Sunday, 26 July 2009

Gatesgate 2

After his initial mishandling of the Henry Louis Gates affair - enraging police officers nationally by appearing to accept the "racial profiling" interpretation of the incident - Barack Obama seems to have recovered his poise and is now fulfilling his more familiar role as Healer in Chief. He has invited both men round for a beer at the White House. Whether that will prevent both parties from, in time-honoured American fashion, suing the pants off each other remains to be seen.

Lawrence O'Donnell in Time has the best account I've read so far of the incident. Why? Because he doesn't mention the R-word once. Instead, he concentrates on the real problem with Sgt Crowley's behaviour - that it was an all-too-typical case of a police officer abusing his power of arrest:

We have an uncomfortable choice with Sergeant Crowley. Either he doesn't know what disorderly conduct is or Crowley simply decided to show Gates who's boss the only way he knew how at the time — by whipping out his handcuffs and abusing his power to arrest. Police make the latter choice in this country every day, knowing that the charges are going to have to be dropped.

We all know that happens. That's why so much of the commentary about this case is obsessed with exactly who said what to whom in the Gates home that day. Most white, and some black, TV talking heads obviously believe that Gates was stupid if he actually exercised his constitutional right to say anything he felt like saying to a cop. Because they know it is not terribly difficult to provoke American police to violate their oaths and the law and arrest people for no legal reason.

The trouble started when Gates assumed - for understandable reasons, but nevertheless (I believe) quite wrongly - that the cop's request for his ID was racially motivated. His response was resentful, rude and insulting, and Sgt Crowley was probably justified in being offended by Gates's accusations of racism. But being rude to a policeman isn't, and shouldn't be, a crime. The trouble is that police (on both sides of the Atlantic) have a tendency to act as though it is.

Obama was right to describe the arrest as "stupid". But Gates was also stupid to get into a slanging match with a police officer, not because he was in the wrong, nor because he did anything to justify an arrest, but because being arrested is the predictable fate of anyone who fails to treat the police with anything other than cringing submissiveness. We might wish it were not so - I certainly wish it were not so - but anyone who comes into contact with the police is best advised to act like a young male gorilla would in the presence of a silverback, with lowered eyes and unequivocal gestures of appeasement.

On the race issue, KJB points me to a piece of fairly impenetrable prose on the blog Womanist Musings:

The impunity with which systemic Whiteness operates is normalized in order to portray Blackness as naturally deviant. Those of us that speak out against racism are too sensitive, determined to see racial issues where none exist, or are purposefully agitating an otherwise peaceful situation for the sake of personal attention.

I'm afraid I get an almost physical reaction to phrases like "systemic Whiteness", perhaps because I'm trapped into neo-colonialist hetero-normative modes of hegemonic discourse (though I like to think it's because of a preference for nice clear prose). But I also find it quite irrelevant here. I don't see how pointing out that there is no evidence of a racial dimension in this case equates to accusing Gates of "over-sensitivity". No one doubts the long and shameful history of racial conduct on the part of police, which still continues despite attempts to combat it. But that doesn't mean that any claim of racial harassment, however dubious, must be accepted simply because it has been made by or on behalf of a member of an ethnic minority.

There is also the evidence about Sgt Crowley that has emerged, which conclusively demonstrates that any suspicions of racism on his part are groundless. Not only has he personally taught an anti-racism course for the past five years, but (according to the Weekly Standard)

the Cambridge Police Department has long tried to mirror the city's cultural and demographic shifts. As one police officer said in 1997, after the appointment of the city's first "liaison to the gay community," the Cambridge cops are as diverse as the city they serve: "[W]e have a black commissioner, female deputies, black deputies, gay officers.

Cambridge PD sounds as politically correct as, for example, the Met. Sadly, as is all too often shown on this side of the Atlantic, being committed to the political agenda of "diversity" is no guarantee of common-sense policing.

Sgt Crowley has been publicly vilified as a racist cop, which must be both extraordinarily hurtful personally and potentially ruinous to his career. In this day and age, to accuse someone of racism is among the most serious charges one can make; it is not something to be bandied about casually - and certainly not by someone in Gates's elevated position.

Gates needs to apologise for calling Sergeant Crowley a racist, and Crowley needs to apologise for arresting a man for "yelling" in his own home. Easy.

Some commentators, undoubtedly, have showed an unattractive glee in accusing Gates of race-baiting or condemning his own behaviour vis-a-vis Sgt Crowley. Stephanie Guttman in today's Telegraph, for example, accuses him of "peddling victimology" and "making a living out of grievance" despite the fact that "Cambridge, Massachusetts is run by a black mayor (the second consecutive black mayor of the city), in a state with a black governor, in a country with a black president". She also maintains that the situation he found himself in was his own fault for answering back.

If one takes the subways in New York City, one has little flare-ups with harassed police officers often. I could have been arrested many times when something small I did attracted the attention of a tired, stressed-out officer and instead of quietly complying I’d chosen to make a ruckus. People who take the subway know how to behave - out of experience and out of empathy for a fellow human being, the cop on the beat, who has a tough job to do.

The trouble with that argument is that it amounts to blaming the victim. The fact that the police have a "tough job to do" doesn't entitle them to treat law-abiding people going about their ordinary lives with arrogant belligerence. That they increasingly think it does is one of the main reasons why the police no longer enjoy the respect they once did. And the fact that experience shows such a course of behaviour to be pragmatically sensible doesn't mean that anyone refusing to submit to this kind of humiliation is placed morally in the wrong.

What was wrong here, if predictable, was that race was ever made an issue. Now it may be, as I suggested the other day, that Gates's long and politically-engaged study of black history has given him an over-keen racism radar. I've even seen it argued, ingeniously, that after a long and distinguished academic career that has not notably been obstructed by racial prejudice he rather relishes having experienced first hand the victimisation he has hitherto only been able to write about. After all, in his initial statement Gates pronounced that the arrest had made him "keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system". But that is by the way. Every case should be looked at on its particular facts, not on how it fits into some pre-prepared agenda. And the facts here are fairly straightforward. Gates's behaviour was understandable but unwise. Crowley's behaviour was unprofessional but, sadly, only to be expected. The fuss since has been wholly disproportionate.