Sgt. James Crowley, Professor Henry Louis Gates,Jr. and President Barack Obama:(With Apologies to Lewis Carroll)The Stupidest Beer Party That Ever Was

–Richard E. Vatz

This is the third and last blog I shall write on the Crowley-Gates-Obama drama. A significant drama will have a moral, but this one, as Shakespeare might have said, was a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It was not told by an idiot, but that makes it all the more deceptive and frustrating.

Once again, the summary of the kerfuffle from The Washington Post: on July 16 “Crowley arrested Gates…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.” There was a dispute regarding when Professor Gates showed Sgt. Crowley a driver’s license after having shown him a Harvard I.D. card which did not establish the professor’s home address.

After President Obama inadvisedly used the adverb “stupidly” to describe Sgt. Crowley’s decision to arrest the professor, and after the police sergeant insisted that the arrest was “by the book,” President Obama invited them both to a White House “Beer Party” for the purpose of effecting an unstated outcome.

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According to news reports, there were cameras held at a distance, and there was no recording of the get-together (adding to the symbolicity but detracting from the substantive import of the event), attended by the above three principals and Vice President Joe Biden.

Some of the results:

1. No one, including the president, apologized for any action in the affair.

2. No one tried to publicly reconcile differing accounts of what happened.

3. Sgt. Crowley said, “We spent a lot of time discussing the future.”

4. Professor Gates said that Sgt. Crowley and his (Gates) task must be to “foster sympathy among Americans” about “the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand.”

Very Limited Lesson: when a well-respected academic who is a friend of a president, who declaims on the event without having sufficient information to do so, has a confrontation with a police officer (but refrains from physical resistance), and the police officer properly follows constabulary rules of conduct, it is possible for them all to get together after the conflict to say: “nothing personal.”

Rhetorically, when a political action is 100% symbolic and non-substantive, we can expect meaningless bromides: After the meeting, President Obama said, “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart…I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.”

They all also invoked variations of my favorite platitude: let’s not dwell on the past; it’s time to move forward. This cliché is always used when people don’t want to or cannot resolve a point at issue. It means that the point at issue will recur.
Oh, and Gates and Crowley will meet and talk again, so an ad hoc friendship may have been established.

In the end, however, there was this to be gleaned from President Obama’s “teachable moment” on relations between police and minorities: there were no extrapolatable lessons for future police confrontations.

The president’s popularity took a small hit, according to a Pew Research Center poll, as it should have.

Professor Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University

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