Thinking About This New Bonfire of the Vanities Case

24 07 2009

Overheard on cable news just now: “This could be a teachable moment, with a Gates/Crowley dialogue” — Jesse Jackson


Consider this an open thread around class and race, law and order, freedom and community and government in America, as electrified by professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates being handcuffed in his own home for arguing with an armed government employee who came to his door and challenged him as a citizen to present his papers, prove his innocence of wrong-doing.

Is the citizen (or the police officer) the victim, or the offender? Are both both, or perhaps both are neither?

Is it really about race and class problems, or is this case primarily a clash between private individual rights and public government power? My own experience, in which everyone was white and everyone was wearing orange and blue, and both the police officer and myself were female, informs how I see this case — as not about race or class or color and minorities, not even testosterone, but rather the same way I’ve seen schoolfolk self-justifying their institutional job (to the point sometimes, of dismissing the reality that actual individuals are hurt rather than helped.)

All in all, it was a transformative moment for me, the quintessential teacher’s pet and media spokesperson, grievance hearing officer and pourer of oil on troubled waters. . .
Personal rage and alienation caused by social injustice was a new feeling for me, and it came literally out of the blue. I was just enjoying the day and my life, with my family and friends in a place I’d felt completely comfortable, safe and loved for my whole life, when WHAM!

And what if it were instead a CPS worker backed up by an armed sheriff’s deputy, in the south, say, at your door investigating a similarly misinformed neighbor’s complaint, coming to challenge you as a homeschooling parent in your own home, such an obviously unfounded complaint that you get outraged and say so loudly, hoping the neighbor will hear you and feel ashamed?

Now do you feel the same sympathies and concerns in the Gates case as you did before, or does your stomach suddenly flip-flop along with a 180-degree change of heart?

And please note, unlike my anonymous encounter with the police on game day, or any ordinary homeschool parent’s with the CPS, these principal characters were both well-known, mature, professional role models colliding in one of America’s most historic, educated and enlightened communities. White versus black, town versus gown, hate mail and a hot summer, a media feeding frenzy — here is Bill Cosby’s take — and one of them even knows the President of the United States personally! (Have you read Bonfire of the Vanities?)

The suspect was a black expert on racial profiling, while the white police officer who arrested him was a racial profiling trainer — if they can’t treat each other in an educated and enlightened manner, who can or will??

Some of the positions being publicly taken are by race and class rather than individual, themselves a form of profiling if you will — all police officers are racist (or not racist) etc. Considering what’s also in the news, about these “diversity-trained” TX police and our black president, this isn’t smart even if it’s an honest mistake on his part, yet white male Sgt. Crowley is saying it anyway as if it proved his own purity of motive, much as the white male Republicans insist the CIA would never lie to Congress!. . .

GRAND PRAIRIE — Four Grand Prairie police officers and a dispatcher are on paid administrative leave after a racist e-mail about President Barack Obama was circulated, and the local NAACP chapter is asking whether a recent round of diversity training was for naught. . .

So what does this all mean for third-millennium culture and our own progressive power of story going forward? ARE we going forward at all?



23 responses

24 07 2009

Annette Bening’s line from “The American President” just popped into my mind. Her character says to the president, “How do you have patience for people who say they love America, but clearly can’t stand Americans??”

24 07 2009

What if the professor had been tased? I just heard Sgt. Crowley on cable news saying that he personally stayed very calm, but Professor Gates just wouldn’t stop yelling, kept “pushing it” until he had to be subdued . . . that’s what tasing officers all say these days. We’ve blogged examples of it happening to kids at school, and even at home. And to old ladies like me, remember that traffic stop video this spring where the old lady tried to get back in her own car and so the officer “had” to tase her, because she wasn’t obeying him and being docile?

We could really think about all this together, with win-win goals of improving our self-governance (as individuals and as communities and a united nation) — or I guess we could keep fighting with this win-lose delusion that keeps winding up as lose-lose reality.

24 07 2009

The original historic (not fictional) Bonfire of the Vanities, before Tom Wolfe’s novel, was Savonarola’s and there’s a Newberry Medal author’s book for kids about that, which Favorite Daughter and I can recommend highly (caught in the middle getting unexpected results, as we usually are!):

Bernadette, who will not wear T-backs but will not oppose them either, is caught in the middle. And no matter what Chloe does, the results are unexpected. Unexpected, it seems, is all you can really count on, unless, like Bernadette, you know enough about the past to have an idea of what the future might bring. And even then, well, maybe Bernadette doesn’t always know everything.

24 07 2009

Wow – listening to the police officer union press conference. One of the speakers just demanded an apology from President Obama to all the police officers in the entire country! (for saying one officer in a specific case acted stupidly, by handcuffing a man in his own home for protesting that he was not a burglar and had the right to object to being treated like a criminal there by that police officer and his half-dozen back-ups??)


But now another speaker is denying that they are “demanding an apology from anyone” — even the victim in this case much less the President. He is admitting that they haven’t heard the tapes yet and there hasn’t been a review panel yet. . .


24 07 2009

I really don’t think this was Crowley’s fault. However, I wasn’t there. I do have to say, though, that Gates seems to have brought the arrest on himself. He wasn’t arrested for breaking and entering, after all. He was arrested for disorderly conduct. What cracks me up is that he accused the police officer of racial profiling because he wanted to see Gates’ i.d. Personally, if someone saw me breaking into my home, I would want the cop to ask for my i.d. After all, just because I say I live there, doesn’t actually mean I do.

24 07 2009

Kristina, did you read my story yet?

I’d like to know what you think after that. . .
And what about parents who get officers at their door saying a neighbor has accused them of child abuse for homeschooling?

24 07 2009

Oh, and I think what they’re asking for an apology for is his third remark, not the local aspect.

24 07 2009

Third remark — do you mean the president’s statement that it was “acting stupidly” ?

I found this just now, and let me say that even though these are headlined as “differing accounts” I can see them as two views of the same incident and still say, where’s the justifiable cause to handcuff this man? If it were your husband after establishing he hadn’t done a damn thing to harm your children, and insisting on all the officers’ info so he could record it, would he need to be handcuffed, as you approved?

Differing accounts
Gates is 5-foot-7 and navigates with the aid of a cane, and Crowley said he did not fit the profile of a burglar. “His appearance did lead me to believe maybe this wasn’t your typical breaking-and-entering type person experience, however, that response from him was a little strange; uncommon in my experience,” Crowley said.

The officer said he asked Gates if there was another person in the residence because the call to police had mentioned two people. “I wasn’t expecting his response, which was ‘That’s none of your business.’ To me that’s a strange response for somebody that has nothing to hide,” Crowley said.

After telling Gates several times that he was acting disorderly, the officer said he finally arrested him on disorderly conduct charges, which were later dropped.

“I was leaving as I reached the porch, and I was aware that now he was following me because he was still yelling about racism and black men in America, and that he wasn’t somebody to be messing with,” Crowley said in the interview, which initially aired on NBC affiliate WHDH in Boston.

Gates told CNN a totally different story.

“I said, ‘This is my house, I’m a Harvard professor. I live here,’ ” Gates said. “He said, ‘Can you prove it?’ I said, ‘Just a minute.’ And I turned my back, I walked into the kitchen to get my Harvard ID and my Massachusetts driver’s license. He followed me without permission. I gave him the 2 IDs and I demanded to know his name and badge number. He wouldn’t say anything. He was just very upset and I said, ‘Why are you not responding to me? Are you not responding to me because you’re a white officer and I’m a black man?’ ”

Gates called Crowley “a rogue policeman. Look how tumultuous I am. I am 5-foot-7 and weigh 150 pounds and my tumultuous, outrageous action was to demand that he give me his name and his badge number.”

Crowley said it wasn’t that way at all.

“He was the one that was being provocative,” the officer said. “This wasn’t a back-and-forth exchange of banter or arguing. This was one-sided. I was profusely telling him to calm down during this whole exchange because I really didn’t want this either.”

24 07 2009

Alright, I went and read it. The fact of the matter is, there are unintelligent people, biased people, racist people, and even idiots in all professions. That does not mean that Crowley is one of them. I have to believe in the base goodness in the majority of people. I give people the benefit of the doubt, until the prove themselves unworthy of that. And, I usually only give them one chance, so I’m not a push over. 🙂

However, if I were to yell at a black cop that he was just wanting my info because I was white, I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t appreciate that. I don’t care what race you are. If you’re breaking into a home, yours or someone else’s, a police officer SHOULD ask you to prove you have the owner’s permission to be breaking into that home. And, yes, I understand that the police arrived after Gates was already in his home. However, if someone broke into my home, and my neighbor reported it, I would really prefer that the police stopped the thief.

Also, something I noticed about this story is that they keep talking about the fact that the Cambridge Police Department was under review for racial profiling after they questioned a black man who was removing a bike lock from HIS bike with tools. But, why WOULDN’T they question him? Because he’s black? He was removing it with tools. How could the police know, without confronting him, that the bike was his own?

24 07 2009

My problem is that Gates assumed that Crowley was not responding because Gates was black. Perhaps he was taking his time to read the IDs. I don’t know. But, I don’t think it had anything to do with racial prejudice.

No, not the stupid remark. The remark about racial profiling and how it’s such a problem.

24 07 2009

Oh, and why wouldn’t he follow him to the kitchen? He was there to investigate a house breaking? Of course he would follow him. I don’t get that. Maybe I’m just too laid back on the race issue. But, I’m just not seeing how this is a race issue.

I know that you said you think it wasn’t either. I also don’t think Crowley was in the wrong to follow him. Should Gates have been arrested? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I do, however, think Gates was being a little coy.

24 07 2009

The police officers have such a difficult job and I imagine it takes a certain kind of psychology to do it well and keep your humanity, just as I think special education teachers do.

But let’s think about the larger principles here a minute — what do we (or I as an individual) really believe about the individual versus the group, for example? Do I think each person has personal responsibility or do I think the ranks of a union should close up against outsiders? Do I think the home is the castle or that government needs to be able to come in when there is a a neighbor’s concern? Etc etc.

Not simple, two-sided stuff to think about . . .

24 07 2009

Kristina, I agree that Gates is not an objective reporter at ALL. I might not say coy but I do think both these men have a lifetime of personal experience and professional reputation on the line here. That makes objectivity unrealistic.

24 07 2009

One of the suits at the press conference just now said something odd about the police officer btw, something about how Gates should have behaved better so that Sergeant Crowley could “go back to his office where he regularly was” — it made it sound like answering burglary calls wasn’t his regular duty? Hmmm . . .

24 07 2009

Now the President of the United States is saying on cable news, that he just spoke with Sgt Crowley and that he did not “mean to malign” him and that Gates probably overreacted — but that his sense of it continues to be that “you have two good men” who could have handled this better and that the reaction to it, shows that there are larger issues because “of our history, because of the past” even when “you’ve got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity” —

He goes on: “My hope is that this ends up being a teachable moment” instead of “pumping up the volume” and “throwing accusations” so that we can “all be a little more reflective” because “lord knows we need it right now!”

Then he says it’s indicative that “race is still a troubling aspect of our society” and hopefully that him commenting on it can be constructive.

Then (the president says that) Sgt. Crowley asked if there was a way to “get the press off my lawn” but “I told him that I can’t get the press off MY lawn” —

24 07 2009

Late night now, watching Charlie Rose on the larger implications of this case for the nation and today’s press conference remarks — one guest (David Remnick, writes for New Yorker, white male, traveled with Obama campaign I think) has just seriously admired what he calls the president’s “intellectual and moral grace” today . . .

“What Obama added, was complexity.”

Then Raina Kelley (Newsweek, black female) says he’s finally opening the way to forgiveness and reconciliation, that her son is bi-racial, so he will “absorb both sides of this debate” and unless he grows up only to choose which of his parents to be angry at and alienated from, then he’s going to need a way FORWARD.

25 07 2009

So not race or class, but police psychology — the psychology of authority and power and control, even domination of others at all costs — THAT is what I think we all need to think about when we look at the lessons of this case. Here’s my concern personified:

But in Brooklyn, a 24-year-old officer, with three years on the force, seemed less inclined to walk away from verbal abuse.

“We say, ‘Back down,’ ” he said. “If they don’t back down and start making direct threats, that’s an offense. They don’t get a free pass.”

He said that threats could be defined in different ways, and he preferred to talk people down, but that the rules changed if a crowd formed, which was routine in New York and also occurred during the Gates incident.

“I wouldn’t back down if there’s a crowd gathering,” the Brooklyn officer said, in part out of concern of sending a message of weakness that could haunt another officer later. “We’re a band of brothers. We have to be there to help each other out. If there’s a group and they’re throwing out slurs and stuff, you have to handle it.”

A 13-year veteran of the Denver police force, who did not wish to give his name, said likewise. “We’re not going to take abuse,” he said. “We have to remain in control. We’re running the show.”

I saw the police union press conference yesterday, which was more of the same tightly wrapped, intimidation escalation, tough guy solidarity show of strength. I can see why successful marriages are notoriously difficult to sustain within this psychology.

I’ve heard schoolfolk and their bosses and unions do this too btw, same trench psychology and therefore the same threat to the rest of us imo.

The quintessentially American concern for personal privacy and our individual liberties (in the Gates case, literally in our own homes!) ought to resonate not just with independent home-educating families, but not-well-understood religious devotees and other unusual lifestyle-livers from gun collectors to unmarried partners to fat people to cat ladies, unpopular political agitators across the spectrum from communists to anarchists to dominionists, from Ward Churchill and Bill Ayers to Rush Limbaugh and David Duke, and of course anyone who’s ever evoked the Founding Fathers to make a point as a patriot.

27 07 2009

Sounds like America is a smarter, cooler place than we used to be, hurray for us!


The White House has revealed what beer will be served at the much-anticipated meeting later this week: Bud for the president and Blue Moon for Crowley. It’s unclear if Gates drinks.

OTOH, I wouldn’t call Bud exactly cool. And apparently, according to ABC News, EVERYTHING is political at some level:

Gates told the Boston Globe he likes Red Stripe and Beck’s, but the White House doesn’t stock foreign beer.


27 07 2009

The woman who reported the “break-in” may not have used a racial description but that doesn’t mean there’s no race component to the fact she worked next to the Harvard professor’s house for 15 years yet never noticed him out that same window to have him look familiar and not out-of-place, or knew whose house she’d been seeing, that there were prominent professors living there and they weren’t all white, etc?

And this is news to me — why is it not controversial that SHE is “personally devastated” by the mere inference she might privately see the neighborhood through a race filter but HE isn’t supposed to be personally devastated by being taken out of his own home in handcuffs as a criminal and held at the police station for hours?

And the police officer was mightily offended by the insult of being called racist by a suspect, to the point that he took it as a tumultuous threat to his person. The degree of outrage for each just seems way out of proportion, like the Congressional rep from MI demanding an apology from the president for using the word “stupidly” and saying he intends to file a resolution calling for a retraction (also there’s a petition online)– while I haven’t seen other reps filing bills to demand the officer be sanctioned or fired, or should have to apologize formally to Gates, etc (or am I just missing that?)

29 07 2009

More on why it could be about police psychology and needing to impose the authority of the Badge, rather than a race or even a testosterone thing. As I linked above, in my personal situation both of us were white females but it was exactly the same Control and Authority pushback from a cop who couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to what actually happened. She already had the script in her mind by heart, and all that mattered was getting me to say the lines under her direction, or else arresting me.

Bill Maher:
“I’m not even sure this is a racial situation because I don’t know if this cop is racist. But I have to say it seems to me more like a police situation. I think Henry Louis Gates was arrested for the crime of not kissing the behind of the police officer.

“Is it really about race and class problems, or is this case primarily a clash between private individual rights and public government power?
My own experience, in which everyone was white and everyone was wearing orange and blue, and both the police officer and myself were female, informs how I see this case — as not about race or class or color and minorities, not even testosterone, but rather the same way I’ve seen schoolfolk self-justifying their institutional job. . .”

29 07 2009
Rules, Authority, Control: It’s the Power, Stupid « Cocking A Snook!

[…] See also: Thinking About the New Bonfire of the Vanities […]

31 07 2009

Lani Guinier in the Chronicle of Higher Education Jul 30, “Race and Reality in a Front-Porch Encounter”:

In version one, the white cop is the racist. . .
Contrast version two of race in America: Here it is Gates who is the racist. . .Neither of the accounts tells the whole story; each freezes both men in a snapshot of history that is more than 40 years old.

. . .What might we learn instead about contemporary race matters if we could move beyond the stock stories?

First, history does matter. . .

Second, we need to become racially literate, not postracially blind. . .

Racial literacy would help all of us understand that behind the two force fields competing for respect on that Cambridge porch is a criminal-justice system that exercises outsized control as the major urban-policy instrument for controlling the poor. We have focused our resources disproportionately on policing and criminalizing the poor.

As a result, we have too often put our police officers into the positions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, and juries—positions for which they are not qualified and that they should not be expected to fulfill—even in well-to-do neighborhoods like the one in Cambridge.

. . .If we learn to “read race” in context and become more racially literate, we might finally start deliberating about the underlying structural problems and historical challenges raised to consciousness by this porch scene. And rather than assign blame or settle for a photo opportunity, we might just come together to address an American legacy that affects us all.

Lani Guinier is a professor of law at the Harvard Law School.

27 04 2010
Step Away From the Cow, Son « Cocking A Snook!

[…] the Cow, Son 27 04 2010 Police behaving “stupidly” or doing their duty (a la Henry Gates in either case)? Too good not to share, from Don Troop’s TWEED for the Chronicle of Higher […]

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