Thursday, July 23, 2009

How far have we really come?

A man is attacked by a police dog during the Birmingham civil-rights campaign, Alabama, May 3, 1963. photograph by Charles Moore

Here are the facts, according to the Boston Globe, that led to the weekend arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his Cambridge, MA home:
You're at your Cambridge house, trying to open your front door, but it won't budge. The thing needs a shoulder put to it. So you ask the guy who drove you home from the airport -- a middle-aged guy like you, a guy in a suit and tie -- to help you. He kindly obliges.

A woman is walking by. She sees you on the porch, a 58-year-old African-American man with a gray beard and glasses and cane, your striped polo shirt tucked neatly into your khakis. Even though you are Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the most prominent academics in the country, and Harvard's most famous face, she does not recognize you -- even though she works for Harvard Magazine, even though her office is right down the street.

What she sees are a couple of guys trying to break into a house. She calls the police.

By this time, you are on the phone in your own entry hall, asking Harvard to come and fix your front door. When you see the police officer on your porch, you assume it's someone to help you. When he sees you, a man at ease, chatting on a cordless phone, does the Cambridge police officer conclude things look okay? Does he take note of the fact that you make no attempt to run, as a robber might? Does he say, We got a call, sir. We're just making sure everything's OK, sir? Have a lovely day, sir?
A Hollywood script writer in creative overdrive couldn't have come with this plot on a good day: a national dialogue on race sparked by the arrest - in his own home - of one of America's leading experts on race.

An arrest on the vaguest of charges: disorderly conduct. According to the arrest report Gates was "observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place."

Total BS!

The cop who arrested him knew this charge wouldn't hold up. So why did he arrest Gates?

Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley told two Boston radio talk show hosts today, "He was arrested after following me outside the house, continuing the tirade, even after being warned multiple times, probably a few more times than the average person would have gotten."

Gates, (l.) and Crowley, (rt.)

The charges against Gates were immediately dropped when the Boston DA declined to go forward with the case.

Crowley knew this would be the outcome. What Crowley didn't tell the talk show hosts is that cops have a saying: "You can beat the rap, but you can't beat the ride."

President Obama tackled the issue during his Wednesday evening news conference saying the police "acted stupidly."

That remark prompted one reader to post this reaction on the paper's website: “I agree that there was probably some stupidity involved here, but I just don’t think him [Obama] weighing in on it benefits anyone. By the end of the week this will be spun so ridiculously that you’d swear he [Gates] called the Cambridge police pigs while eating brie and sipping pinot noir.”

Indeed, there was probably some stupidity and over-reaction on the part of both Gates and Crowley.

But Crowley is a professional and shouldn't have let Gates get to him.

So far, not much on this incident hasn't shown up in the local media. However the Herald's Leonard Pitts promises he'll devote a column to the issue Sunday.

So, how far has the nation come since that day in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama when police chief Bull Connor turned his police dogs loose on civil rights demonstrators?

Maybe that question can best be answered by Professor Gates.

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