Gary S. Chafetz: A Defining Moment in the History of Civil Rights

Who are the beneficiaries of what appears to be the teapot tempest over the recent arrest of an African-American man in The People’s Republic of Cambridge, Ma, one of the most liberal municipalities in America? Perhaps it is all of us, but in particular, the “victim” Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, the black Harvard Professor of African-American studies, arrested for “disorderly conduct” after breaking into his own home.

In the early afternoon of July 16, Gates arrived home following an 18-hour flight from The People’s Republic of China, which can certainly be a trying place to visit. So after Gates survived both China and his interminable flight, he finally reached the steps of his canary-yellow home…only to find the front door jammed shut. Gates and his black driver proceeded to wrestle with the door.

A neighbor did Gates a favor. She called the police to report a crime in progress: two black men with knapsacks were trying to break into Gates’ home. (His home had been previously burglarized.) In fact, the recent recession has caused a spike in crime. To its credit, the Cambridge police promptly responded, which no doubt would have pleased Gates had some other men — black or otherwise — been trying to break into his home.

Cambridge police Sgt. James W. Crowley, who is white, showed up to investigate and asked Gates to step outside and provide identification. Gates allegedly accused Crowley of racism and warned him, “You don’t know who you’re messing with” and made a remark about the policeman’s “mama.” It was at that point that Gates — exhausted and irritable — inflamed the situation. Although it is not a crime to be disrespectful to the police, it is unwise, especially for a black male. When the police question you, and you are belligerent, they can arrest you. This convergence of events resulted in Gates’ arrest for disorderly conduct. (The charges were later dropped.)

Some of Gates’ white professorial colleagues have told me that he can be charming and witty, but he does possess a measure of hubris and can be quick to take umbrage. Gates, like any other black male, is also particularly sensitive to the way police have historically treated black males. It’s probably safe to say that every single black man in America has strong feelings about the police, including fear, resentment and/or contempt.

However, racism towards blacks is not the exclusive domain of whites. Blacks, especially middle-class blacks, can be just as guilty of racial profiling as whites. They too are afraid — or at least highly vigilant — of a young black man, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, carrying a small knapsack, walking down the sidewalk in a well-to-do residential neighborhood.

In hindsight, it can be said that once Gates provided identification, Crowley should not have arrested Gates. Clearly, he had simply been “breaking into” his own home. At the same time, Gates behaved in an inflammatory way, leaving himself vulnerable to arrest.

Both Crowley and Gates are stubbornly refusing to apologize. However, it’s unfair to label Crowley a racist. In fact, he has been described by many as an exemplary police officer who is skilled in racial sensitivity. As a campus policeman at Brandeis University in 1993, he administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a black Boston Celtic basketball star named Reggie Lewis, who had suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack. Many white Americans would decline to give mouth-to-mouth to anyone, never mind a person of color. Furthermore, several years ago, Crowley had been honored when he was hand-picked by Ronnie Watson (the black Cambridge Police Commissioner at the time) to instruct police recruits on racial profiling.

What is intriguing is that all of Gates’ black Harvard colleagues who have spoken to me have unanimously faulted the police, not Gates. However, many of his white colleagues point out that there is no excuse for his having treated Crowley with arrogance and disrespect. One can always file a complaint against the police officer the next morning. These white colleagues also point out that Gates holds himself in high regard and has been a self promoter from the day he landed on the Harvard campus. Again, there is no crime in being egotistical or in seeking the spotlight.

Years ago, when I was covering Cambridge for The Boston Globe, Gates used to park on my street. We would occasionally chat. He was always friendly and never aloof. I remember getting his views on racial profiling for a story I was writing about how the Harvard campus police — whose chief at the time was black — were disproportionately stopping and questioning black Harvard students walking through Harvard Yard late at night.

Earlier this week, I happened to drive by Skip Gates’ house. The street was choked with TV satellite trucks. As everyone knows, even President Obama weighed in on this story, initially asserting that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.” Later, the president acknowledged that his remarks had unwittingly inflamed the situation and he even called Crowley to say that his comments had been “regrettable.” Obama also softened his comments by saying that both Crowley and Gates may over overreacted and “…cooler heads should have prevailed.” And now the president has invited both Crowley and Gates to the White House for a reconciliation beer.

President Obama has provided a model that Prof. Gates, Sgt. Crowley, and the rest of us should embrace. Even when we believe that we haven’t done anything wrong, it costs us nothing to express regret for words or deeds that may have been hurtful.

This was not a shining moment for either Gates or for Crowley. However, everybody makes errors in judgment, including the president. One thing is clear. Gates has stumbled into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for international attention for himself and for matters to which he has devoted a life of scholarship.

Under similar circumstances, Barack Obama probably would have responded to the police with respect and deference. Gates did not. Tired, jet-lagged, and brimming with a lifetime of pent-up resentment toward the police, he lost his cool. Considering how much grief black American males have suffered at the hands of the police, not to mention society at large, this transgression is forgivable.

Like Brown v. Board of Education, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, the March on Washington, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the election of President Obama, to name just a few, what happened to Prof. Gates may end up as a defining moment in the history of civil rights. The larger issue here is that the police in the United States must work harder to put an end to racial profiling.

Gary S. Chafetz is the author of the recently published book, The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff

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