FIRST, it's certainly gratifying to see the old Clinton Rapid Response technique back in action; it's just too bad that instead of fighting the Right Wing Noise Machine (Now 20% Noisier!) it's now activated by the Presidential loafer lodging in his mouth. The man perfected Instapology™ technology during the campaign, if you'll recall. And maybe the ensuing small modification of the reaction ("The President has apologized. But the issue his original comments raise is...") will eventually undermine the entire structure, if he can wait twenty years. Or maybe they should start working on not needing it.
Okay, fine, the man has a lot on his mind, but, honestly, you have to wonder who these DLC types think they're dealing with on the Right, and what they imagine the stench coming from the Press Corps is if not putrefaction. I know, you can't treat either of them precisely the way they should be treated--though that didn't stop Cheney from theorizing about it, mutatis mutandis--but, c'mon, a politician who hasn't mastered the three-paragraph No Comment isn't spending enough time on the Basics.
And not even I would have said "the police acted stupidly". One officer acted aggressively, provocatively (that "bad acoustics" and "would you step outside, sir" routine has drawn little comment, but it's probably damning enough to have gotten the case tossed on its own, provided the defense attorney had a fighting shot at literacy, and depending on how badly someone wanted to fuck with you). Bad day, bad cop, or public servant driven beyond reasonable levels of endurance, we don't know. We do know a little more than what people are saying, though.
The police say Professor Gates was arrested and briefly charged with disorderly conduct after he ignored warnings to stop haranguing an officer who had asked him for identification inside his home.
Though Professor Gates said he was not abusive and was the victim of racism, the police report said he told Sgt. James M. Crowley, “I’ll speak with your mama outside.”
Yo' Mama! It is, by the way, one of three complete sentences Sgt. Crowley's incident report quotes--the other two being Gates' refusal to produce his information, and his claim that "This is what happens to black men in America,"--and the only one he quotes from their one-on-one inside Gates' house. Did Crowley miss the point? Did the two Times reporters? Is it possible? Can a supervising white officer really think every Yo' Mama is directed at his cardigan-wrapped Grey Haired Mother Dear, knitting away next to the expectant bowl of Werther's Originals? Especially when, as here, the context is unmistakable? The earnest spectator hopes he'll get the chance to explain in the civil proceedings. But, then, the earnest spectator armed with badge, sidearm, nightstick, mace, and the power to arrest, and confronted by a hobbling 58-year-old topping out at about five-and-one-half feet, would probably have laughed, and encouraged the man to enjoy the rest of his day as he worked his way back out the front door.
Several officers interviewed in four cities on Friday said they tried to ignore such remarks. Others said they had zero tolerance for being treated disrespectfully in public.
And in public, we would think, is a place where they'd spend little actual time if they were constantly perp-walking and filling in paperwork on anyone who said something cross to 'em.
A mounted police officer who has been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 25 years said that taking verbal abuse was a regular part of his job.
“We don’t get to tell people what they want to hear,” said the Los Angeles officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being quoted on duty. “Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we’re not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn’t be a cop.”
Thank you, officer. Though we would note that it's probably a little easier when you're sitting atop 1200 pounds of witless beast trained to shove people out of its way.
But in Brooklyn, a 24-year-old officer, with three years on the force, seemed less inclined to walk away from verbal abuse.
“We say, ‘Back down,’ ” he said. “If they don’t back down and start making direct threats, that’s an offense. They don’t get a free pass.”
He said that threats could be defined in different ways, and he preferred to talk people down, but that the rules changed if a crowd formed, which was routine in New York and also occurred during the Gates incident.
Okay. But one suspects that the "crowd" Sgt. Crowley engineered in Cambridge was, at minimum, a bit too polysyllabic to be mistaken for your average threatening mob.
So, despite the standard Ignore the Context, Explain Why This Is Controversial Anyway routine, haven't we--worst case scenario, really--already explained why Professor Gates was correct, even if he was disorderly? If the "law" is However the Individual Cop You Draw Reacts then he's got every right--rhetorical and historical--to suggest he was being treated unfairly, and too bad if Sgt. Crowley doesn't like the implication. If the standard is Back Down When You're Told To Back Down--which is at least clear--then he still has the right to object that it was applied too quickly, or unfairly, provided he's willing to face arrest. Willingness to be arrested, whether to prove a point, get a dry place to sleep, or just for the hell of it, is not itself a crime.
This is why we'd like to see the President stay out of it, and to suggest to the Press that it gather the facts instead of plugging the Script. The reaction he fans--Played the Race Card! Cop Doing His Job! Not A Racist!--is excuse-mongering for an incident that never should have happened; and instead of a He Said/He Said with side order of Race, we ought to be noting here that the two sides are unequal, and that the Police do not have the right to take offense, or, rather, that they do not have the right to let offense drive the response, but that they are merely in a position to do so and blame it on the acoustics, something they are not supposed to be allowed to get away with with impunity. And I say that as someone who, had he law enforcement powers, would automatically reach for the nightstick the minute anyone--black, brown, white or ecru--told me I "didn't know who I was dealing with." Hell, I consider reaching for the hard salami every time someone pulls that attitude in the deli line. But cops cannot. It ain't about "who" Henry Louis Gates is; that's just the reason we heard about it. It's not even about a cop overreacting, really. It's about the fact that it's still impossible, in 2009, for a black man to believe he was being treated unequally by the police without being accused of saying so just to gain an unfair advantage. Newspapers ought to know better, even if they see their mission as flame accelerant and not the firehose of truth; for the police it's not supposed to be an option.