A Park Police officer once flagged me down when I rode my bike through a crosswalk, shaking up some tourists. “You can hurt someone just as much with a bike as you could with a car,” he said. “You’re right, sir,” I replied. “I was wrong and I won’t do that again.” And I haven’t.
When dealing with the police, everyone knows it’s best to agree with whatever an officer says. To be polite and contrite, even if you think the officer is wrong. Well, everyone except Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
Gates was arrested outside his home in Cambridge, Mass. last week. Officers were called to the house by a neighbor who saw two men (they happened to be black) pushing against the door. The first officer on the scene (who happened to be white) checked Gates’s ID and asked him to step outside. Gates refused and demanded the officer’s badge number.
Sgt. James Crowley says he identified himself, Gates says he didn’t. The professor then followed the officer outside yelling, “Is this how you treat a black man in America?” Today Gates says he wasn’t belligerent toward the officer. “I weigh 150 pounds and I’m 5-7,” he told The Washington Post. “I’m going to give flak to a big white guy with a gun?” But the police report and photographs from the scene suggest otherwise.
All charges have since been dropped, but Gates isn’t going to drop it. “I want to be a figure for prison reform,” he told the Post. His friends plan to flog the supposed police racism for all it’s worth, too. “Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America,” wrote fellow Harvard prof Lawrence Bobo in the Post on July 22.
Bobo goes on to draw exactly the wrong lesson, lauding Gates for refusing to go along with the police. “I think my friend could have been physically injured by this police officer (if not worse) had he, in fact, stepped out of his home before showing his ID.”
It’s difficult to believe that a Harvard professor would suggest that an American police officer would order a man into the front yard so he could beat or shoot the man. But that’s the gist of Bobo’s argument. Look: If the officer wanted to beat Gates up, he’d keep him in the house. The front yard, surrounded by witnesses and other officers, is the safest place to be if Gates is worried about being beaten.
There’s a reason the officer wanted Gates to come out of the house, and it’s not so he could pistol whip him (if not worse). It’s so the police could check the house and make sure there wasn’t anyone else -- an intruder -- there.
Police officers aren’t like college professors. They don’t have the luxury of being wrong. If the officer had simply left, and there was an intruder in Gates’s home who later attacked the professor, it would be on the officer’s conscience for the rest of his life, because he wouldn’t have done his job.
Home invasion is apparently a concern in Cambridge. Another Post reporter used to live there, and wrote about how difficult it is for a black man to deal with the police. But he also noted that when being dropped off at his apartment, “I’d insist the taxi driver wait until I was safely inside. I lived alone and wanted to make sure the place was empty.” So maybe there’s a reason the police would want to make sure the house was secure.
Bobo isn’t finished with his in-depth explanation. “Maybe this situation had something to do with Harvard University and social class,” he wrote. “It is possible that one element of what happened involved a policeman with working-class roots who faced an opportunity to ‘level the playing field’ with a successful Harvard professor.”
Well. I myself don’t know whether Sgt. James Crowley has “working-class roots.” Perhaps Bobo has personal knowledge of the officer and his life circumstances. If not, then it’s the professor who’s engaged in stereotyping here. Must all officers have “working-class roots”?
A photograph of the incident shows Gates, handcuffed, yelling at officers. A white officer is holding his hands out in a calming gesture. And a black officer has turned his back on the hollering prof. If this is about race, why didn’t that black cop demand that Gates be uncuffed? Or is he merely blinded by his “working-class” prejudices, too?
In a prime-time news conference, President Obama took a clearly staged question so he could talk about the incident. “The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” he opined. Not if they just wanted him to wait outside so they could do their jobs.
What’s stupid is trying to gin up a racial incident in 2009, when race relations in this country have never been better, as Obama admits and his election illustrates. It’s not the police who are trying to do that. It’s the profs.