Today Sgt. Jim Crowley, the arresting officer in the Skip Gates Affair, was cleared of all wrongdoing. Though I have my suspicions that he overracted to some extent, I think the proclamation of innocence was the right call to make. I was even happy to hear that President Obama tried to clean up some of his own mess by opening the doors of communication with Sgt. Crowley after putting him on Front St., even though it should have never gotten to that point in the first place (more on that in a moment).
Based on this story, I’ll conclude with the following thoughts:
– Although the examination of race relations is not exclusive to blacks and whites (nor should it be), these two groups tend to be the most conflicted with one another…at least in the eyes of mainstream America. That reality was reflected in this case. I’m convinced that if the arresting officer was anything but white, this story would have only been a little blip on the news ticker. But the fact that the officer was white and the [innocent] arrestee was black caused people to salivate at the mouth.
– While I don’t believe the officer necessarily exhibited racism, I think he DID abuse his power. In many circles, this is just as bad. Rather than simply accepting Gates’ ID and going on his merry way, I think the officer made the decision to use the muscle from his badge in retaliation. Recall: Gates was not charged with breaking and entering (what the officer was initially investigating). He was arrested for “disorderly conduct”; most likely for backtalking an officer. A similar thing went down when an officer tased an old woman in Texas after she gave him too much attitude. When people view law enforcement officials as combatants, they tend to eschew the humanity these officers represent while responding to them like as if they are emotionless cyborgs. In contrast, police are no different than anybody else: they get aggitated, nervous, afraid, even empathetic to arrestees. While there are certainly a fair share of imperious officers, most I think are genuinely interested in just doing their job of protecting and serving.
– If we examine the humanity of the police, we should also pay just as much attention to the humanity of the person being arrested. As I stated before, there are all sorts of sensitivities between black men and law enforcement; sensitivities rooted in this country’s unsettling history of racism. Things are further amplified when whites deride the pathology of black victimization by affirming those black folks are “playing the race card”, even if all indicators substantiate that claim. I mean, sometimes my cousins ‘nem really DO need to take personal responsibility. But take it from me: just as bad as being in a jarring situation is being in a situation where you’re accused of playing the race card. So Skip may have been out of line and may have acted a a bit on the visceral side (odd, for a person who had made a career out of being an intellectual), but his actions were – right or wrong – in response to a regenerating legacy of racism in America.
– Nevertheless, none of this dismisses the fact that Dr. Gates should have avoided the heavy confrontation toward an officer simply doing his job. As I’ve also argued before, one does not necessarily have to ‘shuck and jive for whitey’ to avoid being labeled a troublemaker. Simply following common sense rules would suffice. When dealing with people of authority (especially when they are armed), some behaviors need to be universal. (1) If you want justice, don’t expect for a peon to offer it. Use the courts. Go to the officer’s higher ups. Go to the media. Shouting at an arresting officer on the street is not likely to generate the most ideal response. (2) Courteousness and cooperation are NOT the emeny. Attracting more flies with honey applies to police officers as well. (3) Keeping hands visible and maintain an unopposing posture is best. Dr. Gates didn’t appear to following any of these rules. In that respect, he is VERY fortunate that this only led to a brief incarceration and NOT to his death.
– Finally in a somewhat related story: I think President Obama’s involvement in this only made it worse. By specifically stating the officer was “acting stupidly”, the Prez put himself in a position to be the target of even more racism and antipathy from his opponents. Besides all that, Obama has been quoted as supporting his “friend” and “not having the facts” before he spoke. Looking out for his boys and acting out of ignorance: does that sound like another President we know?! For the past eight years, we were critical of Bush when he did pretty similar things. We can’t stop now just because Obama’s in office. True, Bush was far more disasterous as a President than Obama seems to be, but when it comes to offering criticism: what’s good for the goose is good for the whole damn gander.
In short, this was not a story directly related to racism. But it is also a shiny example of how racism has made a casualty of things like common sense. The trauma is not over for the soldier just because the war may be.