Sgt. James Crowley-Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Confrontation and President Barack Obama’s Reaction: Reasonable Observer Inferences
–Richard E. Vatz
Let me begin by saying that in all complicated, dramatic confrontations there are relevant nuances that make impossible some certain conclusions.
The dispute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is one of those. Still, let me as a disinterested critic provide some observations per some of the points at issue based on undisputed or unaddressed evidence available to this point.
As The Washington Post describes the dispute, “Crowley arrested Gates last week after a neighbor called police to say someone appeared to be trying to break into a home. In fact, Gates was returning from an overseas trip and could not get his locked front door open. When Crowley arrived and questioned whether Gates lived in the home, the 58-year-old academic became upset, eventually demanding the officer’s name and badge number so he could file a complaint. Crowley said Gates referred to Crowley’s mother as a way of showing his displeasure.”
Some important questions and conclusions:
DID CROWLEY KNOW GATES LIVED AT THE HOUSE? In speaking about the event in answer to a question at his press conference, President Obama stated, “”it doesn’t make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance.” The point at issue here is not whether the officer sensed that this was Gates’ home, but whether the evidence provided – the scholar’s Harvard ID – proved that fact. Gates’ university ID did not, to our knowledge. Why didn’t he provide a driver’s license? We don’t know.
WAS THIS A PROTOTYPE OF EVERY BLACK MAN’S NIGHTMARE? Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) took this position, but one assumes that this refers to a racially charged event wherein the innocent victim of police overreaction is mistreated consciously due to the cops’ racism. Ample evidence has been adduced that Sgt. Crowley has no history of racism and, according to The Boston Globe, several years ago tried with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to save heart attack victim Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis. Other evidence abounds of the lack of racism of Sgt. Crowley. Further, a subtle rhetorical point: Professor Gates has not even accused Sgt. Crowley of using racially insensitive language. Has one ever heard of a racist cop perpetrating a racist act respectfully?
DID PRESIDENT OBAMA REFLECT RESPONSIBLY ON THE CONTROVERSY? President Obama also stated in his response at his press conference on the health care bill, “But I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And No. 3 – what I think we know separate and apart from this incident – is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.” The president has already retracted – or at least ameliorated – his choice of words, but his characterizing the situation as relating to racial profiling is simply a category error. As a self-described liberal friend of mine stated, “The cop went after the guys who were doing the breaking in at the time; he didn’t pick up some ‘suspicious looking people’ walking down the street. “
I began by observing that the totality of the nature of any complicated confrontation is unknowable, but it appears to this observer that this was no example of racist police behavior and certainly not racial profiling.
Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University