Cop vs. Prof. in Cambridge, MA

Cambridge has the reputation of being one of the most progressive cities in the country.  “The People’s Republic of Cambridge” might well be a bastion of liberal thought and practice.  A safe-haven for undocumented immigrants, Cambridge promotes tolerance and social justice.  Home to both MIT and Harvard, Cambridge is a magnet for the educated.  And on most nights, Harvard Square draws an eclectic mix of students, tourists, preppies, stoners, loners, locals, musicians, magicians, jugglers, dancers, and high school kids sampling new identities.

Cambridge is an ethnically, racially, socioeconomically and ideologically diverse city.   And in this diversity, clashes are inevitable.  In my view, the clash between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department is as much about class and ego maintenance as it is about racism.

Here are some of the reported facts that should be considered.  Homes in Gate’s neighborhood had been burglarized while he was out of the country. Gate’s own residence may have been a target as well. The suspects in those break-ins were reportedly two black men.  Professor Gates returned from a trip overseas only to find his front door jammed.  In an attempt to open it, Gates and a companion were spotted by a white neighbor who believed a break-in was in progress.  When Sergeant Crowley arrived on the scene he asked Professor Gates for identification.  Professor Gates entered his home to retrieve it, and was reported to have placed a call to get the name of the chief of police. According to Professor Gates, Sergeant Crowley followed him into the house uninvited whereupon the Professor requested his name and badge number.  Sergeant Crowley said he attempted to provide it twice. Crowley reported that Gates became uncooperative and began hurling loud insults. He claimed he could not hear him and asked him to step outside.  When the professor did, he described seeing something like a cop convention on his lawn.  The police report says that Gates behaved in a tumultuous manner startling passerby as he became increasingly agitated.  At this point, Sergeant Crowley had sufficient evidence that Professor Gates was indeed the homeowner, so it did not seem necessary to continue the investigation or to have Gates step outside, which served only to escalate the tension.

Crowley maintained that he followed standard procedure throughout the investigation; that he entered the house to protect himself and the homeowner, and suggested that Gates step outside for the same reason.  Gates claims that this was a trap to facilitate his arrest.  Gates was rightly infuriated that he had been mistaken for a burglar at his own residence, and was said to have yelled that “this is what happens to black men in America”, according to another officer on the scene.  Sgt. Crowley eventually arrested Professor Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge that was ultimately dropped.

There are many unanswered questions in this unfortunate incident. Did Professor Gates lose his cool and launch into a disturbing tirade? Did he hurl insults as the police report suggests? If he did cooperate and maintain some semblance of composure given the stressful ordeal, is it possible that Sergeant Crowley would have arrested him? On the other hand, if Sergeant Crowley’s version of events are true, why didn’t he try to diffuse the situation once it became clear Professor Gates lived there?  Crowley is supposed to be an expert on racial profiling and should have the skill and sensitivity to know how to resolve conflicts.

Racism is still a serious problem in America. Black men and women of color are victims of racial profiling every day.  Professor Gates may have been victimized because he is black, though his neighbor who initially called the police to report suspicious activity at the Gates home says that she reported seeing two men, not two black men.

One has to wonder whether the outcome would have been different if Crowley had encountered a white homeowner.  Interestingly, the black police officer who was present during the arrest said in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon that he believes if he had responded first, the matter would have been cleared up peacefully.   In saying this, I do not want to blame the victim, however, if it is true that Gates failed to cooperate with the Sergeant and became increasingly agitated frightening passerby it should not be so shocking that he was arrested.  If I became uncooperative or challenging  during a police investigation, I doubt that my whiteness would save me from arrest.  But to be honest, if I had been the homeowner, and not Gates, I doubt that there would have been as much suspicion because 1) I am white and 2) my personality is such that I try to avoid conflicts as much as possible.  I probably would have apologized for appearing to be a burglar and for wasting the police officer’s valuable time.

Gates has been able to use his considerable cultural capital to strike back effectively for being humiliated publicly.  Notice how quickly the charges were dropped.  The Mayor of Cambridge, the Governor of Massachusetts and the President of the United States all responded critically of the police action.  In the battle of egos, which I think is another variable in this case, the cop won initially, but the professor will have the last word because he has a significant following and a media platform from which to disseminate his perspective.  In the class and status battle, as a tenured professor at an elite University and a leading scholar and educator, Gates has earned a position of privilege and wealth.  Sergeant Crowley by all accounts is a respected member of the police force with a spotless record and yet there is a considerable cultural and socioeconomic divide between a police officer and a top Harvard University professor, which may have accounted for why the two were utterly unable to communicate effectively and explains at least in part why the encounter ended so badly.  Clearly there was no meeting of the minds.

Both men have suffered blows to their reputations as a result of the incident.  Their differing accounts of what happened have been and will continue to be scrutinized, discussed and debated by millions the world over.  Many have already labeled Sergeant Crowley a racist, unfairly I think.  Gates said that Crowley fabricated the police report and denounced him on national TV as a rogue cop.  Gates’ word carries substantial weight.  By contrast, Crowley has some support among conservatives who seem to be using the controversy to derail Obama’s domestic agenda and clearly Crowley has the unconditional backing of his comrades on the police force.

It is unfortunate that the two sides have become entrenched.  Neither Sergeant Crowley nor Professor Gates has admitted to any wrongdoing.  Gates continues to ask for an apology and continues to weigh his options.  At this juncture, Crowley is no longer talking at the advice of counsel, though his silence after several initial interviews may be about to end.

We may never know what really happened, and as Don Lemon of CNN said, “the truth may be somewhere in between”.  The incident and the subsequent attention it brought after President Obama’s remark that “the Cambridge Police acted stupidly” served to bring the problem of racial profiling into the national spotlight.

The irony here is that Professor Gates has demanded an apology from Sergeant Crowley, and instead,  Sgt. Crowley has gotten what appears to be an apologetic phone call from the President of the United States, who has reached out to both parties in an attempt to broker the dispute.  Let’s hope the three can have a beer together and that by talking, we can begin to have a meaningful dialogue on racism in this country.