Race and policing

Published : Aug 28, 2009 00:00 IST

Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (left) with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (second from left) and Sergeant James Crowley (second from right) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 30.-RON EDMONDS/AP Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (left) with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (second from left) and Sergeant James Crowley (second from right) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 30.

Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (left) with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (second from left) and Sergeant James Crowley (second from right) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 30.-RON EDMONDS/AP Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (left) with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (second from left) and Sergeant James Crowley (second from right) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 30.

The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

President Barack Obama on the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Was it racial profiling? I dont think anyone will ever know. But plenty of people think it was. The thing to do is to use it as an occasion to look at the issue. People need to talk.

Merritt Harrison, part-time pastor, real estate agent and counsellor of Cambridge (Massachusetts)

IN the past decade or so, having retired from active duty, I have had the luxury of watching the police in action from a ringside seat. Conscious of the growing social importance and complexity of their operations, I have tried to hold the balance even between a demanding and hypercritical consumer-community (that includes a vigilant and sometimes overzealous media) and an extremely stressed and over-politicised police force. I am convinced that neither group is wholly correct or wholly wrong in its perceptions of each other.

My belief overall, however, is that, in these trying days of terrorism and the economic meltdown, it is the police who will have to be circumspect in whatever they do, and handle provocations, from whichever quarter they come, with poise and equanimity. They should bring in greater patience and greater sensitivity to their day-to-day functions because the polity that commands them is driven by a variety of factors race in the United States and religion and caste in India and is willing to sacrifice police professionalism just to make some illusory electoral gains.

It is against this complex backdrop to police operations that a recent incident of alleged police misconduct in Cambridge (Massachusetts, U.S.), the seat of the fabled Harvard University, becomes a classic study. It is easy to dismiss the episode as an aberration and too trivial to merit a detailed study. However, doing so would be wrong because what happened on the afternoon of July 16 on Ware Street in the sleek university town adjoining Boston had more than a symbolic significance. It had many lessons for policemen and the public.

By the same token, I am equally convinced that the huge media coverage of the incident was well warranted. It is an entirely different matter that President Barack Obama got himself embroiled in what in India would have been passed off as a purely local issue.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 58, is a professor in African and African American Research who has been teaching at Harvard since 1991. He occupies one of the 20 prestigious University Professor positions in the school and, in 1997, was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans. A charismatic personality who is highly regarded in Harvard circles, he is especially close to students. He is invariably well turned out in public. In sum, everything about him is so dignified that one would hardly link him to any police investigation, that too at the level of a humble sergeant.

But this is precisely what happened on that otherwise normal Harvard afternoon when Gates arrived home from a trip to China. Travel weary after a 14-hour flight, the renowned academic was exasperated that he could not get into his house because the door lock was jammed. With the help of the taxi driver (another coloured person, possibly a Moroccan), he managed to get into the premises from the rear and later broke open the lock on the front door. Within minutes he was horrified to find a local police officer swooping down on his house and engaging him in an interrogation of sorts. A few minutes later, the policeman came out and shouting from the street asked the professor to come out on to the porch. The professor was startled by this peremptory order and refused to oblige.

There is a garbled account of what happened thereafter. The inference is that the officer, Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Station, and the professor exchanged hot words, during which the latter allegedly brought in racial insinuations. It later transpired that a neighbour of the professors, who obviously did not know him, had alerted the police.

Even after the professor produced his Harvard ID and his driving licence and sought to prove that he was very much in his own house, Crowley and the police team, which joined him later, were not convinced that the matter required no further action. Obviously incensed by the professors alleged curt language, the policemen handcuffed him and took him to the police station to record a formal arrest for what they believed was the professors loud and tumultuous behaviour in a public space. After some questioning, he was released from custody later in the evening.

Although Gates was described to be reticent and discreet about the whole affair, Harvard Crimson, the in-house daily (since 1873), carried news of the incident four days later. Charles Ogletree, a distinguished professor at the Harvard Law School, has taken up Gates defence as his legal counsel. Many of Gates friends at Harvard, especially those belonging to the African-American community, did not also mince words in giving their reactions. They were convinced that Gates had been the victim of a racial slight and that a white American in similar circumstances would not have been picked up by the police.

Obama aggravated the situation on July 23 when, during a press conference, he made a statement berating the Cambridge Police for their stupidity. (He, however, went back on it in a subsequent chat with presspersons a few days later, when he apologised for what he had said in haste, without ascertaining all the facts. I would strongly recommend readers to view the YouTube clipping of the White House press conference. Obama was at his devastating best when he wondered whether he would meet with the same fate as Gates, if he ever lost his keys to the White House and attempted to break into his quarters. He exclaimed that he would possibly be shot.)

On a report from the Cambridge Police, the District Attorney has since dropped further action against Gates. This has not, however, put an end to the national debate triggered by the polices handling of the professor. What is worse is that many scholars and other opinion leaders have taken umbrage at the President taking sides in what was essentially a local incident. Obama has sought to assuage feelings by having Gates and Crowley over to the White House. Vice-President Joe Biden was also present at this July 30 meeting, now referred to in the media as a piece of beer diplomacy.

The conciliatory session proved inconclusive, with neither the professor nor the policeman expressing regret over what they did. They are expected to meet again although they are not required by law to do so. Whatever happens between the two, the incident will form an important chapter in the modern history of the U.S. police, almost on a par with the Rodney King episode of 1991 in Los Angeles. Black scholars and human rights activists will also study it with great interest to draw lessons from it.

I quizzed my good old friend David Bayley of the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany, who is known to generations of police officers in India, on what he thought of the whole episode. David has no equal when it comes to analysing police conduct. He looks upon the incident as the fallout of a very human reaction, where each one of the three actors (that includes Obama) behaved as they were programmed to. While Gates was challenging and angry, Crowley overreacted in arresting the professor even after he learned that the latter was not a burglar. In Davids view, the President was a little indiscreet in his choice of adjective to describe the police action. There are a few facts surrounding the Cambridge incident that are significant. By all accounts, Gates is one of the mildest of personalities on campus and is known for his sobriety. There is a report that he took extra care to ensure that he never got into any confrontation with the police. Actually, he was known to have gone to the local police station in Lexington (Massachusetts) when he moved there before settling in Cambridge just to introduce himself to the cops there so that as an African American driving a Mercedes he would not attract any undue attention.

As for Crowley, his profile is even more interesting. Considered a model cop by his superiors and colleagues, he is known to be a great believer in human rights. He is said to be teaching new recruits this subject at the local Lowell Police Academy. He has a large circle of friends, one of whom said: When he has the uniform on, Jim has an expectation of deference. But when hes not in uniform, hes just a regular guy. So it seems that Gates and Crowley shared some precious values in life. If they still clashed with each other, it was just an accident of circumstances.

I am most impressed by the fact that Crowley has stuck to his guns and has refused to apologise for what he did even after Obamas interest in the matter. How many policemen in India can afford to take such a rigid stance on principles and still survive in the police? I am equally struck by the Cambridge Police decision to treat the incident as a case study for the future so that policemen conform to a certain protocol when responding to emergency calls.

Above all, however critical one may be of Obamas off-the-cuff remarks, which were wholly devoid of malice or anger, the fact that he got the contending parties to the White House and spoke to them in an attempted truce was a remarkable act of grace that went beyond tokenism and symbolism. Why cannot our leaders emulate the U.S. President? That would break some new ground in the ever controversial relationship the police have with various segments of society. If not the Rashtrapati Bhavan, at least the Raj Bhavans can be centres of reconciliation in matters such as these.

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