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July 29, 2009

Off topic: Racism and the arrest of Professor Gates

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 11:34 am
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I never questioned that race was a factor in the arrest of Professor Gates. I’d read about the incident before it made the national headlines and immediately downloaded the police report.

Having read numerous police reports over about 15 years of reporting on crime, accidents, and other issues involving law enforcement, I was immediately struck by the fact that the police report didn’t refute Professor Gates’s key complaints: that the officer entered his home without permission, warrant or probable cause (the police report noted that Gates appeared to be the resident); and that the cop didn’t claim he presented ID when Gates demanded it.

Instead, Sgt. Crowley, the cop involved, told Professor Gates that he would answer Gates’s questions if Gates stepped outside. Since the only question anyone claims that Gates asked was, “who are you?” and Crowley could only arrest Gates if Gates stepped outside, it seemed obvious that Gates had told the truth.

Yet, this became a he said/he said controversy where everyone accused everyone else of racism.

A friend was troubled that I insisted the cop’s arrest and other actions were racially motivated because, she said, Sgt. Crowley had previously given a black sports figure mouth-to-mouth. Therefore, she concluded, he’s not a racist.

No one is claiming Crowley is a Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh, frothing at the mouth about white people being the real victims of racism brand of racist.

But racism is, like almost everything, something that must be viewed on a continuum. Understanding black and white in this country means recognizing all the shades of gray.

So, sure, Sgt. Crowley would give anyone mouth-to-mouth without regard for race. But when he wants to be (you’ll excuse the expression) a swinging dick, he measures his power against that of the other guy.

He didn’t see A) a man in his own home. He saw B) a black man in his own home. And history/practice informed the cop that there were different limits on his behavior when dealing with A vs B. He could swing his dick and assure himself he was the big man — and no one would question him. He could claim that this black man made the kind of comment that Sgt. Crowley believes all black men make and nobody would doubt it.

And when the black man resisted being treated like a lesser man, he could escalate the situation until the black man acquiesced.

None of that makes Crowley the kind of racist we think of when we use that term (although it outs him as a bully). Crowley will never see himself as a racist and has almost certainly solidified his rationalization for his own behavior in his own mind as have all those who support him.

One thing that I find particularly troubling about this incident is mostly unrelated to race although due to the power imbalance between any non-white and any cop, it’s more likely to come to the forefront in such encounters: the kneejerk assumption that cops have the right to push you around if you talk back.

If people insisted it was unwise for Professor Gates to protest, it’s because they assume that cops will violate our rights when we protest, not because cops have the authority to violate our rights.

– Anita Bartholomew

UPDATE: Here’s another story of an arrest of a black man for “disorderly conduct” that was later thrown out. This man’s only real crime? He took too long in the bathroom. Because he’s deaf, he didn’t know anyone was knocking on the restroom door. Oh, and they pepper-sprayed and tasered the man.

If this is indeed a “teachable moment” for America, one lesson that Americans must learn is to stop assuming that all those arrested are guilty until proven innocent.

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