Louis Gates and Race in America


1. The Gates Arrest and Abuse of Police Powers
2. Bigger Fish to Fry
3. Race, Beer Summits, and Red Herrings

1. - The Gates Arrest and Abuse of Police Powers

The debates and analysis sparked by the arrest of Harvard Professor Louis Gates continue to swirl, fanned today by the release of the 911 call and police dispatch tapes. Race and the issue of racial profiling have, with good reason perhaps, been the focus of the debate.

But there is another issue here that deserves greater discussion. That issue is the power of police to arrest someone, in his own home, for yelling at a policeman. Race was certainly part of the reason why Prof. Gates became as indignant as he did, and it is obviously an important part of the context – but let’s just put it aside for now. Once Sgt. Crowly was satisfied that Prof. Gates was in his own home, his job was done. Prof. Gates had some justification for resenting the insinuations inherent in the questioning, and being asked to “step outside”, but he may indeed have overreacted. But regarless of whether Prof. Gates he then acted disrespectfully towards the police officers, how does that justify his being arrested for “disorderly conduct”?

As explained in one Massachessets court decision, the rationale underlying the criminalizing of activity such as yelling and threatening, captured by the term “disorderly conduct”, is to prohibit and prevent actions that may provoke violence in others. The only people on Prof. Gates’ porch were police officer (some 5 cars ended up at the scene). (Look here for some further video discussion of the issue).

It is to this issue that President Obama may well have been speaking with his uncharacteristically imprecise comments – that there could be little reasonable basis for arresting a man in his own house for raising his voice at a policeman. When we have to fear arrest for yelling at a cop, we should start worrying about the nature of our state. - Gamma.

2. - Bigger Fish To Fry

I love a good person of colour versus the state story as much as any other chardonnay-sipping liberal elitist. But I find it hard to get worked up over this one. It simply did not make me pull over my Prius, shake my fist to the heavens and cry “not again!” Try as I might, the facts of this do not grab me. They scream neither racism nor abuse of power.

Let's recap: a tenured Harvard professor with extensive power and influence and his own national media soapbox is questioned by a police officer, with a reputation for being racially sensitive, after a neighbour calls 911because she sees him breaking into his own house. He behaves, frankly, like a bit of a dick and is arrested by the police officer who, frankly, was also acting like a dick. In these cases - and they happen all the time with defendants of every race - the decision goes to the citizen. My sympathies are with Gates. But this should never have stopped the presses and generated the gigabytes of analysis and lamentations that it has. Nor should had it ever been the subject of comment by the president.

By the way, is anyone else getting tired of this side of the Obama presidency? It turns out that, in addition to being the greatest orator on the planet, a first class intellect and the perfect husband, he is an insufferable buttinsky. Who knew we would be replacing a presidency beset with the creeping terror of fascism with one beset with the creeping terror of Dr. Phil-ism? What's next? Can he get Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson back together?

In America, every day, there is terrible and destructive racism that is committed by individuals and is embedded in the apparatus of the state. And there are unsettling encroachments by the state on the civil liberties of citizens and residents. These are dangerous times. But Gates is a well known figure in media, academic and political establishment and that is the only reason this story is getting play. It reflects a hollow pursuit of celebrity imbroglios more in keeping with Perez Hilton; it is not a serious engagement in race and justice issues.

I can't help thinking of the family of Omar Edwards, the black off-duty police officer who was shot at six times, without warning, by a white police officer while he chasing a criminal. He was hit twice and killed. Where's the national debate around this far more troubling incident? Where is the high-minded presidential concern or the invitation to his family to come to the White House to talk through their grief and confusion?

We can pretend that Gates-gate is an entree into a serious discussion about race or policing but we are only deluding ourselves. It is empty and shallow and shameful, and it detracts from serious inquiry and debate about important issues. - Beta.

3. - Race, Beer Summits, and Red Herrings

So my chardonnay swilling, hybrid driving, Perez-Hilton citing friend suggests that he has "bigger fish to fry" than the issues raised in Gates-Gate. If you will pardon the strained metaphor, though, all he offers up are a number of red herrings. Where's the fish?

Now, I will acknowledge the media obsession over this incident has been both unseemly and exaggerated, and I entirely agree that the incident doesn't deserve nearly the same press as cases like that of Omar Edwards and Luis Ramirez. And so yes, in a perfect or even better world, those cases would provoke more of a national dialogue on race and equality in America. But they don't, and Gates-Gate did. So when my friend sneers that we can "pretend" that Gates-Gate is an entree into a serious issue about race, he both acknowledges and then mistakenly dismisses the very significance of the case.

Yes, the media frenzy was driven in part by the celebrity status of two of the players, and yes it was all exaggerated, at times maddeningly superficial, and overplayed everywhere. But it did provoke discussion and debate. It even teased out some extreme views - one of Sgt. Crowley's colleagues sent an email likening Gates to a "jungle monkey" (for which he has been suspended pending further action) while even such high-profile personalities as Glenn Beck got into the action by calling President Obama a racist.

The conversation may seem hysterical and over-blown, but while the level of attention is driven by the identity of the players, the extreme content and rabid disagreement has all to do with the real state of race relations in America. And the timing couldn't be better, just as people started talking about the end of racism in a post-race America.

Will the beer-summit itself help? It is too early to tell. But at the end of the day, the incident reminds us that race relations in this country remains a pretty big fish - and my friend's commentary on issues like the president's resemblance to Dr. Phil? Simply red herrings.
- Gamma.


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