I am not a police officer, so I have been hesitant to put forth any thoughts about the case of Cambridge professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. who was arrested for disorderly conduct shortly after he "broke into" his own house. But then again, the president isn't a police officer either, and he got to air his opinion on national television. So I think I can write a little bit about my opinions for my own little blog.
I will say first of all that I have not read everything I can find about this particular incident. I read a few articles on CNN about the initial arrest of Gates, the officer who arrested him Sgt James Crowley, and a few opinion pieces. Everybody is jumping up and down trying to point out how wrong it is that Gates was arrested, how it was racially motivated, but I am having a really hard time seeing it that way.
For the record I am a white woman and the only contact I've had with a police officer where he was being a police officer was when I got a speeding ticket 10 years ago. I am not someone who would hesitate to call the police when there is a problem. I was brought up to believe that the police are trying to help the average person and not out to get the average person. And while there my be a few bad apples on a power trip within the profession, that is true of any profession where people are given the power to control others and maintain order.
So I tried first of all to put myself in the position of Professor Gates. When I come home to pick up some things on the way from point A to point B, I quickly come to the conclusion that my front door is jammed, and that gets me pretty irritated pretty fast. So I have to go around the back of my house, make sure the door is unlocked, get a friend to help me try to get the door open, and call my landlord. Then I go inside, only to be met minutes later by a police officer who questions whether or not I belong in my own home. WELL. That would make me even madder than the door thing, so I might start yelling at that point too, maybe refusing to show my ID and getting really pissed that this police officer doesn't believe me. If I were acting that way, I'd probably, in retrospect, not really be that surprised that a cop was going to handcuff me and arrest me for disorderly conduct.
Because, let's look at things from the point of view of Sgt. Crowley, whose main job is to protect the average person from crime and violence. If I am a trained police officer, and I get a call that there's possibly a robbery in progress, I would be pretty edgy. Criminals can be violent. Criminals might have weapons. Once I get to the house and the owner is inside, I would absolutely want to see his or her ID and make sure that the right person is in the right house. But how would I know that this is the person who the call came in to 911 about? I wouldn't. So I would need to clear the house of people and make sure that there isn't a robber waiting in a closet somewhere to beat up the homeowner and steal all of his stuff the minute I leave. If I had somebody yelling and screaming at me about how I'm being racist and not respecting their rights to be in their own home, while I'm trying to keep an eye on the closets or other hiding places, I would probably cuff them and get them out of the house because they would be interfering with my job of protecting them.
What we have here is not a case of racism on the part of the police officer. What we have is presumed racism in the eyes of the professor. There's the police officer's job to keep people safe, then there's the presumption on the part of the professor that this white man is out to get him because he is a BLACK MAN. So who is being racist? And why did news agencies pick this up so fast? And how in the world is Gates now feeling like he can sympathize with criminals in prison when he was in a holding cell for a few hours? I know that racial profiling happens all the time, no matter where you are or which way it is going. But when you immediately jump to the conclusion of "RACIST" when someone is trying to do their job and protect you, then you are expecting and maybe inviting racial profiling. How is that going to change people's thoughts and assumptions about the problems of race, not just in this country, but around the world? You have to be the change you want to see. If anyone deserves an apology, it is Sgt. Crowley and the Cambridge Police Department, who are wasting time and resources defending themselves for doing what they are supposed to do: protect people and property.