The New York Times
July 26, 2009
Being obnoxious isn’t a crime.
As we reflect on the arc of civil rights dramas from Jim Crow to Jim Crowley, my friend John Timoney, the police chief of Miami, observes: “There’s a fine line between disorderly conduct and freedom of speech. It can get tough out there, but I tell my officers, ‘Don’t make matters worse by throwing handcuffs on someone. Bite your tongue and just leave.’ ”
As the daughter of a police detective, I always prefer to side with the police. But this time, I’m struggling.
No matter how odd or confrontational Henry Louis Gates Jr. was that afternoon, he should not have been arrested once Sergeant Crowley ascertained that the Harvard professor was in his own home.
President Obama was right the first time, that the encounter had a stupid ending, and the second time, that both Gates and Crowley overreacted. His soothing assessment that two good people got snared in a bad moment seems on target.
It escalated into a clash of egos — the hard-working white cop vs. the globe-trotting black scholar, the town vs. the gown, the Lowell Police Academy vs. the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Crowley told a Boston sports station that Gates “seemed very peculiar — even more so now that I know how educated he is.”
Gates told his daughter Elizabeth in The Daily Beast: “He should have gotten out of there and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series — check with you later!’ ”
Gates told me Crowley was so “gruff” and unsolicitous “the hair on my neck stood up.” Crowley says Gates acted “put off” and “agitated.” But the strong guy with the gun has more control than the weak guy with the cane. An officer who teaches racial sensitivity should not have latched on to a technicality about neighbors — who seemed to be outnumbered by cops — getting “alarmed” by Gates’s “outburst.”
From Shakespeare to Hitchcock, mistaken identity makes for a powerful narrative.
A police officer who’s proud of his reputation for getting along with black officers, and for teaching cadets to avoid racial profiling, feels maligned to be cast as a racist white Boston cop.
A famous professor who studies identity and summers in Martha’s Vineyard feels maligned to be cast as a black burglar with backpack and crowbar.
Race, class and testosterone will always be a combustible brew. Our first African-American president will try to make the peace with Gates (who supported Hillary) and Crowley (whose father voted for Obama).
I tracked down Gates by phone at J.F.K. on Friday after he had talked to the president and agreed to go to the White House for a symbolic beer with the man he labeled “a rogue policeman.” Gates, coughing from a cold he picked up in China, said he wondered if perhaps “fate and history chose me for this event.” He was pleased with the thousands of empathetic e-mail notes he’s getting, material for a PBS documentary on racial profiling.
He says he’s ready for “marriage counseling” from the “Solomon” in the Oval, who wrote in his memoir that the police pulled him over “for no apparent reason.” “If Sgt. Crowley and the president and I meet, it’s clearly not going to be like Judge Joe Brown, OK? ‘You tell your side, you tell your side.’ We have to agree to disagree. But I would be surprised if somebody didn’t say, ‘I’m sorry you were arrested.’ ”
How can they ever reconcile their accounts? Crowley says he asked Gates to come outside and the professor replied, “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Gates wryly suggests Crowley got the line from watching “Good Times” as a child.
“Does it sound logical that I would talk about the mother of a big white guy with a gun?” he asked. “I’m 5-7 and 150 pounds. I don’t walk on ice, much less (expletive) with some cop in my kitchen. I don’t want another hip replacement.”
I asked how he felt when he learned that Crowley was the one who gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Reggie Lewis, the black Celtics basketball star, in a vain attempt to save his life after a heart attack in 1993. He replied: “I don’t stereotype. I never saw him as the head of the Ku Klux Klan. Maybe he was just having a bad day.”
And Gates says that if anyone thinks he’s a fiery black militant, they’ve got the wrong guy, considering he married a white woman, has mixed-race daughters and has white blood himself.
Mike Barnicle warns that the next time Gates needs 911, he should call the Harvard faculty lounge instead. But Gates ripostes, “I have a feeling the Cambridge police will be especially attentive to my needs.” He said that, as he was packing for China, he got a call from the Cambridge police soliciting a donation and told them to try back in two weeks.
“I haven’t quite decided,” he said between coughs, “if I’m up to that right now.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company