Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dr. Gates and the Right to Outrage

As America knows, one of black intelligentsia's most renowned scholars, Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, was arrested for disorderly conduct, essentially because he accused a police officer of racial profiling.

Over the past three days, I have devoured comments from both journalists and regular joes on the internet, and almost all of them sadden me.

Though the African-American community (including President Obama, who said the officers acted "stupidly") has been overwhelming supportive, there is a minor backlash among those who suggest Dr. Gates has historically distanced himself from his "lesser" black brethren. It's almost as if they are giving him a collective, John-McLean-in-Diehard-style, "Welcome to the party, pal!"

How else can you explain the lack of empathy, if not for the notion that others not in Dr. Gates' social strata feel they have suffered worse for far longer? These critics act as if Dr. Gates' mind was saying, "Oh, my stars! I cannot believe there is racial profiling! Who knew?!?!?"

Of course, Dr. Gates foolishly gave weight to this notion by stating his intent to NOW make a documentary on racial profiling. Hello!?!?! DWB was decades-old before it became quantifiably demonstrable on the New Jersey turnpike in 1999. (Heck, I drafted the Indiana Democratic Party's anti-profiling plank in the 2000 party platform, and if this white boy knows it's going on, well.....).

But see how easily Dr. Gates comment can be mischaracterized to make him look like an idiot? It's unfair. The truth is, Dr. Gates has always known, and it's frustrating to see his own attacking him for being too pedigreed and somehow thinking HE thinks he's been above the fray until now. Even if this were true, if Dr. Gates is more motivated to speak now, maybe the black community should forget that he showed up late to the party and celebrate that he arrived at all.

These same critics contend Gates' alleged inquisition to the officer about "do you know him I am" was arrogant. I would wager it wasn't ego at all, but rather, a simple thought:

"Damn! If a middle-aged, hobbling, nationally-aclaimed African-American Harvard professor dressed like a Dockers commercial can be arrested on his own porch because he demands an officer's name and badge number, what hope is there for an eighteen-year-old African-American male with sagging pants walking down the street minding his own business who is in the general vicinity of a crime?"

For their part, most (though not all) white commentators have done two things, which are both distressing. The first is to accept the officer's version of events. If you go through the comments on every blog or about this incident, most white people (though not all) who chastize Dr. Gates have accepted the officer's version of events. We might all ask, "If an Harvard professor isn't credible to white America, what is the likelihood that a eighteen-year-old African-American male with sagging pants is going to be believed?"

But the second thing white America has done is to blame Dr. Gates, to essentially say that he "got what he deserved" because he was disrespectful to the police. Even some black commentators have agreed that Dr. Gates should have shut up after he showed his identification and just filed a complaint later.

I vehemently disagree that Dr. Gates did anything wrong. If the officer wanted respect, he should have given it, and he could have done so by stating simply, "Sir, a neighbor called in an alleged breaking-and-entering. I apologize I don't know you, but if you can show me your ID, I'll be on my way. My name is Officer Blah Blah, and my badge number is 326. The department phone number is 867-5309 (or whatever it is). Have a good day." Instead, the officer ignored the repeated request for identification, which he is obligated by law to give. Then the officer arrested Dr. Gates without cause.

The crime of disorderly conduct isn't committed by using your First Amendment rights to accuse police of profiling. It's not even committed if you are undeniably disrespectful and obnoxious to police. It's committed only when the conduct causes the threat of additional violence or mayhem. There was NO threat. So, yeah, had I been Dr. Gates, I would have been pissed from the jump, and I would have stayed pissed until I saw the officer fired, and I collected the money from my false arrest lawsuit.

And therein lies the REAL racial problem in America. It seems that for too many in white America, black people only get justice if their behavior is ideal. Many in white America subconsciously endorse the notion that only white people are entitled to "not be at their best."

And many in white American support explicitly the idea that black people just need to shut up. I say this based on the massive number of self-identified white comments to this effect. Curiously, almost none of the comments said, "Yes, Dr. Gates was right to be upset, but he should have stayed silent anyone." This wouldn't have occurred to a lot of white people because when you are white and upset, you get to actually ACT upset. This is why we can surmise that a white commentator who says Dr. Gates should have been quiet says so only because (1) he or she didn't understand WHY Dr. Gates was entitled to be upset (which is completely baffling), or (2) because he or she believes the bar is higher for black conduct.

Years ago when I worked for the Indiana General Assembly, I had left the sine die party, and I was heading West out of downtown. I was going about 65 miles per hour on I-70 West (55 mph limit), and I noticed that I was being followed by a police car. The car was tailgating me, which I could not understand because I was in the far right lane. I sped up to 70. The police car sped up and came even closer - literally half a car length - so I went to 72. Finally, the lights and siren came on, and I pulled over. The officer walked up and the following exchange ensued:

Officer (sarcastically): “You just haaaad to go 72, didn’t you? You just couldn't keep it at 65. I know you know I was following you because I saw you repeatedly look up in your mirror.”

Me: (pissed and yelling) “Yeah, I had to speed up because you were tailgating me so closely, I thought you were going to crash into me. You could have gone around me, but you chose not to, and your conduct was incredibly dangerous! I would have slowed, but I thought you'd plow into me.”

Officer: (clearly taken aback) “You need to slow down” (officer turns and pivots without even asking for my license).

I was twenty-one at the time. I could have gotten a ticket. I could have gotten arrested. I could have gotten beaten. I could have been a guy about whom everybody said after-the-fact, "He needed to treat the cop respectfully and shut up." But I wasn't. In fact, I have told this story seemingly a thousand times to white family, friends, and colleagues, and nobody has ever made that suggestion. They all recognize the cop was being a total jerk.

I can’t help but think any twenty-one-year-old black man who had gone at that white cop like that would have gotten a ticket, an arrest, as ass-kicking, or all of the above.

We will reach equality in America when black people CAN speak up and still have no greater likelihood of arrest than a white person in the same situation. Seriously, in what universe does a white professor protesting in the similar manner as Dr. Gates get arrested?

You see, in America, a lot of white people want black people to just take abuse like the rest of us. Except we never do, do we?



varangianguard said...

I know what Dr. Gates ought to be doing. Writing a small guide for police-citizen verbal interactions, not making a documentary.

I'd buy it, because I sure feel sympathy for his situation. My dripping sarcasm would have likely been somewhat different, as I am not a well-known, Harvard professor. But, the end result might likely have been the same. If I'd only had a book of pre-written retorts that I could simply read calmly, instead of having to try and think while being menaced.

It could be filled with pre-written explanations for a wide spectrum of potential citizen-police interactions.

Carrying it around at all times, one could pause to retrieve their book, find a suitable reply to an officer's concerns, and read it to the officer in a calm, unthreatening manner.

Oh, you think I'm breaking in here? Well, let me refer to number 34 out of Dr. Gates' book How to Handle the Police, and here is my I.D. while I'm finding the page.

#34. See where it shows this address we're standing at as my address on my I.D.? I'm sure that will be sufficient evidence for even you to be satisfied about this situation. Thank you for caring and coming out so promptly.

Problem defused.

Seriously, it isn't against the law to yell at the police, especially when they provoke you. If officers can't stand getting yelled at when they're wrong, maybe another career would be better for them?

Anonymous said...

Will this country ever be ready for a real discussion of race??? I fear not!!

J. Hagedorn said...

Well said Chris. It's important that people understand that it's a Constitutional right to express your views regarding the actions of police officers. Apparently this officer doesn't understand the concept.

Anonymous said...

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — A black police officer who was at Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s home when the black Harvard scholar was arrested says he fully supports how his white fellow officer handled the situation.

Sgt. Leon Lashley says Gates was probably tired and surprised when Sgt. James Crowley demanded identification from him as officers investigated a report of a burglary. Lashley says Gates' reaction to Crowley was "a little bit stranger than it should have been."

Asked if Gates should have been arrested, Lashley said supported Crowley "100 percent.",0,4731766.story

Miklo Velka said...

Anon 6:12,

The Thin Blue Line will not be crossed in a situation this high-profile. Obviously the Thin Black Line has been.

Anonymous said...

Different and well-established outcome in Indiana? Price v. State,622 N.E.2d 954 (Ind. 1993)would appear to protect the right to petition one's government from misconstruction as disorderly conduct in Indiana.