Beer solves a lot of things. This is not one.
I don’t live that far from Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., just outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are daytime break-ins in homes in my neighborhood from time to time. My wife and I recently encountered a woman in our neighborhood on the street who was very agitated and asked to use my cell phone to call 911 because she thought her apartment building was being broken into. We waited as the police arrived; it turned out to be a false alarm. The robbers were movers for another tenant. The woman was Latino or Black, I’m white, my wife Japanese, the cops Black and white. This sort of anxiety and also ethnic situation is not so unusual in the area.
Anyway I can well understand why a woman in Cambridge would call 911 as she did after hearing from a second woman that two men (she called them “gentlemen”) had tried to get into a house and broken the screen door. Some of the initial commentary on this incident depicted the caller as a white racist but there seems no evidence for that. And I have no idea of how race enters into Sergeant James M. Crowley’s interactions with people.
But this is what really annoys me. The sergeant goes into a man’s house, taking him by surprise, demanding identification. When the man in return demands ID he calls him uncooperative and calls for back-up. When he has the audacity to follow him out of the house he has the backup forces handcuff the professor and take him off to jail.
I don’t know that this was done deliberately by Crowley to make some sort of point to the world about how people of color or people in general ought to behave towards the police in order to avoid being arrested. But he is after all part of a culture.
“You don’t argue with a police officer,” Colin Powell told Larry King, commenting on the Gates episode and his own personal history. (“You just suck up,” the general recommends, speaking apparently to any wishing to emulate his own career path, one suck-up after another from the My Lai Massacre cover-up to that amazing UN speech of absolute fabrications justifying the Iraq War in 2003.)
But why not argue, if anyone in this society is supposed to believe it’s a free one? Why should arguing with a cop, or just demanding his name and badge—after he’s walked into your house—get you get you arrested for “disorderly conduct”? Why should he have the right to do that to you—as a Black man or as anybody else—just because he’s a cop?
A cop’s someone supposed to be doing a job protecting the public. Isn’t that the idea? Instead he or she is given impunity to bust people he/she finds personally uppity. This is a system problem.
A couple of beers at the White House is not going solve it. It may be that after seeing the glowing cheeks and smiling faces at the press conference afterwards, and hearing the reconciliatory carefully worded statements made, the thoughtful mind observing this little drama may actually require a few more drinks.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org