woody_zimmerman_118_2007A great national uproar has arisen over an incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts, involving noted black scholar and Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the Cambridge Police. After police responded to a call reporting an apparent break-in at the prof’s home, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The incident sounds almost like a Saturday Night Live skit (featuring the Kambridge Kops), and it might have stayed at that level except for two salient facts: (1) Dr. Gates is President Barack Obama’s friend; and (2) Mr. Obama referred to the incident with criticism of the Cambridge Police in a prime-time news conference this past week.

The president’s unscripted remarks – surprisingly off-hand and perhaps poorly thought-out (although that is in dispute) – sparked exaggerated responses across the country from both black and white and communities, as well as police departments, all out of proportion to the incident, and dredging up every police-brutality and blacks-misbehavin’ story ever told. The thing is totally out of control. Indeed, the president has attempted several times to “clarify” his own remarks. He has also sought to defuse the situation by inviting Dr. Gates and CPD Sgt. James M. Crowley, the police officer involved, to the White House “for a beer” and cultivation of a “teachable moment.” In an added touch of irony, it has been revealed that Sgt. Crowley’s record on racial relations has been so exemplary that he was chosen by the CPD to teach classes on the subject.

The facts appear to be that Cambridge police responded on the afternoon of July 16, after a neighbor called to report that two men were seen breaking into a home. (Race was not mentioned in the call.) When Sgt. Crowley, accompanied by two other officers – one black and the other Hispanic – called at the house, Dr. Gates spoke to him through the door’s glass panels. Accounts vary about what followed, but evidently Sgt. Crowley’s request for Dr. Gates to identify himself offended the professor, who became verbally abusive. He commenced to hurl imprecations, referring to the officer’s “mother,” and refusing to step out of the house to be identified.

Dr. Gates did finally hand his identification out to the officer, stating that he and his driver had broken into the house when Dr. Gates found that he did not have his key after returning from a trip. Dr. Gates then emerged from the house, shouting about racial profiling. When he would not desist, the officers arrested him for disorderly conduct. He was brought in handcuffs to the police station, where he was booked and released on bond. The charges were later dropped.

Stepping directly into the controversy, President Obama took a question about the incident at his press conference of Wednesday, July 22 – an event supposedly dedicated to Mr. Obama’s controversial health-insurance/health-care initiative. Commentators differ on whether Mr. Obama thought he was swatting a rhetorical fly by answering the reporter’s question, or whether he was deliberately creating a diversion for the media to pursue, so they would leave his health-care/insurance legislation unexamined. Other commentators claim he was serving up “liberal red meat to his base by going back to the old shibboleth of police racial profiling.

Whatever his motivation, Mr. Obama said Dr. Gates was his friend, and admitted that he did not know all the facts of the case. Notwithstanding his incomplete information, the president said the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.” He made no comments about Dr. Gates’ own actions.

Mr. Obama’s remarks offended not only the Cambridge police, but police across the country – many of which had supported his election. Official and unofficial police spokesmen decried the president’s comments on a situation for which he lacked facts. Some said Mr. Obama didn’t understand how careful officers must be when answering a call about a possible break-in.

I heard one caller to a radio talk-show say that police responding to a burglary report must always anticipate a hostage situation inside a house, including someone ready to come out blasting. “Just because a voice behind a door says, ‘I’m Dr. Henry Gates, and I own this house,’ doesn’t mean that’s who it really is,” said the caller, who added, “verification is critical in such cases.” I don’t know if the caller was a policeman, himself, but his words ring true.

After wading through hundreds of comments attached to articles on the Internet, however, I am bound to admit that as a white man my experience with hostile and possibly violent police is extremely limited and uninformed. The old standby, “disorderly conduct” – first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I believe – got the horselaugh from numerous writers, who were “blogging while black.” Several suggested that Dr. Gates should have stayed inside to avoid being arrested, taken away in a patrol car, and unfortunately “shot while trying to escape.” This KKK modus operandi seems absurd in 2009 Cambridge, Massachusetts, but the impression of police abuse and brutality clearly runs deep in the black community.

Claims by police that procedure had to be closely followed to ascertain if the person inside the house really was its owner were ridiculed by black bloggers as “complete rubbish” that would never have applied if Dr. Gates had been white. This is what Dr. Gates was yelling about. The contention is speculative, but I suspect they are right. When I forgot to close my garage door, late one night, police knocked at the front door to suggest that I close it. They did not demand identification to verify that I lived there, and they didn’t ask me to step outside. It was 11:30 PM.

In the midst of the controversy, President Obama observed: “The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America.” (Meanwhile, no one was talking about health care reform. Go figure.)

It is not difficult to see that a fairly innocuous situation was escalated by Dr. Gates’ angry reaction to the officer’s request for definitive identification. However righteous the prof may have felt about being hassled for identification in his own home, the fact remains that a break-in had been reported. Simple compliance, a friendly greeting, and a word of thanks for looking out for his property from Dr. Gates would have made this into a non-incident.

This does rather suggest that Dr. Gates wanted an incident – perhaps one into which he might actually draw his friend, President Obama, for his own purposes. Or maybe he simply lost his temper when the officers failed to recognize his importance (e.g., “do you know who you’re messin’ with?”) We’ll never know what the true situation was, unless there is a sudden rush of candor from Dr. Gates. If it turns out that this was a contrived incident meant to produce a first-person experience for a new documentary on racial profiling, then a certain Harvard prof will have some ‘splainin’ to do. (Don’t hold your breath on this.)

That aside, the police hardly covered themselves with glory – however much they might protest that they were “just following procedure.” For one thing, most police departments now have access to on-line data-bases, which instantly yield owners’ and residents’ names for any address entered. Dispatchers would have relayed that info, so the officers should have known Dr. Gates’ name and possibly his description before they ever walked up his front steps. (If the Cambridge cops don’t have such a system, then they need to apply for some of that stimulus money to bring them into the 21st century.) Knowing who should be in the house should have simplified the entire situation, but I have heard no mention of this from police.

I am sympathetic (to a point) about the unpleasantness of being yelled at by someone, but I am not a trained peace officer. Sgt. Crowley is. Probably the prof annoyed him. I get that. But unless Dr. Gates started shoving the cops or throwing things at them, I have a problem with just angry talk defining “disorderly conduct.” A judge can fine people for “contempt,” if they speak to the court disrespectfully. Last I checked, cops don’t get that perk. “A policeman’s lot is not an ‘appy one.” I’m sorry, but officers with thin skins should sell shoes or vanilla skim lattes.

I said earlier that I had limited experience with potentially hostile police. I did have such an experience, one evening in New York City, years ago. I was driving friends to an engagement in the city when we got ensnarled in a traffic jam that threatened to make us late. At length, I was annoyed to find that the source of the slowdown was a sobriety checkpoint in which police were stopping every car and checking the occupants to see if it looked (or smelled) like any drinking was going on. I have never been very good at disguising my feelings, so my annoyance probably showed to the inquiring officer. He immediately commanded me to get out of the car.

Undoubtedly thinking that he had a Live One, the officer jovially asked, “Have we been drinking this evening, sir?” Probably he was surprised when I snapped, “Certainly not!” I was made to blow into the device which tests blood-alcohol content. Of course, it showed a zero reading, as I seldom drink, and had not done so that evening.

I sensed that the officer was braced for an angry response from me, so I managed to hold my tongue and suppress all my fine ripostes about the police needing to find better things to do, etc. (Verily, I could see a certain value in the checkpoint, even if it had inconvenienced me.) When I said nothing, the policeman’s tone actually turned conciliatory. He apologized for troubling me, and wished me a pleasant evening. I went on my way, and no one was arrested for disorderly conduct. Only much later did I realize that this was the outcome for which the officer was braced.

As for Mr. Obama’s contribution to the Gates-gate Drama – his comments seemed so ill-advised that one really must wonder if he deliberately blew the incident up for his own purposes. He could easily have ducked the press-conference question by pleading lack of facts, as he initially did. Or he could have said that things had gone beyond sensible bounds, and asked all parties to step back and take a few deep breaths. He had a golden opportunity to joke about the situation – perhaps noting that no one had died and suggesting that we all have more serious things to worry about than who didn’t recognize whom, and who wouldn’t stop shouting, etc.

The President is right in saying that we still have a racial divide in this country. I’d like to see him try to close it, instead of widening it. A great opportunity was missed here to do that: a real pity. When does the “post-racial” era kick in? Soon, I hope.