Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Race, lies and audiotape

New facts are emerging in the Henry Gates case.

It appears--brace yourself--that the police officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, lied in his police report. (He also gave quite a bit away in that report about his actions on the scene.)

It seems that the woman who made the 911 call that started the whole chain of events has had quite enough of being called a racist by bloggers and columnists. In fact she made no reference at all to the race of the two gentlemen trying to get into Dr. Gates' residence until pressed by the 911 operator, and then said only that one of the men looked "kind of Hispanic." She stated that she wasn't quite sure what was happening, and also that there were two suitcases on the porch.

Sgt. Crowley, on the other hand, stated in his police report that, in conversation with him,
she had identified "two Black men with backpacks." She denies this categorically.

Then there's the matter of Gates' alleged yelling at the officer. Tapes of Crowley's radio transmissions released by the Cambridge police department indicate no such thing. Yet, in his report, Crowley claims that "[m]y reason for wanting to leave the residence was that Gates was yelling very loud and the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information to ECC or other responding units." The acoustics were not, however, sufficient to allow this alleged "yelling" to be picked up on tape.

Gates himself claims that he had a bronchial infection that made yelling physically impossible for him.

Crowley had also called for a police wagon while inside the house. One wonders why he would have done so, given that no crime was in progress. Clearly he foresaw an arrest--but for what?

Once he had ascertained Gates' identity--Gates showed him ID--what was his response? To leave? No--to call for the Harvard police to attend the residence as well: "Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University police."

Pretty soon a number of police vehicles was on the scene. And this was after Gates had identified himself and the officer was satisfied enough with the ID to accept that Gates was who he said he was, and was affiliated with Harvard.

There are two good pieces of analysis here and here [h/t reader Gordon S]. Readers might be surprised that I am more inclined to go along with the second one. I am speculating, but I think what likely happened was this:

Sgt. Crowley has, by all accounts, a good rep in the Cambridge police department. Even given the automatic closing of ranks that happens when a cop is publicly criticized, there is little doubt in my mind that he is an above-average officer, who likely prides himself on being open-minded and tolerant, and has actually taught a course on how to avoid racial profiling.

Such people are particularly sensitive when they are called racists, and Gates may well have called him one at some point. That was an attack on his amour propre. All that hard work trying to understand racist attitudes and to become aware of them in oneself as well as in others, and to adjust accordingly, goes for naught. It feels like a fundamental assault on one's character.

Normally one has to suck that up and move on--or recognize that the rising anger in oneself might be defensive rather than justified, calling for even more introspection and reflection. But in this case, Crowley had the authority of a uniform and a badge. Gates was guilty of contempt of cop, and that was that. The officer decided very early on in the game that he was going to arrest this man, even after he had learned that no crime had been committed. His own report is quite revealing in that respect.

Clearly this entire saga is to some extent a racial narrative. But to a very large extent it has been racialized by actors who were not even at the scene. Leaving race aside, if that's possible, a man mouthed off to a cop, didn't show due deference, and paid the price. The officer felt insulted, he became angry, and his actions--including lying in a police report--followed.

After that, of course, the battle lines were drawn. The Right did what it usually does: attacking Gates' character, his politics, his scholarship, even his probity--check out this classic Wall Street Journal smear, for example. The Left, in some instances, reduced the whole thing to a simple case of racial profiling. It's obviously more complicated than that.

Meanwhile the two principals in this affair will be having a beer with the President of the United States, and I would give my eyeteeth to be a mouse in the corner. Because that promises to be one interesting conversation.


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