By now, unless you live under a rock or in Iraq, you've probably heard about the hubbub surrounding the arrest a week-ad-a-half ago of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The abbreviated version: Gates, upon returning home from China, where he'd been working on a documentary, found that the front door to his Cambridge, Mass., home - just steps from Harvard's main campus, was jammed. So, after he and his driver tried unsuccessfully to get the door open, Gates went to the rear of the house and let himself in through the back door. The driver continued to shove on the front door. An elderly neighbor saw the door-shoving, stopped a young woman passing by and asked the young woman to call the cops. The young woman, Lucia Whalen, did so, and told police that the older woman may have witnessed a break-in, but that she - the younger woman - saw that the men on Gates' porch (he and his driver) had suitcases, so perhaps they were trying to get the door open to their own home. At no point did Whalen tell police that two large black men with backpacks were breaking into the home, a mischaracterization (or outright lie?) that had been previously reported by Cambridge Police. Officers arrived at Gates' home minutes later and asked for his ID. He declined to give it at first, but eventually did, but not before berating Sgt. James Crowley and asking if he was being hassled for being "a black man in America." Gates followed Crowley outside (at Crowley's request), and continued to berate him, in spite of Crowley warning him twice to pipe down. Gates didn't pipe down. So Crowley arrested him. Hubbub ensued. A few days later, the charges against Gates were dropped by Cambridge Police.
First things first, apologies are owed to Ms. Whalen. I'd say that other writers and me owe her apologies for suggesting that maybe Gates should have aimed his anger at her from the beginning, instead of at the police, 'cause how could Gates' "neighbor" not recognize him in broad daylight? The problem is - and I can't speak for other writers - I voiced that opinion based on the written police report - written by Sgt. Crowley - and on statements made by Cambridge Police officials that Whalen was a "neighbor" and that she had called police about large suspicious black men on Gates' porch, who were apparently breaking into the home.
Anyone reading between the lines of those two factoids might "glean" that Whalen jumped the gun in calling 911. Turns out she's not Gates' neighbor. She only works at a facility nearby. Also, she called 911 because an actual neighbor stopped her and asked her to call. Finally, Whalen, contrary to the statements made by Crowley and CPD brass in the early days of this mess, did not mention Gates' race or that of his driver. On the 911 tapes, released today by CPD, Whalen tells a dispatcher she has no idea what race the men are, because she's standing too far away to tell. And only after the dispatcher asked her if the men were "white, black, or Hispanic," did Whalen reluctantly answer that maybe one of them looked "a little Hispanic," and she wasn't sure about the other.
So Lucia Whalen has gotten a bad rap. Whether the statements in the police report about Whalen being a "neighbor" of Gates' and claiming big black men were breaking into his house were lies or innocent errors on the part of the CPD remains to be seen. I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt, especially to people with difficult jobs like law enforcement. So I'll assume they were innocent errors. But surely I don't need to explain how the inclusion of those misstatements in the police report could alter the perception of this whole mess from the very beginning.
Otherwise, the rest of this story remains the same:
- First, some media types were wrong to perpetuate the "racial profiling" theme in covering this story. It was unnecessary and inflammatory. You'd have to be an absolute moron to try to characterize this incident as racial profiling. The officers involved did not stop Gates or single him out, because of his skin color. They encountered him coincidentally, while responding to a possible breaking-and-entering call...at his house.
- Second, Gates may have been justified in his righteous indignation, but he was wrong for going off on the cops and accusing and suggesting racism as their motive for questioning him. Plus, many cops will tell you that if you embarass them in front of an audience (in this case, Gates' neighbors, curious passers by, and other police officers), they may arrest or ticket you just because you pissed 'em off or because they're genuinely worried you're going to harm their credibility and authority with the gathering crowd. Even Gates admitted later that the police were just doing their job by responding to the 911 call. In an interview after the incident, Gates said he was actually grateful for the cops and that he did not believe Sgt. Crowley was a racist.
- Third, after confirming Gates' ID and securing the grounds (making sure there was no burglar on the premises), Crowley and company should have saddled up and left right away, considering how agitated the whole mess had apparently made Gates. And you have to ask why the hung around. What was the point, to teach a limping man with a cane a lesson about minding his manners when dealing with the police?
- Finally, Crowley was within his rights to arrest Gates, but he didn't have to.
If you dislike or doubt my last point, consider the wording of the Massachusetts statute under which Gates was arrested and charged: Chapter 272, Section 53 of Massachusetts' State Code,
Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, common railers and brawlers, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy persons of the opposite sex, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, idle and disorderly persons, disturbers of the peace, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure may be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than six months, or by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
No matter what you think of him, I'm pretty sure Gates is not a "common night walker," "common street walker," "common railer," or "common brawler." Neither he nor Sgt. Crowley has suggested Gates was behaving in a "lewd, wanton, or lascivious" manner with Crowley or any of the women at the scene.
So, that leaves "disturbers of the peace." If Gates was indeed yelling at Crowley and yelling accusations of racism, no doubt, he was arguably disturbing the peace.
So was Crowley within the letter of the law? Sure, if his allegations about Gates' behavior are true...and are born out by something more credible than the police report that said Ms. Whalen was a "neighbor" who was concerned that big black men were breaking into Gates' house. But Crowley still wasn't required to make an arrest. It is discretionary.
I'll leave you with this personal analogy to hammer home my point: Several days ago, I stepped out of my back yard to roll my garbage can onto my rear swale, because garbage pickup was the next morning. But there was no room for my can on the swale, 'cause a mystery neighbor had dumped junk on my rear swale, taking up all my space. This annoyed me for the obvious reason. But it also annoyed me 'cause my fair city had done its once monthly bulk pickup a couple days earlier, removing a hacked up tree that I'd cut up and placed back there. Bear with me. There is a limit of 45 cubic feet of free bulk pickup once a month in my city. If you place more than that limit out for pickup in a one month period, the city charges you for the overage. My tree was definitely a good 45 cubic feet. So when I saw the junk on my property, I was not just angry that my space had been filled by junk that wasn't mine, but also that I could billed for the stuff.
But the mystery dumper was really no mystery. Over the past few years I've caught a couple different people from the home of a wack job woman whose back yard faces mine leaving things behind my house, 'cause I have lots of room, and they don't. Our yards are separated by an alley. Occasionally, I've asked them nicely not to leave stuff on my rear swale, explaining each time that I didn't want to get charged for their junk. This time, I didn't ask. I dragged the junk across the alley and left it on wack job's rear swale, making room for my garbage can on my own property.
The next morning my garbage was picked up and we all lived happily ever after...until Mrs. B called me at work a few hours later to tell me that wack job had just pounded on our front door, cussed her out, and demanded that we take the junk back. Mrs. B told wack job not to hold her breath. Wack job said she'd move the stuff back onto our property herself. Mrs. B cautioned that she was busy painting but if wack job persisted she'd call someone else to stop her from putting the junk back on our property. Wack job accepted the challenge.
So I got on the phone and sent over the police officer who supervises our part of our lovely 'hood.
When he arrived, along with a city code officer, the cop attempted to talk to wack job, who told him and the code officer to go and fornicate themselves. She grew increasingly agitated, and increasingly loud. She drew a crowd. The crowd looked disturbed and bothered by her rant. She grew defensive, eventually acknowledging in a round about way that she was responsible for the junk on my property. And she cussed the cop out over and over and over, finally flipping him off and walking away, shouting profanities as she went.
How did the officer respond, you ask? He took a deep breath, considered the circumstances - that the woman had been humiliated in front of neighbors who saw her admit to her sneaky illegal dumping, chuckled about her tantrum, gave her a verbal warning to behave, climbed back into his squad car, jotted down a few notes about the incident, and drove away.
I'm not guessing. The officer called me later and gave me a play-by-play.
And the code officer, who also took a brutal tongue lashing from the woman? He laughed it off too, also gave her a verbal warning, and drove away.
Her behavior fell well within the parameters of disorderly conduct. The police officer would have been more than justified if he'd arrested her. Her placing her junk on my property constituted illegal dumping. The code officer would have been more than justified ticketing her.
Both men had the right to cuff and cart her off, and cite her, respectively.
But both excercised discretion that says just because you can, doesn't mean you have to.