer at Crown Center. I started in collections and later graduated to processing credit apps.

Not an optimal career path.

Because the only customers I encountered in the beginning were the deadbeats, I came to view all customers as deadbeats. I never had any contact with good customers. So when I started processing credit apps, I was predisposed to view them all as evil doers trying to rip us off. I routinely turned down potential customers who had better credit scores than me!

Luckily, I didn't have the final say and my credit manager vetoed many of my recommendations. She reminded me that our job wasn't to turn away villains, but to find ways to open accounts for people so they could buy our overpriced Russian Lacquer Boxes because that's what paid our salaries!

Cops are the same way. The only people they come into contact with are criminals or people suspected of being criminals. After a while, they start assuming that everyone is a criminal. The only delineation they acknowledge is between criminals who are getting away with it and criminals brought to justice.

So despite the antiseptic spin presented in the official police report, I have no doubt that Officer Crowley walked into the incident with certain preconceptions and assumptions. It's inevitable.

He was responding to a report of black men attempting to break into a house only to find black men inside the house. What was he supposed to think?

Bottom line...neither one of us were there so we don't know what happened other than what we read in the news.


By his own account, he had just returned from a trip to China. I have no idea how long he was in China. I don't know how long the flights from China to Massachusetts are. I don't know how many stops, flight changes, custom checks, bag inspections, and other inconveniences are involved.

But I used to do a lot of business travelling. I know that even after an overnight trip that only involved a 3 hour flight, all I wanted to do was get home and sleep in my own bed. Anything that stood between me and that was the enemy and had to be defeated.

So put yourself in his shoes. It's been a long gruelling trip, he's tired, he just wants to get home and go to bed. He can't get his front door open. FUCK! He jumps through hoops to get in the house, get his luggage unloaded, he calls the property management office to get the problem with the front door fixed, and he looks up to see a white cop at his door who thinks he is a potential criminal.

Immediately, like it or not, hundreds of years of racial tension bubble up on both sides of that door. If both parties are aware of it, they can each follow a strategy to negotiate the rapids and avoid the boulders. But if one party is tired and cranky and the other person is jaded and concerned with his safety, real communication becomes impossible and shit blows up.

I'll tell you right now, I have snapped and gone off on innocent white folk just trying to do their jobs under much less stressful and emotionally loaded situations because I was tired, cranky and just wanted to be home.

Bottom line...neither one of us were there so we don't know what happened other than what we read in the news.


I've read the police report and I've read Gates' attorney's response. I seriously doubt that the President has read either one. At least I hope not. I would hope he is devoting his time to more Presidential matters. He's been briefed by staff. He may have spoken to Gates personally. I have no idea.

But he was wrong to say that "the police acted stupidly". He didn't have all of the facts. None of us do.

The United States is a country that prides itself on placing "The Rule of Law" above all else. No one, not even the President or Congress are above The Law. So lacking substantial evidence to the contrary, the POTUS needs to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement.

Don't get me wrong. I think we have way too many laws, way too many "mandatory minimum sentences" and way too many Barney Fifes.

But one of the reasons that Barack Obama was able to capture so many white votes was because he wasn't Jesse Jackson, he wasn't Al Sharpton, and he didn't constantly have his lips wrapped around the victim trumpet!

By immediately blaming the police, he played into that tired old victim mentality.

He should have just said "I don't know the facts, I wasn't there, let's let the process work, let's see what really happened."

President Obama fucked up. Yeah, that's right. I just said that.

Prediction: I'll say it every time I think he fucks up and he will fuck up again and again as long as he is president.


If there is any real racism involved here, it isn't from the professor or the cop. It's from the white woman who saw two black men forcing their way into a house and reported it as a potential crime in progress.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for neighborhood watch groups. If she was a white woman just passing through the neighborhood, who didn't know anything, and came across something like that, I could maybe see her calling 911.

But according to reports, it was a woman who lived across the street!

She didn't know that the black man living across the street was a Harvard Professor?

She doesn't recognize him?

I used to drive taxis and I've been transported by many taxis and limos. She didn't see the taxi or Lincoln Continental running idle with it's lights on and the trunk open at the curb while these shenanigans were going on?

If there was any racial profiling, if was by the neighbor across the street who assumed that the anonymous black man trying to get into his house must be a crime in progress.

This entire incident was a COLOSSAL failure to communicate.


m.v. said...

no argument from me.technically they were breaking into the house, his house but still. lady across the street could've yelled or tried to get closer, but what if these were real burglars. anyone can have a town car. I also heard there were previous break-ins. if you start screaming at a cop,white or black, even if you are right there is a good chance you will go downtown. see show Cops for proof.

Do you see me? said...

Can't agree with you on this one XO. Once the officer determined that Gates was in fact, the resident (and he states that in his report), he should have left. End of incident. How can you arrest someone for being disorderly in a public place when the man was on his OWN FRONT PORCH. If he was physically pushing or hitting the officer, then yes. But yelling? C'mon. The officer acted stupidly, and the President is in a unique position to stand up and say what many people believe. This is not an exacting situation that requires discovery and CSI. KIS.

I Travel for JOOLS said...

This was a really thoughtful, well written post.

I understand there are some tapes of this incident, the officer calling in, etc. That may shed some light on the situation. In addition, there were several witnesses so I expect we'll eventually hear from some of them if the press pays them

I agree with most of what you said except for the part about the woman who called the incident in. First, there had been a recent attempted break-in at the professor's house so obviously the area is not crime-proof and she probably is aware of that. Second, I would have called the police if I saw somebody slamming into a front door of a residence in my neighborhood and I didn't know that person. What makes you think all neighbors should recognize one another. Do you? I sure don't.

As for the POTUS, he stepped in it and apparently has now chosen to wade in it. I'm really surprised as I think it's a lose-lose situation for him which will end up costing him some substantial white blue collar support.

Inspector Clouseau said...

Nice, succinct, and appropriate title for your article, and containing many good points.

We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.

Xavier Onassis said...

Do You See Mee - According to the police report, Gates was being loud and verbally abusive to a police officer responding to a reported burglary. According to the report, Gates followed the officer out of the house and continued insulting him and making threats. Anyone with over 32 brain cell should know that you don't yell and scream at the polic when they are doing their jobs. If you think the officer is wrong, the place to plaed that case is in court with a good lawyer. Being verbally abusive to a police ifficer will never, ever, make things better no matter what color your skin is or what the circumstances are. I can understand some drug-slinging gangsta-thug thinking that night work because they are, well, idiots. But a Professor at Harvard should know better.

Jools - I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. The odds of stumbling upon a crime in progress are pretty slim. So even if I see suspicious activity, I can usually come up with a rational explanation that doesn't involve criminal activity.

Inspector - I was mildly disappointed that your hyperlink didn't take me to that classic video of Chris Rock explaining "How to NOT get your ass kicked by the police". Specifically, the "shut the fuck up" segment.

emawkc said...

I read the police reports to which you linked, and here are my thoughts.

There are two reports, on by the arresting office (Crowley) and another by a supporting office who arrived a short time later (Figueroa). The second report seems to support the narrative published by Crowley.

In my opinion the police reports are more credible than Gates' at this point due to the corroboration. Eyewitness testimony may change or reinforce that in the weeks to come.

And based on those reports I'd say Gates was being belligerent, and continued to bait the office even after he (Crowley) left the house. And what was true in Shermer High School in 1985 is still true today: If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.

Now, I don't think I agree with arresting anybody for "disorderly conduct." Seems like a catchall charge that authorities can pull out if they just want to make a point. At least, the conduct should be seriously disorderly, in my opinion, for a person to get arrested for it. Way more disorderly than yelling just yelling racist invectives.

Still, if the police reports are accurate, Gates is a real douche. He probably deserved a swift kick in the pants for pulling out the line "You have no idea who you're messing with" -- I can't stand people who say that.

Faith said...

The news as of today is reporting that the person who called the police about the break-in was not, in fact, a neighbor, but was a woman passing by the house.

And none of them have said whether she was white, black, Asian, or hispanic. Just...a woman. Passing by. So hopefully that helps a bit in the whole, "I would HOPE my own neighbor would know who I am!" argument. (Which, for the record, I agree with. I know all the neighbors on my street, along with the ones that have yards connecting to mine. I've lived there for 6 years, though, so I should hope I would know them when I see them!) Here's what it said in an article on MSN today about Crowley not being a racist according to friends and coworkers: "Crowley confronted Gates in his home after a woman passing by summoned police for a possible burglary."

Obama shouldn't have stepped up and said anything about this, friend or not. It was out of place for the event he was addressing, and it was over the line, comment-wise.

emawkc said...

Oh, and yes, Obama acted stupidly.

m.v. said...

yesterday daily show weighed in, I don't have a link but you can go there an it's the first clip

Logtar said...

If I had not heard in detail of the tail of a young athlete from a good family in Texas that was gun down because of a similar situation right in their parents home I would have said the same thing as you did. However, I think cops are wrong on this one. That and the lady that was obviously nousey enough to notice people in a front porch, but not enough to know that a professor lived in front of her house. That is why I dislike that fact that in the US nobody knows who they live around. This craps does not happen in Colombia :) we freaking kick the crap out thieves in our neighborhood ;) I will never forget the time even an old lady from down the street helped out.

Midtown Miscreant said...

You'll never completly remove race from any issue in this country. People are jumping on the woman who called it in, making assumptions, without all of the facts, sort of like Obama did. Some reports say it was someone driving down the street, some say it was a neighbor. Maybe the neighbor was new, maybe she was just visiting a family member, maybe she was old and half blind, maybe she was the imperial wizard of the kkk. Nobody knows. I wrote pretty much the same thing as you, except I didnt let Obama off so easy. You'll recall I supported bama, still do, but....he showed big time racial bias and piss poor judgement. He ran on unification, change,'s his job to make shit better, not fuck it up more. His response did 3 things. It fed the black camp that says "nothins changed its us against them" he alienated the FOP, thats a strong group to have as an enemy come election time, and third he fed the white camp who says "see, I told you it was us against them". Couple more chowder head moves like that, and Ill have to question if he is really the right guy for the job.

Midtown Miscreant said...

and everyone is assuming the woman who called it in was white, I dont recall anything mentioning her race. Assumptions without facts and bias, its a two way street. We all do it, I do it. Some of us admit it, try to do better, some of us just keep blaming it all on someone else.

Xavier Onassis said...

emaw - I wouldn't necessarily consider one cop backing up another cops story as corroboration.

faith & m.m. - The police report clearly states that she was a white woman. As to whether she was a neighbor or not, you are's not clear.

Logtar - You are right. I've lived here for a year and a half and I don't know my neighbors. I just assume they are assholes and I wouldn't like them. Pretty sure I'm right about that.

m.m. - I wouldn't classify Obama's reation as racism. I would call it a knee-jerk reaction based on the fact that Obama himself has experienced racial profiling by the po po (read his book) and that Gates was a personal friend. Doesn't make it right, just sayin'.