Chips, Skips and Apologies
Justified anger is a wonderful thing. It allows one to act like a complete ass with little, if any, impunity. For example, I recall once while backpacking my way through Egypt when a taxi driver I made a deal with for a ride ditched me for some other riders. We were in a sleepy, seaside town on the Sinai peninsula, separated by several miles of harsh desert terrain from the local bus stop. The driver wanted to maximize the trip, understandably, and sought out a few more riders (there was only two of us) before leaving. Of course, when he returned the taxi was full and we were left without a ride, stranded in Dahab. Needless to say, I was a bit miffed.
Luckily, I had consulted my trusty, Harvard-drafted “Let’s Go: Egypt” prior to entering the country, which suggested throwing a loud and boisterous fit if put in a situation where you are likely being cheated. So, I did. And it worked like a charm. I threw luggage, cursed at the top of my lungs, and glared menacingly at the taxi driver causing him to quickly exit the situation as a crowd of onlookers gathered. But suddenly, something wonderful happened; the crowd sympathized with my plight, took me under their care, and within a few minutes I was being treated to warm food, cold drink and a new taxi (driven by someone’s cousin as I recall) was summoned to take us on our journey. By acting like a spoiled child, just because I was screwed out of a ride, I was treated as a victim in need of comfort, and not a damned fool in need of discipline.
My tantrum was quite effective and confirmed to me that “justifiable anger” is a powerful, and intoxicating, thing. It is the “castle doctrine” of emotional responses which places blame for any incident squarely on the shoulders of the instigator, leaving you with unquestioned moral authority. However, like any intoxicant, it also tempts overuse and abuse.
By now you are probably aware of Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.’s arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What should have been a non-story became a huge imbroglio because of Dr. Gates’ stature, and the media’s endless pursuit of “Racism in America” stories. Even so, it was likely on its way to dying on the back pages of Boston newspapers until Pres. Obama resurrected it with his rather careless and admittedly ill-informed denunciation of the police officer involved.
After spending most of an hour patiently reiterating his arguments for changing the health insurance system, President Barack Obama turned his press conference sharply toward an iconic moment in American race relations: The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. earlier this week by the Cambridge Police.
“I don’t know – not having been there and not seeing all the facts – what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” Obama said in response to a question from the Chicago Sun-Times’s Lynn Sweet.
Gates, Obama allowed, “is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts.”
In other words, despite not knowing all the facts, the President decided to weigh in anyway on the side of his friend and to assume the worst about the police. Unfortunately, Obama is not alone in his ignorance or willingness to castigate someone without questioning the actions of Dr. Gates.
If anything is clear about the situation, it is that escalation was not necessary and could easily have been avoided. Dr. Gates apparently has a huge chip on his shoulder with respect to white cops, in the very least, and reacted poorly to Sgt. Crowley following up on a breaking and entering call. Indeed, Pres. Obama, among many others, opined that Gates was perfectly justified in being angry (“but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry”) because he was being accused of robbing his own house.
Yet such reaction completely ignores the reason for Crowley being there in the first place: to protect Dr. Gates’ house. Why would a policeman acting in defense of Dr. Gates’s own home upset him? Because Dr. Gates has a huge chip on his shoulder and succumbed to that sweet temptation of justifiable anger to grab the moral high ground. In doing so, he elided right past the justifications for Crowley’s visit, as well as his questions, and instead went right into victimization mode.
Crowley, for his own part, also seems to be carrying a chip or two. One, that is not uncommon to policemen, appears to be a distinct aversion to challenges to his authority. After all, yelling at a cop in your own front yard hardly seems like a criminal offense. In addition, and more understandably, Crowley carries a big chip on his shoulder regarding being called a racist. Here’s why:
The Cambridge cop prominent Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. claims is a racist gave a dying Reggie Lewis mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in a desperate bid to save the Celtics [team stats] superstar’s life 16 years ago Monday.
“I wasn’t working on Reggie Lewis the basketball star. I wasn’t working on a black man. I was working on another human being,” Sgt. James Crowley, in an exclusive interview with the Herald, said of the forward’s fatal heart attack July 27, 1993, at age 27 during an off-season practice at Brandeis University, where Crowley was a campus police officer.
It’s a date Crowley still can recite by rote – and he still recalls the pain he suffered when people back then questioned whether he had done enough to save the black athlete.
“Some people were saying ‘There’s the guy who killed Reggie Lewis’ afterward. I was broken-hearted. I cried for many nights,” he said.
Surely someone who faced such criticism, despite administering his best efforts, is going to be a little sensitive to being called a racist. I wouldn’t be surprised if “oh no, here we go again” was the primary thought running through Crowley’s mind while Gates was delivering his tirade.
Unfortunately, Crowley’s chips may have caused him to ignore the obvious (if unwarranted) source of Gates’ ire, and instead to grab for that justifiable anger high ground himself. The end result is that a normally routine procedure becomes a huge production that serves the interests of no one.
Of course, to be fair, Gates’ reaction was quite confusing to the officer.
Consider for a moment, how you would assess the situation had you been in Crowley’s place. You receive a call about a B&E in progress and immediately respond, asking the caller who reported the incident to meet you at the front door to the residence. In all likelihood you’ve responded to similar calls before only to find that the either it’s someone breaking into their own home, or that an estranged girlfriend/wife is calling for backup in a domestic situation, or something other than an actual robbery. Therefore, you request the caller to be there just to be sure.
Upon arrival, you have to assess the situation without having any knowledge. You meet the caller who tells you that two black men with backpacks were observed trying to “wedge” the front door open with their shoulders, thus raising suspicion and precipitating the call. OK, now you can be reasonably certain that it’s not a domestic situation, but there still may be an innocent explanation. You notice someone inside the house, looking out at you as you approach the front door. Who could it be? The owner? A friend? Or perhaps a potential burglar? You don’t know but the only way to find out is to question the person.
Now, stop and think for a moment. If the person you are about to question is the home’s owner, wouldn’t you expect a rather cooperative attitude? You are defending their home after all. In contrast, if the person inside is someone who shouldn’t be there, then you would expect a more evasive, or possibly hostile reaction. But how do you deal with the rightful owner calling you a racist (pdf)?
As I turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer of [redacted] Ware Street. I made this observation through the glass paned front door. As I stood in plain view of this man, later identified as gates, I asked if he would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He 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 (sic) in progress” at the residence. While I was making this statement, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed “why, because I’m a black man in America?”. I then asked Gates if there was anyone else in the residence. While yelling, he told me that it was non of my business and accused me of being a racist police officer. I assured gates that I was responding to a citizen’s call to the Cambridge Police and that the caller was outside as we spoke. Gates seemed to ignore me and picked up a cordless telephone and dialed an unknown telephone number. As he did so, I radioed on channel 1 that I was off in the residence with someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative. I then overheard Gates asking the person on the other end of his telephone call to “get the chief” and “what’s the chief’s name?”. gates was telling the person on the other end of the call that he was dealing with a racist police officer in his home. Gates then turned to and told me that I had no idea who I was “messing” with and that I had not heard the last of it. While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided at [redacted] Ware Street and so I could radio my finding to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard university identification card. Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.
The statement above if from Sgt. Crowley and, most likely, is self-serving. Then there is Gates’ version of events:
When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license to the officer. Both include Professor Gates’ photograph, and the license includes his address.
Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates.
In comparing the two statements, they contain a lot of agreement on how the events unfolded. Both accounts state that Crowley asked Gates to step outside and that he explained the reason for his visit. They also both agree that Crowley asked for verification that Gates belonged in the residence, as well as that Gates provided at least his Harvard ID. They further agree that Gates asked for Crowley’s identification, although they differ as to why.
In fact, Gates never suggests why he wanted the officer’s ID, nor what could have possibly prompted the request. If Gates’ statement is to be accepted as true, we would have to believe that he was a perfect gentleman throughout the process until his request for Crowley’s ID was ignored. Indeed, Gates’ entire story depends on the idea that he only became outwardly upset when Crowley refused to give him identification. And even if that were true, it does not explain how the charges of racism and racial profiling came to be leveled. It’s not as if refusing to show official ID has some racially disparate component to it.
Gates has further problems with his story as well. According to Crowley’s statement, he radioed into ECC with pertinent information as he got it and requested the presence of Harvard Police. In addition, he observed Gates making a phone call to someone and asking for the “chief” while declaring that a racist police officer was in his home. All of these statements are verifiable by looking at the radio transmissions from Crowley and the phone records from Gates. Oddly, Gates makes no mention of the phone call, nor offers any explanation as to how the Harvard Police came to be at the scene. That tends to lend credibility to Crowley’s version of events.
On the other side of the ledger, however, it sure does look like Crowley lured Gates outside in order to arrest him and show him who was boss. His claim that he went outside to speak with Gates because the acoustics were inhibiting his ability to communicate with ECC sounds just a little too perfect. Crowley further neglects to explain why he could not have offered to write the information down for Gates, or even better, simply handed him a business card (which every cop I’ve ever dealt with has had plenty of). That would have presumably satisfied Gates for the time being and allowed Crowley to exit the situation without any further ruckus. Instead, both parties claim that Crowley asked the professor to step outside, in full view of the poor crowd who’s tender mercies were then violated by Gates’ tirade, and voilà Crowley then had a reason to arrest him.
Despite all the foregoing, and regardless of whose version of events you believe, there is simply no indication of why this has been turned into a racial incident. Some suggest that the original caller was racist for immediately assuming that two black men trying to force a door open were criminals. But that’s just absurd, and I would hope that if a passerby sees anyone of any color breaking into my home they call the police. Others hypothesize that a white professor would not have experienced the same treatment at the hands of the police, but that ignores (a) the agreed upon facts, and (b) the fact that police would be derelict if they did not verify who was in the home, and whether or not they belong there. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have run into similar circumstances regardless of race (I know I have). To date, no one has offered a reasonable explanation as to how the incident justifies charges of racism and racial profiling, although plenty of people are perfectly willing to assume such is the case.
I may as well get the ball rolling for turning what could have been a succinct piece into a meandering tome. So, sorry about that.
Next up is Officer Crowley who is adamant that no apology will be forthcoming.
Crowley himself, speaking to the Globe yesterday and again last night in Natick, said he will not apologize and asserted, “I am not a racist.’’
Crowley’s police union issued a statement saying it had reviewed the arrest of Gates and expressed “full and unqualified support’’ for his actions.
“Sergeant Crowley is a highly respected veteran supervisor with a distinguished record in the Cambridge Police Department,’’ said the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association. “His actions at the scene of this matter were consistent with his training, with the informed policies and practices of the Department, and with applicable legal standards.’’
I guess you can forget about the Police Department delivering one either.
As for Gates, well he hasn’t been asked for one, and it does not appear that one will be forthcoming, especially now that the President of the United States has backed him.
Obama acknowledged that Gates is a friend and that since he was not there, he cannot know exactly what role race may have played in the incident.
Gates’ daughter and attorney said they were pleased by the president’s comments.
Charles Ogletree, Gates’ attorney and a fellow Harvard professor, told “Good Morning America’s” Dan Harris today that Gates “was simply pleased that Barack acknowledged he was a friend and what he had read and heard and understood to have been reported that Professor Gates did not violate the law.”
Perhaps the media will apologize for turning this into a major story, and perceptibly backing Gates’ version by playing up the racism angle, not to mention raising the issue at a prime time news conference on health care. Hmmm … no, I guess that’s just silly.
Once the tempting fruit of justifiable anger is consumed, it almost impossible to give up. Should Crowley apologize for arresting Gates? Yes, he probably should, but I’m sure he feels too justified in his anger to do so: Gates shouldn’t have berated him for protecting Gates’ own home, and certainly shouldn’t have called him a racist.
Should Gates apologize for his tumultuous behavior and unwarranted accusations? Most definitely, but that isn’t likely to happen either because Gates feels justified in his anger as well: Crowley shouldn’t have arrested him, causing him embarrassment and extreme discomfort, simply because he was yelling and screaming while on his own property.
So, nobody will apologize, nothing will be fixed, and no wounds will be healed. Welcome to post-racial America.