Monday, July 27, 2009

Cambridge Conundrum

The cops likely responded to Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s acerbic tone by throwing their proverbial balls around, like so many cops do. Professor Gates lost his temper and likely exacerbated the situation. Such a reaction is understandable, not at all warranting of _moral_ condemnation. Speaking with the pragmatism of an activist, however, it's an argument for tactical self-discipline. There is a bit of threatening abstractionism in Gates' victimage and post-incident rhetoric. More than a few people are watching, with more than one set of eyes, this incident involving a wealthy Harvard professor. Today's pseudonymous piece in Alternet is one good read. Irene Monroe's description of Black life in Cambridge is another.

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5 comments:

Will said...

My favorite take on the gates saga:

http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/07/is-this-the-instance-of-police-misconduct-to-obsess-about.html

Anonymous said...

The Phantom Negro perfectly captures my take on the situation--that it's a story of egos colliding. Predictable badge-heaviness on the part of the cop. Predictable class outrage on the part of the university professor. But, as the author said, mouthing off to a cop--whether you're in the right or the wrong--is never a smart move. The cop has the badge, the gun, the cuffs, and--in most people's minds--the credibility in a he-said/she-said (even with a Harvard professor; maybe *especially* with a Harvard professor, regardless of race).

matt said...

Although I've suggested that Gates's actions were less-than-intelligent in this instance, I'm not so sure "equalizing the blame" is really ethically defensible. Here's what the cops should have done--and had no reason NOT to do: "Oh, so this IS your home? OK, no problem, we'll be going now." Then really leave. Just sayin', not sure what insulting remarks from Professor Gates could have stopped the cops from just ... Read Morewalking away. Don't respond "well, if Gates had kept his mouth shut." There was no legal requirement for him to do so. Even if everyone acted stupidly, the police escalated from words to handcuffs--for no security-related reason.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree. The cop could have just walked away. He could have pulled out his pad and written a citation (instead of cuffing a nearly 60 year old man with a cane). The cop overreacted. Given my experience with cops, I think it's foolhardy to expect that kind of forbearance; but, in an ideal world, a cop's ego could survive the bruising.

But if the cop walked away or merely issued a citation, do you think it would have changed Gates's impression of the situation? It seems he was convinced the officer's actions were racially motivated from the get-go (and the cuffs were just icing on the cake). It seems at least possible he would have tried to make an example of the cop anyway, pulling strings at the university or with the PD or with his friend in the Oval Office. By formalizing the situation, insisting that other officers come (to serve as witnesses), making an arrest, and writing a detailed report of the events, the cop may have covered his tail better than he could have by just quietly walking away. His escalation might have been motivated by an instinct for self-preservation, rather than (or in addition to) pique.

As a thought experiment, though, would the moral calculus be the same if the races were reversed? So a black cop is responding to a report of a potential break in, a white university professor gives him lip (trying to get the police chief on the phone, telling the black cop he doesn't know who he's messing with, etc.), and the white professor ends up in handcuffs. Would the black cop be considered racist? I think some people might consider the white professor racist--viewing the black cop as "uppity," disrespectful, not deferring to the professor's race (or class), etc. If the same people who condemn the white cop would also condemn the white professor in the hypothetical...well, it would be odd and worthy of some exploration.

matt said...

Difficult but fair points. I tend to think class outweighs race in a lot of instances, or perhaps even categorically. Consciously or more likely unconsciously, Gates deployed both his own classism and his reaction to institutional racism in this instance. An interesting combination, for what that's worth.

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