Everybody else has weighed in on this, why should I be left out? I think by now everyone knows the story of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard, who was hauled into the Cambridge police station because - well, there we get into disagreement. One group says it's because he was Entering a House While Black. One group says it's because he sassed a cop. One group says his neighbor called the cops on him because he was black.
Here are my thoughts on this mess, in no particular order.
I recall reading that Prof. Gates had been on an extended trip to China; he'd been gone for several weeks. Did his neighbor know he was due back that night? As a member of a local community policing citizen group, we encourage people to call the cops if they see what looks like a break-in attempt, especially if they know the homeowner is away. I give the neighbor full marks for civic involvement. I'm appalled to read on CNN that what H.L. Mencken called the booboisie is phoning her and threatening her for being a racist.
The 911 tape from this incident has been released, and the neighbor simply said, "two men." She didn't mention their race. In fact, she said she couldn't see one of them at all, and she thought the other one "looked kind of Hispanic." Obviously, when Sgt. Crowley arrived at the scene, he could see that both men were black. But it's clear that the 911 call was caused by the appearance of a break-in.
It's very clear that Prof. Gates took immediate and extreme umbrage at being accosted in his own house. I can understand that. On the other hand, in my experience it is never a good idea to argue with a cop at the scene, even if you think he's wrong. I read one account that said the professor was trying to keep the sergeant from phoning in. It sounds to me as if the professor over-reacted and caused a scene, and Sgt. Crowley hauled him in for disorderly conduct.
Here again, I've been working with the police in Oakland, California for a couple of years now. I rode along with an officer for a shift, when I took the Citizen's Police Academy. Their level of professionalism, in general, is very high. (Disclosure: I have no personal experience with the Cambridge police.) But you have to keep one thing in mind about police officers, and we learned this the hard way last March: police officers have the only non-military job in which you can be killed at any moment, in the normal course of work, by someone you don't know has a gun. When they walk into any new situation, as Sgt. Crowley did, they are on edge. They have both professional training and personal desire to stay in complete control of the situation. Sgt. Crowley, when he approached the house, had reason to believe he was accosting two burglars; and he was alone. When the professor showed his ID, the sergeant obviously knew he wasn't dealing with a burglar; but by that time he was dealing with an angry man who was yelling at him.
As far as I can tell, the only good thing about the incident is that it has all of us talking about it. I hope all parties can discuss it rationally when they have their beer at the White House.