Friday, July 24, 2009

Gates and the Cops

As a (now aging and balding) "long hair" who has spent many years on and around the cloistered ivy covered halls of academe, I can understand Gates' attitude. After all, they give him a hard time but an earlier break-in of his house remains unsolved. And if I can understand it, it must be doubled and squared if you are black -- where having a "tumultuous" attitude (college-educated cop speak) was really being perceived as having an "uppity" attitude (a word that would be auto-replaced by the police report word processor). As the commentariot has put it, what would Henry Kissinger have done if ordered out of his house by a cop? Would Kissinger have asked "Do you know who I am?", called the Police Chief, and gone ballistic if arrested for being angry at being insulted in his own "castle"?

I'll put my experiences and thoughts below the fold.

Certainly Gates should have done the "Yes Massa" thing and thanked the cop for responding to a case of a black man entering his own home, mentioning his past problems with break-ins as a reason he is glad the police show up when called. But there is no law that says you have to be civil to anyone in your own home, and certainly not to an uninvited person who just walks in your door. Unless you are black, it would seem.

I learned enough from being around dumb-ass white kids in middle school and, particularly, in high school that it is not a good idea to act as if you are a lot smarter than they are even if the intelligence contest can be won with my dominant hand in a cast. Thus my way of dealing with cops is to go into "Yes Massa" mode. It has always worked well for me in the few instances it seemed relevant, and I don't have any problem going with it. However, I can imagine why a world-famous Harvard professor (holding a "chair" that makes him special even at Harvard) might not take that approach - and there is certainly nothing in the Constitution that says you have to do that in your own home.

And cops, even ones with a college degree (in a CJ major that is open to literally anyone at the universities that I know about), definitely come from that power-mad category that expects "Yes Massa" in every one of their interactions. That would probably be why the cop was "surprised and confused" by the behavior of a homeowner who was being treated like a common criminal. He certainly wasn't expecting an "uppity" black man, let alone expecting to be charged with racism by a child of the 60s in front of his fellow officers and the general public. He had no choice but to arrest Gates for embarrassing him. And since there is no law against embarrassing a cop, he charging him with being disorderly in the "public" place that was his own living room and, later, front porch.

I remember well an incident late one night when I was almost 30, walking across campus. As I approached a major well-marked cross walk with its "yield to pedestrians" sign, a car blew by me, well over the speed limit. A cop pulled out of a side street to follow that car, and I turned and said "go get him". What did the cop do? He ignored the criminal, and went after the long hair. Yep, next thing I knew, there was a cop car ON THE SIDEWALK following me. He must have made a U turn rather than follow the (likely intoxicated) speeder who had also failed to yield. God knows what he thought, but he wasn't expecting a Staff ID card (when he illegally asked for ID) or my question about why he had ignored the person who had threatened my safety. He just wanted to be a dick. I suppose I'm lucky he didn't charge me with "orderly conduct", but that "Yes Massa" act did the trick.

But the way this long-hair was treated almost three decades ago is certainly not how middle aged (Gates is a few years older than I am) balding faculty expect to be treated by the campus-area police.

On my minor (but not at all small) campus, I am known on sight by the campus police officers as well as the un-armed security personnel. I would imagine that Gates is also well known to the cops that patrol Harvard Yard, even if it is a much bigger place. After all, he has been there almost 20 years and is in a "named" chair. He has even had a PBS TV series, not that cops watch that sort of TV. My expectation is that the cops who patrol our campus (and Gates apparently lives in a Harvard-owned house) know who the faculty are and we get treated with respect. Well, at least this white one does. I don't know about the much younger black professor who is built like a power forward.

As for racism, one wonders why no one in the media has talked to the "neighbor" who called the police about a Limo driver helping a middle aged man open his front door. She was, indeed, viewing Gates as being guilty of being a "black man in America". The cop simply picked up the ball and ran with it. Her story seems inconsistent, since the 911 call referred to two people but she only mentions one in the police report to the second officer. Is that because she eventually realized it was a Limo driver who had left? She was there the whole time, but never gave any info about the car these "criminals" had used, or that the Limo driver had (apparently) left, to the police officer who responded? Her failure to tell the cop where the second man had gone is a missing part of the story. And would she have even called the cops if it had been a 59 year old white man opening the door? She is the one who needs to lawyer up, not the cop.

Note: Here is one copy of the police report of the many that are available.


Anonymous said...

do you think you maybe owe an apology to the 911 caller?

Doctor Pion said...

No, because those were all valid questions, not assertions, based on what the police report implied about the content of the 911 call.

They have now been answered.

What we now know about the 911 call (from the recording) and the police transmissions (fragments on the new) calls into question the accuracy of key details in the police report that I used to frame my questions for her (and the unidentified woman who asked her to call).

I will explain further in a blog tonight.